Since his first hourlong Bizarre Foods special in 2006, Andrew Zimmern — James Beard Award-winning chef, journalist and natural-born storyteller — has been taking television audiences around the globe to sample exotic (and sometimes icky) tastes and intriguing cultures.
Beginning Monday, Jan. 23, Zimmern will devote a new season of his Bizarre Foods series to the curious cuisine of the country he says intrigues Americans more than any other — America.
We spoke with Zimmern about Bizarre Foods America and his enduring quest to educate his audience about the universal language of food — and why he feels compelled to do more than simply entertain.
Channel Guide Magazine: Perhaps the one person who has set the bar highest for programming about bizarre foods and exotic cultures is you. Do you feel any pressure to top you — or at least match you — with Bizarre Foods America?
Andrew Zimmern: It’s only when I sit and look in the rearview mirror that I get a sense of the scope of the show. We’re lucky that it’s aired internationally. And it’s become part of the pop culture. I just found out today that — I heard it for years but for some reason it’s never flipped a switch in my brain — how many grade schools, secondary schools, universities teach with the show.
Our show is used in armed forces training around the world. I’ve been in airports and spoken to camp commandants — and even a one-star general in Puerto Rico who works with some of the Special Forces — about how they show people our program prior to deployment. Because if you go to a strange country and you pull up in your Humvee into a little village and a lady comes running out of the house with a little clay pot into the window of the truck and she opens the lid and something very foul smelling is inside that you don’t recognize — if you make a face and flinch a little bit, you’ve already lost the village before you’ve even gotten out of the car.
But if you smile and you compliment her on her earrings and tell her you can’t wait to try it but you just need to do something else first, you’ve won before you’ve gotten out of the car.
Our show preaches a very valuable lesson about not practicing contempt prior to investigation. It teaches important lessons about the nature of food. That in a world in which we define ourselves by our differences, it’s extremely important to have conversations about the things we all have in common as human beings. And that’s food, I think, above all else. I just think that the show itself has become happily a victim of its own success for that reason.
CGM: How did you decide that it was time to take on America?
AZ: My goal with this show is three-fold. Number one, we saw how popular some of our domestic episodes were. And I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that our domestic episodes were popular because people were obsessed with images of themselves. America wants to see pictures of America. I’m a student of history and art history — that’s what my degrees are in — and the generic predecessors to the photograph were very popular. Daguerreotypes and tintypes and things like that in the 1850s and ’60s. And people did not buy pictures of famous people. The most popular photographs were the town barbershop or “view from a hill.” Because people in New York didn’t know what Missouri looked like. And vice versa. Other than in drawings or paintings, no one knew what America looked like. Or what Americans looked like.
So my pitch on Bizarre Foods America was, we know it’s popular. We know it’s important. We know that bringing the message home is a very important thing to do. But more importantly, I said, showing Americans images of themselves is what’s important.
In our New Orleans episode, when I get to show people that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans is the largest in the United States and is as vibrant as any in Southeast Asia, or that the Hmong community in Minnesota is as vibrant here as anywhere in their own part of the world — and that the way they live their lives in Minnesota has become, in many a case kind of Minnesotan — I think that’s a wonderful story.
When we’re in West Virginia and in Charleston and some of those other places, some of the things we touch on are wild; some of the things we touch on are deeply American. Some are dying breeds. I mean, I just flashed back to sitting in a 400-year-old dining room in Charleston on a street called Pirate’s Alley with a woman whose family on both sides can trace their roots back to the 1600s in that city. And we were dining on foods that someone walking in the door 300 years ago would recognize instantly. But most people in America — say in Cleveland — wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is. That to me is what makes this season so special. It’s going on right under their own noses.
CGM: There are other shows that crisscross the country checking out what Americans are eating. What kind of research and planning did you do to make sure that yours stands apart?
AZ: The only thing that I was intentionally trying to do when I started this was to tell stories that other people weren’t. I learned that lesson as a young apprentice coming up in the food world: You have to have a couple of dishes that you can’t get anywhere else in town, otherwise why would anyone eat at your restaurant? You have to set yourself apart. You have to explain to people why you’re different. I mean, nothing makes me less hungry — metaphor intentionally used — for any aspect in life if it’s derivative. It bores me.
So when I had the opportunity to tell food stories, I think food stories from the fringe are the most interesting to tell.
