Mark Wiens makes the big jump from YouTube to mainstream TV
Director Eric Khoo has been credited for reviving the Singapore film industry with critically acclaimed films like “Be With Me,” “My Magic” and the animated feature “Tatsumi.”
In recent years, however, Eric has been spreading his wings by way of Asia-centric stories as the showrunner of HBO’s anthology series, “Food Lore” (which included Erik Matti’s “Island of Dreams” episode, starring Angeli Bayani) and “Folklore” (featuring Matti’s “7 Days of Hell,” topbilled by Cannes sensation Dolly de Leon).
Last month, when we met Eric, director Gillian Tan and TV host Mark Wiens in Singapore to talk about their exciting new project for HBO Asia, we suddenly felt we were the Japanese protagonist of Eric’s film “Ramen Shop.”
In the moving 2018 drama, Japanese chef Masato (Takumi Saitoh) retraces his parents’ roots in Singapore and ends up embarking on a food journey that allows him to dive into the affluent city state’s embarrassment of culinary riches… like the pork rib dish called bak kut teh. Our trip may have been short and sweet, but we felt we went through a similar experience.
The six-part HBO Asia Originals production “Food Affair with Mark Wiens,” which kickstarts a three-year collaboration among Warner Bros. Discovery, Singapore Tourism Board and Zhao Wei Films, sees the charming YouTube sensation going on an invigorating journey of food obsession as he shines the spotlight on a country’s diverse cuisine—from fine dining to hawker fare.
Each episode features a star-studded panel of guests comprising a fine-dining chef, a culinary veteran and a hawker hero. Through conversations, Mark uncovers the artistry and stories, as well as the distinct culinary heritage, that has made Singapore home to more than 50 Michelin-starred establishments and over 60 Bib Gourmand locations, including street food and hawker center stalls.
As the show shuttles from one place to another (we’ve seen two very illuminating episodes, so far), it unravels intimate and inspiring stories that transcend a set of dishes’ culinary appeal and takes a close look at the backstories that helped shape their taste.
The focus for Season 1, at least, is Singapore food. But as TV host, no one could have been a more suitable fit for the task at hand than Mark, who has—hold your breath—more than 9 million subscribers worldwide and 2 billion views on YouTube!
When we tagged along Mark during his visits to the Shikar, Violet Oon and Kazu Sumiyaki restaurants and everywhere we went, people would ask if it was OK to take a selfie with the show’s good-natured host. And when we posted our blurry selfie on Instagram, many of our friends told us that they eagerly followed Mark’s diverse adventures on social media.
For his part, it wasn’t hard for Eric to notice Mark’s easygoing charm, the type that’s capable of launching a million clicks on YouTube. Perhaps because of his keen sense of observational skills as a filmmaker-cum-storyteller, Eric would know a star when he sees one.
“I was introduced to Mark by my sons many years ago. They also follow him,” Eric recalled. “They told me, ‘Papa, you gotta watch this guy. He’s amazing!’ They had all these dreams of seeing Mark eat our favorite noodle dish.
“Then, one day, my youngest boy realized that Mark, who’s based in Bangkok, was coming to Singapore. So, he got in touch with Mark, who actually showed up at that hawker center at the designated time. And he tried our favorite noodle dish—what a cool guy!
“Thereafter, I toyed with the idea of where I could merge a $500 meal with a $3.50 meal in one show, and the result is pure art.” “And that’s why Mark is such a perfect fit for this show because he really conveys that kind of appeal,” director Gillian later noted. “They all love him, from kids to grandma—which makes him the right choice for the job. Wherever we brought him, people would gravitate towards Mark, nonstop. He’s a very charming guy who would talk to everyone from all walks of life.”
Interjecting, Eric added, “And unlike other food show hosts, who can get toxic, Mark just exudes a good, positive aura.” (More about Eric and Gillian in a separate article.)
