Meet the Maker: Andrew Zimmern Aims to Improve the World Through Food

Meet the Maker: Andrew Zimmern Aims to Improve the World Through Food

By Alejandra Saragoza September 15, 2019

Deep-fried tarantulas. Peruvian tree grubs. Giraffe weevils. Beef brain foie gras. Most travelers wouldn’t dare try these seemingly strange foods when visiting an unfamiliar country, but exploring undiscovered foods around the world is something Andrew Zimmern feeds off of—literally. 

The four-time James Beard Award–winning TV personality, chef, writer, and teacher spent 13 years traversing the globe in his hit Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods, tasting the most unique, traditional fare he can find. Whether he was visiting innovative restaurants in metropolises or humble markets nestled in the jungle, Zimmern focused on discovering the most authentic, immersive experience and furthering his understanding of another culture. 

Indeed, Zimmern has made it his life’s work to promote open-mindedness, acceptance, and tolerance through food. Though Bizarre Foods thrust him into the spotlight and spurred his decades-long culinary career, he has continued to garner international attention and acclaim by using his platform to show how food is the common thread that connects us all—regardless of race, gender, religion, and culture. 

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Chef Andrew Zimmern traveled across the globe to discover the world's most unique tastes and to further audiences' understanding of other cultures on Bizarre Foods. Photo courtesy of Travel Channel.

No matter our differences, we can sit down with one another and bond over food, and it’s this connection—an embrace of the unfamiliar—that Zimmern advocates as a solution to eradicating division and intolerance. He’s written countless articles for esteemed national publications, penned children’s books, produced TV shows, and taught classes centered on the topic. 

Now, he also aims to further the discussion by hosting a new speaker series at The CIA at Copia, a renowned culinary center in downtown Napa. During the inaugural Conversations at Copia event earlier this month—which featured a deep, thought-provoking conversation on the subject of culture and cuisine—we snagged a few minutes of Zimmern’s time to chat about his foray into the food world, his upcoming TV show, his favorite things to do in California, and his hopes for the future of food.  

Q: Describe your culinary journey and how it led to the hit TV show Bizarre Foods.

A: I’ve always been a precocious eater. I grew up in the 60s in New York City, and that was a fairly food-progressive town, but Manhattan—where I grew up—was not the food borough back then. But my parents turned me on to what was happening in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx ... and I knew by the time I was 10 years old that I wanted to be in the food world. I spent a lot of time cooking and working in restaurants, managing restaurants, owning restaurants.

Then I drank and drugged myself out of a job, out of a life. I wanted to kill myself and tried to kill myself—didn’t work. I wound up in Minnesota in January of 1992; I woke up in a treatment center after an intervention in New York City. I’d been homeless for about a year, and some friends found me and got me help, and I’ve been sober ever since. 

I knew by the time I was 10 years old that I wanted to be in the food world. 

 

After seven or eight years of working in restaurants in Minnesota, I went in search of a bigger audience for the stories that I felt needed to be told. I felt a responsibility to tell them, and I felt that I had the ability to tell them. But I never dreamed in a million years that someone would like my ideas, that they would then make a five-minute trailer, a 10-minute trailer, a [TV show] pilot, and a pilot that would air. I mean, 90 percent of pilots that are made never see the light of day, and of those pilots that are made and air, only 1 percent ever become a show. Of those that become a show, very few see a season. Of those that see a season, very few—like a single percentage—see a second season.

So, the fact that I was able to create a show that has lasted as long as Bizarre Foods is an incredible testament to the idea. A lot of people see the idea as a fat white guy who goes around the world and eats bugs, but that’s not what it’s about. ... That being said, anyone who sees the show that way and wants to absorb it for the entertainment value it provides, I’m thrilled they’re watching it. 

Q: Why was it important for you to create a show like Bizarre Foods?

A: I think the idea of creating a show that promotes patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world that isn’t having it is important. Fifteen years ago, I saw that we were starting to have conversations that were dividing us, and those conversations were about what separated us: You have hair, I don’t have hair. You have lipstick, I don’t have lipstick. You’re a woman, I’m a guy. Even how we defined gender was coming under fire—let alone our sexuality, our politics, the language we speak, the color of our skin, our spiritual beliefs. 

Defining people by how they’re different from us leads to othering, so I wanted to create a show that wasn’t about othering but that was about promoting understanding, and that’s what I did. I was thrilled that the vast majority of people saw [Bizarre Foods], if not wholly for what it was, then partly for what it was. I think that’s why it resonated with so many people and became so successful.  

Q: Food certainly has the power to bring people together and promote understanding of those who are different from you. 

