This chef grew up in Cary. How to watch him on new ‘Chefs vs. Wild’ competition show

A new spin on reality competition cooking shows premieres Monday on Hulu — and while the first episode was filmed thousands of miles away in the wilderness of Canada’s westernmost province, there’s a close tie to the Triangle.

Chef Sammy Monsour, who grew up in Cary and worked in his family’s restaurant in Chapel Hill, is one of two world-class chefs who go head-to-head in the premiere episode of “Chefs vs. Wild,” a new series that combines classic elements of competition cooking shows with wilderness survival and foraging.

In each episode, two chefs are “dropped into the wilderness” and paired with a survivalist and wilderness expert. In their respective pairs, the chefs and survivalists “embark on a grueling and unprecedented mission” to “survive and forage enough wild ingredients to create a restaurant worthy, five-star meal.”

Monsour, who has opened four critically acclaimed restaurants in the past decade and describes himself on “Chefs vs. Wild” as a “food and climate activist,” faces off in the premiere episode against Viet Pham, a Utah-based chef and winner of “Iron Chef America.”

Ahead of the show’s launch Monday, The News & Observer spoke with Monsour about his North Carolina roots, his time on “Chefs vs. Wild” and what viewers can expect from the series.

‘Chefs vs. Wild’ is a new take on popular competition cooking shows

Unlike many popular competition cooking shows these days, the emphasis of “Chefs vs. Wild” is less on over-the-top theatrics and game show-style elements, and more on the rudimentary basics of cooking, from foraging and scrounging for wild, fresh-from-the-source ingredients to preparing meals with only natural forms of heat and manual kitchen tools.

In the premiere episode, Monsour and Pham are dropped into the wilderness of Canada’s British Columbia province, where they’re given 48 hours to gather as many wild, natural ingredients as they can for the three-course meals they’ll later prepare in the show’s “wilderness kitchen.” (At the kitchen, the chefs are also given elk protein by judge and host Kiran Jethwa to use in their dishes.)

With their survivalist guides by their sides, Monsour and Pham scour the Canadian woods, land and water for ingredients such as mushrooms, pine needles, sumac, crab apples, huckleberries, oysters and insects, all the while envisioning the flavor profiles they’ll incorporate into their final dishes and being wary of whether certain ingredients are even edible.

The pairs battle the natural elements and conditions British Columbia is known for — wind, rain and freezing temperatures, among others — both while searching for ingredients and resting in the shelters they make for themselves.

With limited time to find ingredients in such a vast swatch of nature, the foraging element of the competition is a high-stress process that can be contentious, and the premiere episode doesn’t shy away from showing the conflicts between the chefs and their survivalist guides.

At one point in the premiere, Monsour butts heads with his survivalist guide over whether it’s safe to hang mushrooms to dry overnight. Later in their search for ingredients, as time appears to be winding down for that part of the competition, the pair again faces conflict as they try to find a safe path through a heavily wooded area.

Hulu’s “Chefs vs. Wild” premieres Sept. 26.
Hulu’s “Chefs vs. Wild” premieres Sept. 26.

“There’s two things going on,” Monsour told The N&O. “You have internal focus and internal discipline, but then you also have this dynamic where you have a partner that you’ve never met before, and you have to depend on each other to get through that.”

Monsour brings a competitive mindset to the competition, which shows itself in his drive to get the best ingredients possible, even when it caused conflict.

“I’m not out here to play it safe,” he told The N&O. “I’m out here to get ingredients. I’m here to forage and hunt and fish.”

The stress of the competition continues into the cooking element, where the chefs are tasked with creating a five-star, three-course meal with the ingredients they’ve sourced in the previous 48 hours.

The outdoor “wilderness kitchen,” set in a scenic, picturesque overlook, is hardly equipped with the comforts of an indoor, industrial-style kitchen.

“The kitchen was beautiful. I mean, in terms of any chef’s dream outdoor kitchen, this was that to the max,” Monsour told The N&O. “The challenge, though, would be that my outdoor kitchen dream includes electricity and gas, and this kitchen does not.”

Without electricity or gas, the chefs and their survivalist guides — who serve as sous chefs for the cooking portion of the competition — were forced to get back to basics, using open fires and manually operated kitchen tools to prepare their dishes. That was especially challenging, Monsour said, after just having spent two grueling days in the wilderness.

“You’re tired, you’re exhausted, you’re famished,” he said.

In the end, though, after both the challenge of finding food in the wild and the challenge of preparing it, both chefs were able to produce high-quality meals that the judges deemed worthy of any five-star table — but, like any good competition, only one of them could win. (We won’t spoil the ending for you here.)

Monsour’s food philosophy and activism

Both in the premiere of “Chefs vs. Wild” and in his conversation with The N&O, Monsour described himself as a “food activist” — an identity central to his career in the food and restaurant industry, and one that he said aligned almost perfectly with the premise of the new series.

In his restaurants — perhaps the most notable of which is Preux & Proper, a modern Southern restaurant in Los Angeles that closed during the pandemic — and throughout his career, he said, Monsour has consistently placed special emphasis on the sourcing of ingredients, ensuring his “purchase power” was used for good and promoted ethical methods of growing and harvesting.

In “Chefs vs. Wild,” Monsour further lived out that philosophy by getting as close to the source of his ingredients as possible, seeing them for himself, in their natural habitat. Monsour said the experience helped him look at his natural surroundings in his day-to-day life in a new light, as well, realizing that ingredients — even if they’re not conventional — exist all around us.

With the show being available to a wide audience, he hopes his messaging and food activism will spread, encouraging viewers to evaluate their own shopping and sourcing habits.

“Ultimately what I’m most excited about for the show is that I think that this kind of storytelling and messaging is coming through,” Monsour said. “This isn’t just like a competition cooking show, where the stakes are hammed up for game play. It’s more about, once you kind of see what’s happening, it’s about being connected to Mother Earth, and really respecting what you take from it.”

As a competitor on the show, Monsour said, he was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “go out on to a really cool survivalist quest in a beautiful part of the world.”

“It was a really great experience,” he said.

While Monsour no longer lives in North Carolina, he told The N&O that he still has fond memories and deep ties to the Triangle. He and his partner have recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where they have a cookbook in the works about foodways in the coastal South.

You can keep up with Monsour and learn more about him at chefsammymonsour.com.

How to watch ‘Chefs vs. Wild’ on Hulu

“Chefs vs. Wild” is available to stream on Hulu at hulu.com/series/chefs-vs-wild. Hulu requires a subscription.

Two episodes, including Monsour’s, are available Sept. 26, and two more episodes will be released each week through Oct. 17.