Zimmern has done it all when it comes to the culinary world. This James Beard
Award-winner, accomplished writer, chef and teacher is arguably the most
gastronomically adventurous TV personality and America has grown to love his
oddly indulgent adventures around the globe on his series, Bizarre Foods.
Zimmern’s decided to ditch his passport
this time and dedicate his time to taking viewers through the backyards of
America. In his new show, Bizarre Foods America, Zimmern explores the unique melting pot of the exotic and the familiar,
showcasing what the USA has to offer.
This domestic culinary tour begins on Monday, January 23 at 10 PM EST on The Travel Channel, and recently he shared some insight into how the US stacks up against the world in the way of bizarre foods.
Why did you decide to dedicate a full season of Bizarre Foods to the United States?
I’ve spent a lifetime on the road sort of telling stories and every time I would sit in interviews I would always talk about the opportunities here in America for telling some of those same kind of stories. And it always fascinated me in ethnic enclaves around this country especially how waves of immigration would keep food honest. And just because something is honest and authentic doesn’t necessarily make it good but it surely gives you the best opportunity for it to be good, especially if you’re a food and culture junkie like myself.
So as I was
examining sort of what makes our show tick, one of the things that I always put
up on the bulletin board when I’m trying to teach people about the culture of
our program is the idea that we make the unfamiliar familiar.
And at the same time we found that there was an insane level of curiosity about domestic locations. Whenever we would do them they would rate extraordinarily well. There was a fascination that Americans have with seeing pictures and stories about themselves. It dates back to (Alexus Detofield)’s time. I mean, we are - in America we are obsessed with ourselves. So I decided to merge all those things together and do a domestic season of Bizarre Foods.
The network thought it was a good idea, everyone got really excited about it. And I think what makes it even more charming is that, when I’m in tribal Africa and I’m eating grilled wild giant porcupine people are fascinated with it, but there’s a little bit of a disconnect I imagine because to them it’s good watching, but it’s not possible to be doing.
Here in this country when I go down to New Orleans for example and take people on a tour of the largest Vietnamese community in the world outside of Vietnam -- yes it’s in New Orleans -- and all you hear is Vietnamese spoken and in the backyard gardens you could swear you’re in Central Vietnam.
I think it creates an opportunity for folks not only to appreciate the beauty of our country but they can actually get out there and see and taste the things that we’re doing. So it’s a particularly thrilling and rewarding season in that sense, to discover and rediscover parts of America and present it to my fans and hopefully to new ones.
Can you talk a little bit about what is it
about bizarre foods - what makes someone want to eat a bizarre food?
I’m fascinated about what food is and as a professional chef I like to catalog libraries of flavors. I mean, that’s my stock and trade. It’s like a painter wanting to know about more colors and more types of canvas or other types of media. It’s like a musician with different instruments or notes or something that can make certain new sounds. The second thing that I found most interesting as a closet intellectual is, why is it that in our country when you say the word bat nobody thinks it’s possible to eat one. But in northern Vietnam or Cambodia or the Pacific Islands, you say the word bat and everybody gets excited and the children start running for the kitchen.
It’s a cultural thing. And that intersection of what makes food possible to me is the most central part of why we do what we do -- to examine that question and be able to tell stories about a culture through the food to me is what it’s all about. I am obsessed with food and with eating. I have been in the food business since I was 14 years old. So to have the opportunity to sit on a street corner in a suburb of Louisiana and have a Vietnamese grandpa make me duck blood pizza the same way his grandparents made it for him when he was a kid in Dien Bien Phu is to me what a food life is all about.
And I think it makes for great television and it makes for great teaching. I mean, I have a responsibility to tell stories. At a certain point in my career I developed a platform and once you have a platform I think you have a responsibility to tell certain types of stories and illuminate certain pathways.
In terms of highlights from the year I got to do some really cool stuff. I got to go gigging for frogs and crayfish and cook up a bunch of rabbits and the rest of the stuff that we trap with my friend (Don Link) in Rayne, Louisiana at the Zaunbrecher Farm, his traditional family farm, something that I have wanted to do for years. You know, great highlight.
