Monthly Archives: November 2009

My Interview with Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern eats his way around the world . . . and all the way back home again to Minneapolis-St Paul

As host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Food and now Bizarre World, Andrew Zimmern gallops across the globe for more than half the year eating a litany of food many of us wouldn’t consider edible. His journey, however, is not about his ego, exploiting a culture, or culinary conquest. It’s about you, me, and that guy half way around the world and how a shared meal has the power to bring us all together. Zimmern is not so much a refined bon vivant as he is a culinary democratizer.

In September, Random House released his first book, Bizarre Truth, in which Zimmern joyfully tells the stories of the people meets in his travels and the food that brings them together. As I read the book, I asked facebook friends what they think about Zimmern and I got these replies.

“I wish I had his sense of adventure!”

“I would love to have dinner with him, anytime, anywhere. I would even eat something bizarre if he were at the table with me.”

“When I actually did have cable, his show was the ONLY show I watched.”

“I have cleaned countless fish, but wasn’t till I took a cooking class from him that I ever thought to eat their roe.”

“His show is fabulous and he seems like such an enjoy-life type of guy. Except he smacks when he eats. And the mic is right there so you hear every second of it.”

I caught Zimmern in a rare moment of downtime at home. I asked him about his book, his home life, and what he thinks about healthcare, tater tots, and Rice Krispies.

Can you talk a bit about your work and travel schedule and how busy it keeps you?

I’m rarely home, which is the saddest part of what I do. I’m traveling about 30 weeks a year in support of the show. The rest of the time when I’m home I’m working on all the other things I’m involved in—managing editor of our website, blogging, writing books, doing interviews, events—all the types of things that come with the job. It’s really really hard. I don’t have days off and its challenging to keep the balance in my life.

Given how busy your work keeps you, especially being away that long from your wife and son, what makes it all worthwhile?

It’s moments like when I was in South Africa about four months ago taping a show. We were in Johannesburg in these horrifically depressing three-story barracks used as housing for conscripted Zulu and Kosa men, women, and children who were taken from their villages and put to work in the mines. Basically, they were made slaves in their own country three generations ago. The buildings are a testament to the misery of the human condition. They’re also extremely dangerous. The police won’t go into them, and if there’s a violent outbreak or a riot, they basically let everybody shoot it out and then the army goes in days later and does a clean-up operation. It’s the scariest place I’ve ever been in my life.

One Saturday night, we decided to go in to the basement of one of these buildings and hang out with a bunch of the older men. They were teaching traditional dance and music to a younger generation who had lost a connection with their familial traditions. We ended up going in and sharing our story. Over the course of the 4 or 5 hours we were there, it became a transformative experience. We had to walk through a lot of fear to get there. We were able to show up where not only had people never seen a white man in their building before—some of the younger kids had never seen a white person period. And they were very curious about us, not only sitting on the sidelines and shooting something documentary style, but actually experiencing their culture with them collaboratively. In the end, it took forever to leave because of all the bon ami and hugs in the room.

What do you make of experiences like these?

The central theme of my life these days is that we really can change lives by sharing a meal. The best way to share our cultures with each other is over a plate of food. I’m firmly convinced of this. To have a moment like that is so sweet, to show these men and women that the outside world is interested in what they have to say, think, and feel—well, it was a thrill for me.

The larger sweetness is that it all airs later on TV. A lot of people aren’t able to visit the republic of South Africa, as wonderful a country as it is. Sharing cultures like this is about as fulfilling and magical of an experience as you can ever have in doing what I do. I want to show people that the world is a broad, roomy, and inclusive place with many things that look different, smell different, taste different, and appear different from what we are used to—but, in fact, we all share a common humanity.

I’ve been really enjoying your book. I love how it reads like a colorful collection of stories you might tell over a table or at a bar—it’s just so entertaining. But I think you are at your finest when you are talking about your father because those moments are so sweet. You said you didn’t grow up in a “food as fuel” kind of family. What role did food play in your dad’s life and how did that rub off on you?

My father was a food freak. I’m a paler version of him. We would pursue incredible food in the farthest corners of the city, which in New York meant a lot of adventurous dining on a lot of different ethnic cuisines—and enjoying ourselves tremendously while we were doing it.

My father and mother also loved to cook together and entertain at home, so there were always people in our house who were interested in food. As I became older, 8 to 12, I started traveling with my father to exotic places, and he and I found ourselves in sleepy little seafood places, in Madrid and Florence, and those places . . . you know, they don’t serve chicken nuggets. Nor was I interested in them. I would come home from these trips and rave to all my friends about all the strange foods I ate.

Now, I’m more or less continuing that same spirit of evangelism for those food experiences I had as a kid. I did that when I was a chef in restaurants with young cooks and I continue to do that on TV. It’s a direct reflection of my father’s spirit in our home.