I think that chefs in America especially — not in other parts of the world — but in America have been undervalued for generations. Seen as something that they are not. In the same way that teachers are not seen for all that they are and can be. In the same way that people who toil in government offices, keeping the trains on the tracks are. To be successful in so many parts of our communities’ workforce, you have to be sociologist, anthropologist, freethinking psychologist, businessperson, penny-pincher, and artistic visionary. If you’re not those things, you may still hold onto your status, your job, whatever … but if you’re going to be special, you need to have all those things.
And I’m just grateful that in my life and time, people who have worked in the food business have been recognized for it.
CGM: Food television is thriving right now and there’s now a food — or food competition — series on nearly every network, including the broadcast nets and my foodie friends are beside themselves with disgust for much of it. Do you think there is room for all of it?
AZ: It’s hard to hear how important the role of food celebrities are in a world where we’re faced with so many other harsh choices. But when people come at me and say you’re creating television for the leisure class and you’re talking about a product that’s relatively unimportant to the lifestyle of mainstream America, I remind them of a couple of things.
First and foremost, I make an entertainment show. But I’m also trying to educate, to a point. I think I have a tremendous responsibility because I have an hour of airtime on a television network once a week. I take that really seriously. I think the people in my industry who don’t take that seriously are fraudulent. And it angers me tremendously.
I [believe in] teaching people about acceptance and about other cultures and being open-minded and about embracing the world with open arms and a smile and about being a good traveler and about being the best person you can be. Because, in my case, often I walk into a village or a community or a home and they’ve never seen a middle-aged white man. And that’s a very serious thing. And while I am certainly funny and entertaining and casual in appearance, my goals are very serious and very intentioned.
I’m a civil libertarian first and foremost, so if somebody wants to put it out there and there’s an audience for it, that’s fantastic. Do I personally choose to do that sort of programming? No, I don’t. Do some people often lump me in there because they see me as a bug eater and perhaps trying to eat oddities to gain attention or attraction somehow? Well then I’m quick to point out that our show is quite the opposite. We preach messages of sustainability. About broadening our food choices and our food sources. About the importance of culture and food. We have a lot of very, very wonderful and educational messaging that I’m extremely proud of, wrapped up in 80% entertainment.
I think a lot of those shows that you mention don’t have messaging inside of them. And I happen to fall into that category of people that, for me, you can make entertainment that has message and informs at its very core essence. There are a lot of people that have a message that I don’t agree with, but I’m glad that they have one that they can hang their show on, whether it’s a game show or a talk show or a cop drama — whatever.
But I think ya gotta have a message.
CGM: How do you choose your locations to make sure that you stay on-message?
AZ: We pick our locations and the cultures that interest me and that I think are fascinating and then we find the stories that are on the fringe.
When the show title “Bizarre Foods” came out, one of our producers at the time — a brilliant woman who is no longer at Travel Channel — we went round and round and she sold me on the title. She said this gives you the opportunity to help people reevaluate what the definition of the word “bizarre” is. And she played me like a fiddle. She knew how competitive I am and she knew that I would jump at that chance and she was right.
CGM: Your show is also appealing to — and appropriate for — multiple generations, which is not always the case with this sort of programming.
AZ: This is a show that has the best demographic of all: families watch the show together in huge numbers. The fact that some kids come for the gross-out stuff, and some people come to see me make a fool of myself trying native dance in Uganda, or some people come for the cultural messaging — that’s all great. But the bottom line is that everyone can stay on the couch and be there for something.
As a dad, I think that is very important. And as someone who wants kids to hear their parents say, you know Andrew Zimmern ate those spiders last night. You can eat your broccoli. That’s extremely important.
Obviously I hear a lot about the nature of this from grade school teachers all over Minnesota because this is where I live. But when I travel and make appearances, I cannot think of an appearance that I’ve made in the past two or three years where at least one teacher hasn’t come up to me and said, “We use your program in our school.” Washington University has been teaching a course on it for a while. Indiana University is doing one this coming spring. I’m going to start working with Babson, with their business school, to try to do some work with food entrepreneurship based on things that we do on our show. There are some very important issues that our show helps point a ray of illumination towards.
I have a friend who attended a global food sustainability conference and it was the type of crowd that really dislikes food-TV people. And someone got up and said — to huge, thunderous applause — that most dangerous thing out there is these celebrity chefs on TV. And a very famous and well-known, James Beard award-winning food writer got up and defended the genre — even though she’s not a member of that tribe — and said, “Andrew Zimmern’sBizarre Foods does more than everyone in this room combined to spread this message, just based upon its reach.” She changed a lot of minds that day.
