Midnight Snack: Sanamluang Cafe with Damon Gambuto

Damon Gambuto usually prefers to be on the other side of the camera. He's got plenty of experience there, as the supervising producer for BBC America's No Kitchen Required and senior producer for the Bravo show Rocco's Dinner Party. Oh, and he just also happens to be the best person taking photos of and writing about burgers in all of Los Angeles.

While No Kitchen Required took him to remote locations all over the world, Rocco's Dinner Party dropped him right back in his hometown: New York City. But for both, late nights and long discussions about food were part of the job. Damon is very good at his job.

Finally back in Los Angeles for a few weeks, KCET was able to sit down with Damon at Thai Town's Sanamluang Cafe for great late night eats and a wide-ranging discussion about traveling, filming, and what it means to order the weirdest thing on the menu.

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Farley: Do you come to Sanamluang a lot? I haven't been here in like a year.

Damon: This is a place I've come to for over a decade, usually when I get done working at like 3am. I used to come all the time. I don't go anywhere regularly now because I'm just not around, but I really like it. I've been to the one deep in Pomona too.

Farley: Oh wow. You're a dedicated fan.

Damon: I spent two weeks in Thailand this year.

Farley: For No Kitchen Required?

Damon: Exactly. And turns out you eat a lot of Thai food when you're in Thailand.

Farley: Go figure.

Damon: I came back after my trip and they still hook it up here. It's like eating dirty Thai food in Thailand. In some respects, the ingredients are even fresher here. And the flavors are shockingly similar. It holds up.

Farley: I remember going to Europe and being so amazed that doner kebabs weren't everywhere in America.

Damon: Me too! I came back from Berlin thinking 'why does no one make that here?'

Farley: When were you in Berlin?

Damon: I went in 2006. Basically, I was in New York working on a movie, and I had a big chunk of downtime and some money in my pocket. I had this friend who's an art curator and she said that I should come to Berlin, that I could be her plus-1 at all of these events. So I just went to Berlin. Like, literally, found a ticket in days.

I ate some fancy meals when I was in Berlin, because I was hanging out with her art friends and they would take me out. All high-end restaurants, and I just didn't like it. Then, I'd get blitzed drunk and stop at some doner joint on the way back to my hotel and just inhale it.

Farley: And they're everywhere! Germany, London. I would eat them in Sweden. And they don't exist here.

Damon: One of the best meals I had in Paris wasn't a doner, but was from a cart. Just me standing, looking at Notre Dame, spilling food at my shoes. I mean, it's partly just that the foods I like tend to be sandwiched between pieces of bread and sloppy and cheap.

The waitress comes to take our order.

Damon: OK, we're going to do it up. I'd like the fried wontons, the chicken pad see ewe... OK Farley, get me something that's full of fish sauce and will initiate my gag reflex.

Farley: OK. (to the waitress) Do you have anything that you'd recommend?

Waitress: The curry is good.

Farley: Hmm. What about the yum pra kem?

Waitress: Oh, no. You won't like that. It is salty fish, it has a very strong smell.

Farley: That's what I want.

Waitress: Okayyy... There's no return.

Damon: She did not seem enthusiastic.

Farley: Tell me more about No Kitchen Required.

Damon: It was exactly the adventure that it seemed like. I'll paraphrase to make it easier for your readers: We took three chefs all over the world to meet with indigenous cultures, and they had to hunt, forage and fish for all of their ingredients for the meal that they would then make for local judges.

Farley: How do you find these places and these people?

Damon: That's all part of the pre-production process. You become an autodidact, where you just teach yourself everything you need to know. Like, let's find out about all of the indigenous tribes out there that still hunt and gather their food to survive. You can learn that. What you can't learn is whether or not they're cool with you showing up with a bunch of cameras and hanging out.

Damon: Can we just talk about the food for a minute?

Farley: Sure.

Damon: I know I ordered these fried wontons, and it's like the most Western thing you could get. But if you're going to do it, do it here. Hot out of the oil, crispy, flavorful. Really nice.

The yum pra kem arrives.

Damon: So what are we eating?

Farley: ... fish?

Damon: I think so.

(He takes a bite) Oh, it's nice. Salty, but very fresh.

Farley: Anything with that many onions on it, I'm on board.

Damon: I've eaten the craziest shit now, because of No Kitchen Required. Armadillo, rat, snake...

Farley: What about days where you couldn't find the food you needed?

Damon: That was part of the challenge. If you can't find it, you can't find it. But the people know what they're doing; it's how they survive. I went out with a spear fisher, she was like the Hawaiian champion free diver or something. She's amazing. You know how you have to clear your ears as you go down? She's got it to where she can just move her jaw to equalize the pressure in her head. She would go down like 60 feet, and just chill out at the bottom, holding her breath for three-and-a-half minutes like it was nothing. So when you're around people like that, in an environment where they know what they're looking for, it's not 'will we find anything.' It's 'how much do we need?'

Farley: That's incredible.

Damon: So is there ever an actual interview, or are we just having dinner?

Farley: This is it, really. Just hanging out. That's Seinfeld's new thing, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It's a webseries he's doing, where he picks up a comic in one of his fun old cars. They go, get coffee, shoot the breeze, and that's it.

Damon: I think that makes perfect sense. If you're with a funny and charismatic person, they're not that way the whole time. So you have the coffee and you edit down to the gems, and that's your show.

Farley: I don't know why he's doing it. I guess he's got nothing else going on.

Damon: I hope it's the reason I would imagine. That at the end of the day, he's interested in creating things. He just wants to make something, and this is what's interesting to him. I don't begrudge people their interests.

Farley: Only their success.

Damon: Hey. I'm trying to get on the other side of that equation.

Farley: Don't worry, people will start begrudging you very soon.

Sanamluang Cafe
5176 Hollywood Blvd., Thai Town 90027
323.660.8006

[photos by Zach Winnick]

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About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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