Are you also sharing these traditions with your son—and what would you most like him to learn about food?

We already started. He was 10 years old when he was eating stir-fried crispy noodles with black bean sauce. He eats tongue tacos when we’re in Mexico and he’s the first one to grab the little Mexican crickets out of the bowl. Kids in this country don’t avoid this stuff because it doesn’t taste good, but because they’ve received cultural messages that tell them we don’t eat those things.

Everyone is conditioned in some way. I wanted to ask you about that on a local level. You’re probably familiar with Barbary Fig on Grand Ave, and Haj, the wonderful, charismatic owner?

Yes, of course.

I went to his restaurant to have a tagine. Specifically, I wanted to have what I felt was an authentic experience like I had in Paris, with the whole tagine, pot and all, served to you—and that cloud of aromatic smoke that comes out of it once you take the top off at the table. Unfortunately, though, the tagine was served on a dainty little plate. It was terribly disappointing, even lifeless. So on my way out, it was late and all the customers were gone, I asked Haj about it. It turned into a 45-minute conversation about local customs, food politics, and his earnest way of running his restaurant. He kept saying, “Look up and down Grand Avenue. All you see are hamburgers and French fries. Hamburger and French fries.” So, of course, he is disappointed, too. He felt keenly aware of his compromise and obviously rather resigned to it.

Haj’s customers won’t support the tagine in that particular restaurant at this particular time. That does not mean that if he closed that placed and opened up a small restaurant over at, say, 50th and France and served the tagines that people wouldn’t think it was the most fantastic thing in the world.

The dilemma here in the Midwest for people in the restaurant business is the one of art versus commerce. Haj’s artistic and cultural sense tells him how he should serve it—you mound everything up in the tagine, put it on the stovetop or in the oven, lift the lid, and eat out of the bottom base. That’s how it’s done all over northern Africa where the tagine is from. I think it’s sad that Haj can’t package and sell the tagine the way it really exists. I believe in honest, authentic cooking that retains a people’s culture. I want to see the real thing served here, but he has employees and responsibilities to his family—and he needs to make money. Putting it on a plate and making it easier to eat with more recognizable ingredients is something chefs in the northern part of the Midwest have to do to sell a product. For better or worse, we don’t have a fully emerged food culture. We have a growing food culture here in the Twin Cities.

Do you ever get wistful when you think about outdoor global markets with all those fresh, wonderful, and sensual foods?

Yes, I love it, but I get to go to those places. I just came back from Mongolia and Tokyo, and coming up in the winter I’m going to Argentina, Mexico, Laos, Cambodia, and Africa. I don’t have that romantic sadness because I get to experience it through my work. By the same token, I came home from Mongolia last week and my wife made tater tot hotdish, which I adore, and the whole family plowed through a huge portion of it. It was heaven.

Do you find that people aren’t talking about food enough—and that we can do better when it comes to giving food the importance it deserves in this country? You listen to Obama’s healthcare reform speech, but you rarely hear a mention about how fixing a broken food system will help us lead healthier lives. Food almost seems to be the obvious missing link.

I’ll tell you right now, the healthcare debate is probably more important than the food debate, even though the two are inextricably linked. You know it and I know it. But people still don’t want to talk about it. You turn on the local news and the first seven stories are all about the weather, a local crack bust, and a goose trapped in someone’s attic. I don’t think any of those stories are important. I think what’s important is the idea that we have scores of people going hungry in this country—and that we have a food system that is trying to kill us instead of nurture us. I think those are the most important stories of our day of our time.

With Traditional Chinese medicine, you eat certain foods in certain combinations for health and wellness at different times of the year. You use the benefits of food and diet to help keep you healthy. If we just did that in our country, everyone would have the potential to live to be 99 or 100 years old—if we just changed our diet. If everybody ate healthier, a certain percentage of our “treat the disease” model of healthcare would literally disappear in a number of years. And imagine what that would do for the national health conversation. We have a broken system in this country and I don’t know what it’s going to take to fix it. Smarter people than I am I trust are working on this problem.

Do you ever miss working in a professional kitchen?

All the time. Yeah. It’s something I’ve taken a break from and I’m not sure I’ll be able to return to. But of course I miss being in a professional kitchen. In the meantime, I try to cook at home and in my show as much as possible. I’m also working very hard, so it is nice to come home and have dinner on the table. My wife is a wonderful cook.

Since I love grocery shopping, I have to ask you your favorite places to shop locally for food.

Despite the distances, I use the European model. I’ll go to certain stores, farmers markets, and co-ops, and between all these trips I cobble together our food life. The cheese store for cheese and the bread store for bread—we do Premier Cheese, Surdyk’s, Turtle Bread. I’m not a supermarket guy. Of course, I do have a family, so we make a trip once a week to the supermarket for our staple items. I am not such a terrible food freak. We have rice krispies in our house. Life is too short. Eat rice krispies!