Andrew Zimmern is widely referred to as a “globalist,” rather than merely a chef or television personality. Zimmern consistently bridges cultures and raises awareness through his show, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, where he brings food from unfamiliar cultures around the world straight to our television sets. In a world where sustainability has become a key issue, a show largely based on the concept of “one culture’s trash is another culture’s treasure,” has only become more and more relevant.
Recently, Zimmern has forgone his passport and moved the show to America, where he proves that these explorative foods largely thought of as ‘bizarre” are right outside our front doors. Zimmern hosts a commercial television show that attracts a huge following, while also pushing viewers out of their comfort zones each episode; usually one comes at the expense of the other. Zimmern manages to make it all possible though. Also a highly popular freelance journalist, as well as a gifted chef, Zimmern’s quest to make all of us more open-minded and aware is a successful one. Between donkey meat in Beijing, and cow udders in Bolivia, this global icon found some time to sit down with us here at The New Potato, for a trip around the world…
Can you describe your ideal food day?
Oh my gosh, my ideal food day. I actually have a chapter in my book about this. I’ve been blessed to have so many, yet I find that none have yet to beat one day I had in Paris.
I went to three bakeries in the morning: Poilane Bakery; the bread came out at 5 AM. Then I went to Ladureé and had macaroons. Then Pierre Herme for another round of pastries. This was all before 9 AM.
Fauchon had opened, so we went and browsed and snacked. At lunch I met with Hervé This, a physical chemist behind the movement of molecular gastronomy. He gave me a private lesson in molecular gastronomy at the French Institute for Agricultural Research in Paris.
We went for a walk and shared bread and cheese. Then, in the next eight hours, I went to a few Michelin star restaurants. The first was Hotel Balzac, where I spent an hour in kitchen with Pierre Gagnaire. Then I went to Restaurant Michel Rostang.
I still pinch myself that I did all that in a day. But you know, I have many contrasts to that. I could contrast that to when I’d go to Japan, catch fish with the fisherman and eat with them on the boat. I’m not a snob. It’s just that the Paris day was remarkable. I also went to Botswana and Namibia and hunted and roasted bush meat with the tribesmen over a bonfire, which is incredibly rare. I’ll never be able to do that again. The Paris day I could recreate or try to. But eating porcupine with the tribesmen in the baba hills; I’ll never have the chance to do that again.
We definitely could be more explorative/less wasteful here food wise, but how can we realistically translate things like silkworm larvae in Hanoi and porcupine in Africa to a family dinner in America?
Oh my god so easily. We’re so ignorant, close-minded and limited in this country about food. It’s tragic and it’s killing us. There’s such a problem with health and wellness; we have such a narrow wheel of choices. If everyone would just give up meat once a week, and keep the heads on your fish once a week…We are the only culture that rips the heads off of shrimp when they come in and then freeze them. It’s so weird – really ridiculous. If we would just eat small fish and keep the heads on once a week, have alternative poultry protein like duck or goose, eat goat a couple times a month; If everyone would just do one of these things even once a month, we could take the pressure off of these commodity farms. It’s this American bloodlust for cheap commoditized food that’s become an addiction. It’s shocking how few families will go meatless once a week.
Is that why you decided to move Bizarre Foods to the US this year? Does it have a lot to do with getting that message across about the eating habits of Americans?
I’m always trying to open peoples’ eyes to what’s going on in the world. Everyone talks about how New Orleans is one of their favorite food cities. I love New Orleans. No one remembers that there’s a huge Vietnamese population in New Orleans. To stretch those boundaries is the healthiest thing we can do.
The fear of these foods – and especially feeding it to your kids – comes from bacteria concerns from food-borne illnesses. As someone who’s travelled everywhere and eaten everything, how real are these concerns?
Look, they exist. But let me tell you, there’s a greater chance a child will get sick when you take him or her to a hotel buffet in downtown Minneapolis – or a major hotel in any city. There is a better chance of them getting sick from that than from anything I eat on my show.
Why is that?
