All my friends love Mark Wiens.
I don’t know when exactly I started watching his videos on YouTube – or who sent me a video of him eating some calorie-rich snack, on some street. Who knew a man in a green t-shirt filming himself (yes, he’s very DIY) eating (usually) spicy food his way around the streets would make for good content?
But it does – and he has the numbers to prove it. To date, he has taken his 9.4 million subscribers on YouTube to various parts of the world, from the Spanish Basque Country to a market in Kelantan, Malaysia.
But even with that huge following, Wiens has a way to make people feel like he is grounded and relatable — your friendly YouTube food-crazy guy. Plus, the intense eye contact he makes with the camera while eating innards or spit-roasted meat does elevate his relationship with viewers.
And for his latest adventure, he’ll be taking us to the big screens – and Singapore. A switch up from his DIY format, Wiens suits up and dines upscale as the host of the upcoming HBO series Food Affair with Mark Wiens.
To promote the show, Wiens was in town to do the standard junkets – and also squeeze in a chat over lunch.
“Out of my comfort zone”
The series sees Wiens exploring the culinary scene of Singapore through the people responsible for making the dishes we love. Viewers watch Wiens unlock stories, histories and personalities from his excursions in hawker centres, coffee shops and even swanky restaurants.
“Fine dining is harder to understand because because chefs are like artists and they have this idea or concept in their head which has to translate into the dish. So what was special about Food Affair is being able to talk with the chef and learn a little bit about them and what their thinking is. And of course, well, eating their dish.”
Mark wiens, host of Food affair with mark wiens
The 36-year-old laughs while telling Coconuts, “Just to be clear, I eat everything! You see me eat street food most of the time, but yes, I do like fine dining too.”
However, not being the one helming the camera was a huge adjustment, Wiens tells Coconuts.
“It was a big learning experience for me and kind of something out of my comfort zone. Firstly, it was a totally different setup, and I also had to work with a whole production team. I quickly learned that there was a lot more work behind the scenes that went into it,” he said.
He added, “Initially I was a lot more nervous because I was used to shooting everything myself or with my wife but then you start to get to know the whole crew and directors, I started to feel more comfortable.”
In his YouTube videos, Wiens usually travels light and films all the content while holding a camera pointed at himself – think selfie style. You get a glimpse of this DIY set-up in an early episode where he introduces himself.
Following his dreams… and stomach
He attributes his adventurous streak with food to his family and upbringing. Born to an American dad and a Chinese mom who were missionaries, it meant traveling a lot during his formative years. This exposed him to many different cultures and cuisines and his curiosity to explore and learn new things never ceased, even when he had to return to Phoenix, Arizona, for university.
“The minute I graduated I hit the road to travel again – and then I set up my blog Migrationology!” he said. While he had to follow wherever his parents went when he was younger, he could now pick the places he wanted to go – or go to eat.
“I think about what I wanted to eat and where and then I plan where to go. I’ve covered most of Asia simply because I wanted to try it all.”
He also admits that his process has changed a lot over the years: “When I first started, it would just be me walking down the road and seeing and trying whatever looked good. It was all really random – but now, I try to find unique places where the locals were eating at. More research is involved in picking where to go and what to eat.”
“I still think that’s my favourite way to explore a city though, arriving at a destination not knowing much about what’s going on and then finding a place that’s busy.”
Being a food and travel vlogger has also seen him being compared to fellow chef, author and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, but Wiens is quick to say that while he admires Bourdain and watched his programmes, his intention was never to emulate the iconic personality.
Wiens says of Bourdain: “He’s a legend and he really paved the way for food travel shows.”
He also cites social media in helping with his research and says that plenty of locals flood him with recommendations which is quite handy.
Another thing that has changed over the years? His appetite. He says, “When I was younger, I used to be able to eat non-stop, but now that I’m getting older, it’s a different story! But I strategize better now, and I find friends to eat with to share the good stuff.”
He summarizes his whole journey by saying, “I think it’s just something that no matter where I’ve traveled in the world, there’s people that are passionate about food in every single country and every single culture – no matter how different each place is, it’s that connecting idea that brings it all together.”
Welcome to Flavatown
Some of the best things he’s eaten are the ones with extreme flavors … and spice. For Mark Wiens fans, his green t-shirt with the tagline ‘Not Spicy Not Eating’ is pretty iconic.
During the course of the day, there were a few moments the soft-spoken Wiens would light up and excitedly gush about something: talking about spicy food was one of them.
Over lunch, Wiens also confidently said that nothing is too spicy for him when probed about the spiciest – and I believe him. I had the privilege to share a plate of belachan between us and it was wiped clean in seconds.
Before that, he was pretty stoked to talk about his current obsession: jungle Thai food.
“It makes use of a lot of wild herbs and vegetables – basically, anything you can forage – and also wild meat, including fish and game meats like deer. Usually, it’s known for being very spicy and uses lots of herbs. You’ll find jungle restaurants across Thailand and so they’ll be different depending on the region,” he explains.
Let’s take a lil’ trip around foodie town
Though it’s his first time taking on a presenter role for a TV series in Singapore, it’s not his first jaunt around the city. He recalls fish head curry being one of his favorite things he’s tried here and was happy to experience it again at Samy’s Curry in Dempsey.
“On top of that, I’ve always been a fan of Malay nasi padang. I think what remains special about Singapore is the diversity and range of cuisines that is accessible to everyone,” he says.
He also says that diversity extends to many different types of dining experiences. While he has an affinity for street food, he also appreciates fine dining and the process behind it all.
“Fine dining is harder to understand because chefs are like artists and they have this idea or concept in their head which has to translate into the dish. So what was special about Food Affair is being able to talk with the chef and learn a little bit about them and what their thinking is. And of course, well, eating their dish.”
On the other hand, to him, hawker centers are as special as they are important. Beyond just a place to gather and eat, he also sees it as an important part of Singapore culture.
He explains, “Here, food can be enjoyed at every, every level. For instance, you might have a fine dining meal and you might have a hawker meal but I think they can equally be celebrated, equally enjoyed and also equally satisfying. It’s one of the reasons why Singapore remains an important part of the global food scene.”
Finally, as an homage to Anthony Bourdain – who we are both fans of – I ask Wiens what his idea of the perfect meal is.
“It could be anything delicious, but it definitely will have to be with my family. But I would like the meal to be at least a little bit spicy though.”
Food Affair with Mark Wiens premiers on HBO on Nov. 18.