A: It does, which is why I’m so outraged and so angry at our food world today and why the [Conversations at Copia] were so important to me—for that very reason. Right here, right now, we’re in the most romantic relationship with food in the history of human evolution ... where everyone is celebrating food. However, eating well in America is a class issue.

At the same time that we’re celebrating [food], about 20 percent of people in this country are food insecure: They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And we’re wasting 40 percent of our food in America—the vast majority of it before it even hits the consumer. This is a horrific set of circumstances. When you combine that with our climate crisis, combine that with the othering that’s going on right now in America, combine that with the divisive rhetoric of this White House, to me, it is quite simply one of the most dangerous times in American history. This is really scary, big-time stuff. 

Defining people by how they’re different from us leads to othering, so I wanted to create a show that wasn’t about othering but that was about promoting understanding, and that’s what I did.

 

So, what can I do about it? Well, I’ve always tried to promote tolerance and understanding, so I figured, why not do that by extending the conversation? And I realized very quickly that when we look at the world of food, 99 percent of the food conversation in America is about what we’re cooking and how to make it and what restaurant you would go to to get it. But that’s actually only important to about 3 percent of Americans.

What’s more important is what’s not being discussed: Who has access to [food]? Who can open restaurants? The cultural and civic issues surrounding food—like hunger, like access, like battling the white patriarchy, like improving our food systems—and all of those social-justice issues surrounding food need to be amplified. So, I think it’s the responsibility of those who can amplify them to do so. 

Q: Is that why you agreed to host Conversations at Copia? 

A: Yes! [The CIA at Copia] asked me [if I was interested], and I said yes right away. I’m asked to do things like this every year, but I would always reply with, ‘Yes, and I would like to explore these serious topics with real people in an unedited, unexpurgated form as a way to start talking about the really important issues of our time when it comes to food.’ And everyone else who has asked me to do this has always said, ‘No, we can’t guarantee that.’ ... But the Culinary Institute of America has always been at the front of educating students and consumers with their unique platforms on the real issues of food, and they immediately said, ‘Yes, of course.’ And I said, ‘Perfect, let’s pick dates.’ That’s literally how the conversation went.

I think the decision to host [the Conversations at Copa] series shows real vision and real leadership. Putting myself out there on these issues is not risky, and the panelists who have put themselves out there on these issues for years are committed to doing that already; they’re just talking about what they do. To me, the CIA deserves the greatest round of applause, because as an institution of higher learning and one that prepares people to go out and be a participant in our food world, their leadership on this is so vitally important. And for them, I’m sure there were people in the building who said, ‘Wow, that’s a little risky. Do we want to go there?’ And their decision was, ‘Yes, we want to go there.’ I think time will prove them to be the biggest winner of all. 

Q: Conversations at Copia also raises money for the Andrew Zimmern Second Chances Scholarship. What was the inspiration behind starting this fundraising effort, and how does it tie in with the conversation series?

A: I have Second Chances Scholarship funds in several places—I don’t do any [events] without a scholarship aspect to it. But [the CIA] is also a school that gives out scholarships, so when we decided to make [Conversations at Copia] a multipronged, interactive event in a way that would make it more than a conversation series, I was all in. I feel like I was given a second chance in life, so [the scholarship fund] is extremely important to me. 

California article
Zimmern hosts a new speaker series at The CIA at Copia, a renowned culinary college in Napa, where luminaries in the food industry come together to share their stories of positive change. Photo courtesy of @birdmanphotos.

Q: Aside from moderating Conversations at Copia, what other projects are you currently working on? 

A: I have a new TV show starting November 10 on a yet-to-be-announced network, and contractually, they get to say it first, so that’s all that I can really say about it. 

Q: Can you tell me how the new show will be different from Bizarre Foods and the other food-centric shows you’ve starred in and produced?

A: [The upcoming show] is all about food. It’s a show that explores the nature of civics and politics organized around the principles of food and how we make it in this country. You’ll hear about it very soon, but don’t make any plans on November 10 at 8 o’clock! 

Q: Given all the time you’ve spent traveling around the world on Bizarre Foods, do you have a favorite travel memory or experience that’s been particularly special to you? 

A: Thousands. I’m so lucky, and because I’m diving deep and going to places most people haven’t gone, those experiences are really profound. Generically speaking: It’s certainly exciting to go beneath the streets of Paris, down into the limestone caves where cheesemongers have flavored and aged cheese for hundreds of years.

