There's a new must-watch series coming to TV, and it’s got it all: family drama, a gritty New York backdrop, a few run-ins with the Mob, and—most importantly—food porn. In Feed the Beast, premiering on AMC this Sunday, June 5 at 10pm ET/PT, Dion Patras (Jim Sturgess) and Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer) are best friends who open an upscale Greek restaurant in the Bronx. The twist? Moran is an alcoholic sommelier and Patras is a chef running from his crime-filled past. With food styling by the legendary Susan Spungen (Julie & Julia; Eat, Pray, Love) and a full restaurant, wine cellar and greenhouse built on-set, this is the new food drama to watch. Food & Wine caught up with Sturgess about how he learned to cook for the role, his minor pasta obsession and which dive bars he hits up after a day on set.
We've heard you’re a big fan of dive bars. Have you found any favorites while filming in New York City?
Doc Holliday’s. Josie’s. Lucy’s. But I’ve barely been out in New York since I’ve been here because it’s just been so full-on filming the show. If you go have a big Saturday night, you’re hungover on Sunday, and then you’ve got to film on Monday. So this has been the most well-behaved I’ve ever been on a shoot.
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What’s your go-to dive bar order?
Beer. And I like whiskey too. Lagavulin whiskey I like a lot. But I try not to drink whiskey because that always ends up in a bit of disaster.
Before your acting career took off, we heard you made salads?
This is true. Well, I was a pot wash boy. So I do have experience with what it’s like to be in a kitchen, but at the very bottom of the food chain. I basically decided I needed to do something with my life when I was promoted to salad boy. I was a little overexcited about it. You’re not even the chef of the salad; you just sort of work in the salad department. I remember getting the promotion and being really excited about it and then really thinking about that and going: I think I really need to rethink my life a little bit. The restaurant was called Miller’s Kitchen outside of London. I guess it’s the equivalent of Applebee’s.
You learned to cook at Brooklyn Kitchen for your role in Feed the Beast. Did you cook before that? Besides salads.
I was just starting to get into it, actually. You reach a certain age where you’re looking for smaller pleasures in life. Like going out and partying all night starts to run its course. And I suddenly found myself really enjoying putting on a record and drinking a large glass of red wine and chopping onions. You know? You suddenly go: Oh, this is quite enjoyable. I quite like this. I have no flare for it and certainly, after hanging out with a lot of these amazing chefs for the show, it’s not something that’s in me at all. But I was enjoying following a recipe and seeing if I could make something that looked roughly like the picture in the cookbook.
Did you have any spectacular fails that didn’t turn out as advertised?
You know, I was always quite amazed that it isn’t actually as hard as you think, as long as you follow it and really concentrate on what you’re doing and put the actual amount in that you’re supposed to rather than, you know [mimes dumping a bunch of stuff in]. As long as you measure everything and do it by the book. But I’ve cooked some terrible meals in my time for sure.
You're also a musician. What's your go-to soundtrack when you’re cooking?
For some reason I always go for old music. Like really old. I put on an old Aretha Franklin record or some Sam Cook or something. It somehow just fits the tone. Or Richard Hawley – I'm a big Richard Hawley fan.
Was there a technique or dish you learned in training for Feed the Beast that you’ll use all the time now?
I learned how to make my own pasta. And there’s just something really cool about that, that you can actually just throw some flour and eggs together to actually make pasta. It feels like you’re a real chef. And it looks impressive, doesn’t it?
It does. So in the scenes when your character, Dion, is cooking, is that actually you chopping and sautéing or are there some tricks of the camera?
I mean, logistically, it’s impossible to cook the actual dish in that time. You’re doing take after take after take after take. What looks like 30 seconds of footage takes an entire day to film. So there was a food prep person who would create the food. But any kind of chopping or frying or anything that you see is all me. And that was something that was important for all of us, that the camera’s not just cutting away and it’s somebody else doing that. That was really the first thing I did when I was doing the preparation: the choreography of being a chef, feeling comfortable with pans and chopping. When someone is so familiar with their work tools, there’s a certain way they move. Even just seasoning things and just, you know [mimes sprinkling salt with a flourish]. I did a lot of that move.
Did you visit any restaurant kitchens to prepare for the role?
I was lucky enough to go to Upland and spend a service with all the cooks there. To see them all maneuver around each other and grabbing pots here and going behind each other and getting something from under someone's legs… It’s kind of amazing to watch. It’s organized chaos, you know? It’s complete madness. But they all know what they’re doing.
Did you get any advice from chefs while you were preparing for the role?
Yeah. I spent a lot of time with Justin Smillie, the chef at Upland. He said something really useful to me, which is that cooking is all about living in the present. Your past and your future kind of disappear. And it’s very rare that you live in the present; most people are worrying about the past or thinking about the future in some way or another. And I thought it was great for my character, Dion, who has such a messed up past. And his future is looking pretty fucking sketchy. So it suits him down on the ground. When he’s cooking, everything goes away. And that’s a kind of drug for him. So I thought that was a really nice thing for Justin to say. It made a lot of sense.
The characters in the show, including Dion, have a lot of vices. Do you have a food or drink vice?
I’ve been skinny for most of my life, but as you get older you start getting sort of skinny flabby, which is even worse. And so you don’t realize how much you love bread and pasta. They’re the simplest things in the world, but you don’t realize how much you fucking love pasta. It kills me a lot of the time. I’m like, I just can't. I’ve got to have something else. But I love pasta. And I didn’t know that until I tried to cut it down to a minimum. I would just eat it all the time, with bread and burgers and sandwiches. And cheese, I'm addicted to cheese.
What’s your favorite pasta place in New York?
I went to an amazing restaurant on my birthday that Christine Adams, who plays Rie Moran in the show, took me to. And I had probably one of the greatest bowls of pasta I’ve ever had. It was a placed called Emporio, on Mott Street down in Little Italy. It was just really thick homemade pasta, a bit like you see in the first episode of Feed the Beast. But it had this amazing pork mince all mixed in. And it was just fucking amazing.
What’s next on your list before you leave New York?
David [Schwimmer] gave me a list of places. He knows all the good spots around New York because he lives in the East Village, like an Italian place called Supper. I’ve probably been to about three of the 30 that he gave me, because I’ve just been eating at the studio canteen for most of it. I also found a great Greek restaurant called Pylos. Other than that, just bar snacks. And Cobb salad.
You’ve filmed all over the world. What’s the most bizarre food experience you’ve had?
I ate alligator in New Orleans, which I never thought I’d put in my mouth. That was interesting. If you didn’t know what it was you’d be fine with it. It’s quite tough but it’s quite chicken-y. Everything always tastes like chicken, doesn’t it?
Feed the Beast premieres on AMC on Sunday, June 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.