I heard about from about 80 people in that room who were texting me furiously on their phones. And this person is a friend of mine, so she’s heard me talk on this a lot — in a world with a food system gone bad, she had pointed out that my show, in urging people to look at alternatives to the typical things that they put on their plates all the day, that to the degree that I can get one person each week to eat a goat or eat some goat or a fish with a head on it instead of farmed salmon or shrimp from a country that has suspicious agriculture practices, etc., etc. — the degree to which we can broaden our food horizons means one less commodity chicken, one less piece of feed-lot beef in the pot at home.
In broadening our choices and engaging in an adventurous sense about eating, we can literally save ourselves. We put a lot of focus on what I call “vanishing breeds.” People who are the last bottles of Coca-Cola® in their desert so to speak, whether it’s the last boat that pulls conch out of Trinidad and Tobago, where there used to be thousands, or the only octopus fisherman in South Carolina — there are the stories that we like to tell. We have some very, very serious messaging in our program and that’s the thing I am most proud of.
CGM: You are also an accomplished journalist, which makes you a natural storyteller, and that’s key for a chef. To be able to tune into what makes people tick, what makes them come back for more, what makes them return to a restaurant or continue to buy a product in tough economic times. So was it a natural evolution for you to want to get out of the kitchen and into the complete culinary universe?
AZ: My father is the greatest storyteller I know. He was in the advertising business and took me around the world many times by the time I was 12 years old. So when I was very young I ate little snails Bourguignon in Paris and I ate roasted whole baby goat in Spain in the ’60s and I went diving for conch and ate it on the boat when I was seven years old on vacations. Summers we would drive out to our second home in Long Island and surf cast for striped bass and grill it on the beach, and I became enraptured of the world of food.
My father would tell me stories and I would see these things for myself with my own eyes. When you’re 8 years old and sitting under a Roman aqueduct in a restaurant in Valle de Los Caídos in Spain and that restaurant is hundreds of years old and there’s been a restaurant on that site for thousands of years — just not that one that you’re in — and you’re eating something that you’ve never had, and it was the most delicious-tasting roasted meat I’ve ever had, it flipped a switch inside of me and I knew I would be in the food business for the rest of my life. But it also reminded me of the importance of telling the story.
When I was a chef — in the 20 years that I was cooking in restaurants — I always found that food with a story was the one that sold. When I could tell waiters that “this goat comes from a tiny little farm in Minnesota that feeds them milk for an extra month and that’s why the meat is so sweet “— when you’re able to inform, sometimes even with just a sentence, people are intrigued.
If I push a plate of deep-fried baby sparrows in front of you with no editorial, it might look good to you or smell good to you — but to an awful lot of Americans a tiny little deep-fried bird is off-putting. But when I explain to you that in many parts of the worlds, these tiny little baby chicks and ducks are going to be dispatched anyway, that these are tossed in sweet wine and soy sauce, that they cook faster and therefore require less fuel, and are something that has traditionally been eaten as street food for thousand of years in this little neighborhood in Hanoi — when I begin to tell the story of this and the story of the marketplace, all of a sudden it becomes intriguing. And I find that people are then maybe willing to give it try.
And then they’ll see what I see — which is that it’s delicious.
I’m extremely privileged in that I am one of the few people in television who just gets to go out into the world and be themselves. I’ve been doing this my whole life. It’s just that for last five or six years, cameras have been following me around.
This is, at its core, who I am and what I believe in. And I feel so sorry for people who want to be in the television business and they’re not actors but they still wind up assuming a role. They’re great presenters or they’re great on-camera personalities, but it would be like me hosting a show about thoroughbred racing. Could I do it? Sure. Would I be fun and funny as the host of a show about thoroughbred racing? Absolutely. Would it be genuine, would it be who I am? I love horses and I love things that go fast — but it’s not in my blood. It’s not who I am.
The fact is, what comes from the heart reaches the heart, and what I hear most often from my show or about Tony Bourdain’s show — to give a plug to one of my favorite shows on TV and also my compatriot at work — we are who we are.
Bizarre Foods America premieres Monday, Jan. 23, at 10/9pm CT on Travel Channel.
Photos: Travel Channel