In our case, we had our one-on-one time with Mark over dinner at Xiao Ya Tou, where the YouTube star shared with us his thoughts about “going mainstream.” We asked him how the show came about and what he felt when he was offered the chance to expand his social media cachet even more with his impending mainstream visibility on HBO and HBO Go.
Mark shared, “I’m very excited about this because this is something that I’ve never tried before… definitely out of my comfort zone. But it’s been a big learning opportunity and a real honor to be a part of.
“I typically make YouTube videos about food, but it’s kind of low-key where I’m on my own with my wife. I’m appreciative of this because I’m just a pretty normal guy who likes to eat (laughs). While it’s true that everyone can have a hobby, like football, basketball, music or technology, eating is something that everybody in the whole world needs to do, right? That’s universal.
“Despite its variety and diversity, food connects all of us. It’s a privilege to have good food, but not everybody has the privilege to eat good food all the time. Still, it is a universal fact that we all need food and nutrition.
Meeting Eric Khoo
“The first time I met Eric was actually quite casual. I had met his son on a trip maybe six or seven years ago. After that, I met Eric just briefly, but we kind of kept in touch. Then, a couple of years down the road, he said, ‘We have an idea for a food show.’ By the time that they contacted me, they already had the concept for this.
“That’s something I love about Eric—when he has an idea, he’s gonna go for it. He doesn’t just talk. And he knows what he’s doing—from his creative ideas and the storytelling approach that he has in mind. And I’ve always been quite open to trying new things, so I was like, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’”
Excerpts from our Q&A with Mark:
What sets “Food Affair with Mark Wiens” apart from your YouTube channel? How different is it from vlogging?
Aside from the much bigger production and the planning that went into it, one of the strong points of “Food Affair” is that we learn about the stories behind each dish. It’s harder to do that in a vlog situation because a vlog is more on the go.
The chef might not have time to sit down and chat with you personally. But in “Food Affair,” they really took the time to organize the episodes in a way where we could really hear the stories of the people behind the food. That gives you a different perspective on what you’re eating, and thus makes the experience very personal.
You try out a lot of “sometimes delectable, sometimes strange-looking” dishes. Do you ever go to a restaurant and not know how to eat the food correctly?
Yeah, all the time (laughs). But when I would make a video, I try to go with a local person, who could explain what to do or how to eat a particular dish. But sometimes, they also have no clue!
Any thoughts on the idea of the show going beyond Singapore? Perhaps you can highlight Filipino food or Indonesian cuisine next time?
One of the great things about its style and the storyline is that it could be done anywhere in the world. It can be replicated in so many countries. For now, though, I’m just excited about the first series.
Aren’t you concerned that it might alienate viewers from other countries if the focus this season is just on Singaporean cuisine?
Well, Singapore is a great jumping-off point because it’s multicultural and international. Any foodie around the world can enjoy Singapore, right? I don’t think there’s any food lover who has not enjoyed what Singapore has to offer.
If you love food, because of the diversity, variety and accessibility, you have every option available from hawker street food to fine dining, which is part of the concept of “Food Affair.”
I heard that you stayed in the Philippines for two months many years ago. Could you tell me about that experience?
That was back when I was exploring and traveling around Southeast Asia after I finished with university [in the United States]. On that trip, I went to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, then to the Philippines. I was young and fresh out of university. I was full of energy back then (laughs). That was in 2009—which is a long time ago. And I just wanted to see more of the world.
And now, the world is seeing more of you, right?
Well, yeah (laughs). When I was in the Philippines, I ended up staying mostly in Quezon City for two months, because I had some friends there. And I just started blogging then. So, some days I would be writing, while in other days, I’d be exploring the country—I did a mix of everything with my good friends in the Philippines.
What did you think of Filipino food?
I love Filipino food. I love a lot of the dishes and the regional variations. I ate a lot of Bicol express (laughs)—that was one of my favorite dishes. And I also love sisig and sinigang.
Stream or download “Food Affair with Mark Wiens” beginning Nov. 18 on HBO Go. New episodes will be released on HBO and HBO Go every Friday. INQ
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