Because I’m eating the freshest food, raised under natural conditions that aren’t pathogenically compromised. If you go and hunt an animal in the jungle, that animal has eaten the best food and has drank the freshest water. You take it and butcher it under a tree; you’re butchering it in the safest conditions. It’s under the sunlight. This way has kept us healthy for thousands of years! But you take meat and you process it; you heat it and cool it, you heat it and cool it; you handle it; you heat it, you cool it. It’s absolutely terrible for the food. There is so much room for human error. Too much is processed. And let me tell you something else; when you see the street food or markets in places around the world, these people aren’t cooking for gringos. They’re cooking for their neighbors and family. They don’t get them sick. That’s why I always tell people that are traveling; just go to the most popular local place. It’s faultless – bulletproof even.
So what in your opinion, are the biggest problems concerning health in America?
The biggest problem is the commodization of the food system. Cheap and fast does not make good.
How do other countries view our diets in general? Does the “Bizarre Foods” notion go both ways?
Of course. We take perfect milk, let it rot and dry and call it cheese. Another disagreement I get into with vehement “lippy” people in this country is this: they make fun of me for “weird” food I eat on the show, when they eat supermarket hotdogs and frozen chicken breast. That’s just weird to me. That chicken is pathogenically compromised. I enjoy a hotdog; I’ll go to a baseball game with my son and have a hotdog. But that hotdog is [made up of] ground up parts from a company that the government is protecting from having to tell you what’s in it. That’s weird.
In traveling the globe for Bizarre Foods, there’s an idea of “one culture’s trash is another culture’s treasure.” Could you talk a bit about that concept?
I want to alert the world that instead of talking about our differences, we might do well to talk about the things we have in common, and one of those things is food. We all have to eat. If we can love someone’s pupusas or spicy seaweed, it may make us more tolerant of that culture – their beliefs, their politics. It’s about broadening those food choices in all ways and it’s crucial for our survival.
You many times say, we as Americans can’t envision eating that because we haven’t experienced it. For those that won’t be traveling anytime soon, how can they bring this concept into their own backyard?
I understand the question but don’t agree with the premise of it. I take someone on a food crawl to the Hmong neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota (there’s a vibrant Hmong community there). They can’t believe where they are. With a ladder you could see the state capital; if you squinted you’d be 6,000 miles away. You only hear people talking in Hmong. I take them to the markets and the street vendors. People just need to get off their rear ends and drive around. We live in a country where you’re on Main Road, USA and you turn the corner and you’re in Egypt, or Russia or Chile. There’s ethnicity all around us.
What can restaurateurs and chefs do more of in terms of sustainability and bringing that exploration and open-mindedness to their restaurants, while maintaining the popularity of their establishment?
They’re doing it. The Chef and Restaurateur community is at the tip of the spear. Through their curiosity, grace under pressure and passion, they spread the gospel of new explorative foods. They’re constantly reinventing and discovering foods for the public to see.
Do you wish there were more people on TV bringing things to light? What do you think of what other people are doing in Food TV in general?
I think the vast majority gets it wrong. There are “Eatertainment” shows that I really could not care less for. Competitive shows; some are better than others, but most are not doing anything to add to the conversation. I’m not a serious person; I make an entertainment program as well. But I deal with the devil. I do the stuff I need to do to keep my show alive and vital, just so I can get some messaging through it. Most shows have no meaning or message, and if you don’t have a message, why do it? I don’t get that. Someone like Anthony Bourdain really does fantastic stuff. I admire him greatly.
If the sky was the limit, and you opened a Bizarre Foods restaurant where you could somehow have your everyday pick of those foreign delicacies that Americans cringe at from all around the globe, how do you think it would do?
I would go to Beijing where there’s a restaurant that specializes in donkey meat (Restaurant Qun-Sheng-Shi-Jia-Can-Yin) and take some of those guys back with me and open up a donkey restaurant. People would be blown away. It tastes like veal – healthy, delicious and good for you. It’s a miracle meat. Honestly, if we don’t start eating like that and expanding what we eat, eating things that take less land, less time to mature, and get off of this commodity beef system…we’re running out of land. We become increasingly unhealthy year after year. You know we have a starvation issue in this world. If we don’t start embracing those other proteins…we’re killing ourselves.
To view Andrew Zimmern’s recipe for One Pot Sticky Chicken Wings, click here