But as wonderful as that is, the protected tribes of the world have had the biggest impact on me. I’ve had the opportunity to make TV by living for a week or 10 days at a time with these tribal peoples—from the Himba in Namibia, to the Lahu in Northern Thailand, to the Athabascans in Central Alaska, down to the Seminole in Southern Florida—and those are always the places where I learn the most. The tribal skill set is frowned on and degraded in modern society; people walk around with their laptops and think they’re superior to someone who’s walking around wearing a loincloth. But actually, it’s the exact opposite.

The tribal people of the world—every single one of them—by the time they’re of a certain age (usually late teens) are astronomers, scientists, veterinarians, soldiers, architects, pharmacists. That’s because the skill set within the tribal system in the ancient world was massive, and to not master all of those skills meant to be left behind and perish. Like the animal kingdom, people who couldn’t be of use to the tribe were essentially shunned and expelled from the tribe. It’s very much a cream-rising-to-the-top type of environment. So, if you really want to feel humbled—and if you really want to feel completely emasculated—and yet at the same time learn a shitload about the way the world really works, go spend time with indigenious peoples. 

The protected tribes of the world have had the biggest impact on me.

 

Spending time with [the tribes] was incredible, and as a result of spending time with them, I have a much keener understanding of the way the world works. [The experience] directly affected my life, my habits, how I conduct myself, what I choose to spend time on. This has been the great joy of my life. 

Q: As part of your travels on Bizarre Foods, you’ve eaten countless “weird” foods in numerous countries across the globe. What’s the strangest thing you’ve tried and actually liked?

A: I could pick 100 things, but pyura immediately comes to mind. It’s a giant sea squirt that’s found off the coast of central Chile. [Pyuras] grow to be the size of basketballs, and they can house hundreds of these edible animals that secrete themselves in pockets that when you cut them open and dig them out, kind of taste like a cross between a fish’s rectum and iodine. But when dressed with olive oil and lemon, they take on a funky, briny, pleasurable flavor. I just adore them. 

Q: When you’re cooking for yourself, do you have a certain type of playlist or genre of music you like to listen to?

A: With music, everything is dependent on mood, and I’m one of those people who listens to everything. I’ll listen to the Grateful Dead, and then I’ll listen to Miles Davis, and then I’ll listen to The Black Keys, and then I’ll listen to anything and everything in between. 

When I was living in New York City in the 70s, on weekends my friends and I would go see the giant-arena rock bands. It was The Who one weekend, and Led Zeppelin the next weekend, and The Grateful Dead the next weekend, and Yes the next weekend. But in between, we’d go downtown to all the clubs, and I was fortunate enough to see all the New York bands come up in those nightclubs in the 70s. Being able to see The Ramones play live at CBGB is the kind of thing that hooks you on that kind of music forever. I’m a real nut for live music.

Q: Other going to concerts, what else do you do in your limited down time?

A: I like to cook because it’s my yoga. I like to play guitar, and I love to play sports. I’m very competitive, so anything where you keep score, I’m in. 

Q: How often do you come to California? And when you’re here, what are some of your favorite places to visit?
A: I’m out here every month. I love California. This is the state that everybody wants to move to. You’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the ocean, and you can position yourself right in between them. 

My favorite thing to do here is drive. California birthed the American car culture in many ways. Detroit provided the cars, but California made the beach and the car what it is today: American icons. I’m lucky enough that I’ve had the chance to say, ‘Well, I’ve gotta go do work in San Francisco, and in three days I’ve gotta be L.A., so I’m just going to drive.’ And I don’t think there’s a better way to see this state than up close and personal, four feet above the ground, going 65 miles per hour (or whatever the posted speed limit is)—anyone who follows my Instagram knows I have a very hard time observing speed limits. 

But I love driving and stopping in these little towns. I’ve stopped at a farm stand on the Central Coast and then been asked by the owner, ‘Oh are you going to the VFW hall tonight?’ And I’m like, ‘No I didn’t know there was one. I’m just driving through town.’ And he said, ‘Oh if you have time, stop by. They’re having a chicken and tri-tip sirloin barbecue for charity.’ And then I stop by and have a meal that if you had all the money in the world you couldn’t pay for: Something that’s so incredible, with 80-year-old grandmas and grandpas roasting 100 chickens over live fire, grilling 1,000 pounds of tri-tip sirloin and serving it with all the sides, and 100 grandmas showing up with pies for the auction. It showed a piece of American culture that is dying—where the food is spectacular, the people are amazing—and it restores your faith in humankind. So, if you don’t get in your car and drive, you don’t get to experience that kind of thing. I love it. 

The easy answer [to your question] would have been some temple of gastronomy in San Francisco or Los Angeles or somewhere in between. But to me, it’s about being with real people doing real things and finding greater joy in life.  

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