I got to go to Austin, Texas and taste some of the world’s great barbeque and spend some time with farmers like (Sebastian Boneau) who raises his pigeons and his rabbits and his chickens and his ducks with an eye for how they’re going to be cooked and actually changes his feed seasonally so that his skin crisps up and is more golden than his competitors. I got to go into the water in Seattle in the far reaches of Puget Sound and actually plant geoduck clams and then harvest them, six years later, thanks to the miracle of TV. We went to the other end of the Sound and went to another plot that is farmed by the Taylor Shellfish Company and get six year old geoducks out of the ground that I - that we then took and cooked.
I got to go into famous kitchens with people like Nathan Myhrvold, the author of Modernist Cuisine. I got to do a lot of hunting in West Virginia, one of my favorite states in the country to visit. I got to go fishing with a bow and arrow in Minnesota Lake country with a bunch of guys who go out at 1:00 in the morning to shoot 50-pound monster carp with bows and arrows.
And then I actually got to eat one, a fish that most people consider inedible and liked it because there’s a guy who finally figured out how to smoke it skin side up to purge it of all of its fat. So we really had some amazing experiences in our show this season. We have - oh gosh, let’s see, I think it’s 16 episodes plus a special that we’re doing this year and it’s a really cool season.
How do you get over the fear of eating strange things and how do you know exactly what is edible and not edible?
Well when it’s edible and not edible I just ask the people that I’m with. I mean, I’m not just strolling down the highway and putting bark that I find on the ground into my mouth I mean there is a greater purpose to my visits. I’m with people who are experts and they are exposing me to things. Sometimes I’m exploring on my own. Certainly we do more of that in this season because it’s a little easier for me to navigate America than it is the jungle market in Laos. But in terms of how I get over the fear, I never had any. I mean, as a little kid growing up in New York I ate tongue at my grandmother’s on the weekends and, sauteed calves liver and did all the things that I think we sort of lost touch with in this generation with awful and with certain foods that aren’t as popular these days.
I would always tell my friends when I was in high school and they were ordering a roast beef sandwich at a deli and I ordered a tongue sandwich and they would look at me like I’m crazy. I’m like have you ever tried it? And they’re like oh no, it’s gross. I’m like it tastes like pot roast. The best cut of beef on the animal is the tongue. And, if they weren’t interested so be it.
But I was always fascinated by those types of foods. And you’ve got to remember, what’s weird to some people is wonderful to another. Famously I sat in Africa one day and had a (Lawaneka) tribes person insist that Americans were crazy because we let milk rot and then dried it into little squares and ate it.
If you told Americans that there were people who thought cheese was disgusting they would laugh at you but there are a lot of people who do think cheese is disgusting. And that’s fine. They don’t like it.
Has there ever been anything that
you refused to eat?
I have refused something. I’m just remembering twice there were - I was in a slum in Delhi and we were eating street food and there was a brown sludgy water coming out of a spigot in the wall on the street and someone served me something with a few tablespoons of that water. They served these traditional little chop, these crispy snacks, and then they drizzle water on it to loosen it. And I knew it was going to be a trip to the hospital so I passed on that.
And I passed once on some moldy chicken intestines that I just thought was another trip to the hospital. Those are the only two things I have ever refused to eat.
Since you have traveled so much I was wondering is there any type of ethnic food served in the U.S. that is really different in the way it’s served than in its native country?
Wow, well every ethnic food community here has had cuisine that has been altered to suit certain tastes. I’ll give you an interesting example and you’ll see what I mean. In the 1870s some of the best Italian food in the world was found in St. Paul, Minnesota because there were so many Italian immigrants coming straight from the eastern cities, getting on trains, coming out to America - to the heartland and staying there to work in the lumber industry, the wood making and furniture making, things like that.
About 15 years later they stopped immigrating out there and Scandinavians took over. So at that point you had these Italian immigrants who had opened restaurants and instead of cooking for waves of Italians they were cooking for Lutheran Swedes. So the food stopped being very - the Italian food stopped being very good. You see that everywhere, everywhere.
However, in America the opposite is also true. Because we have so many wonderful for example Mexican and Central American communities here, if you’re looking for a great (tacoria), great (mafungo), great (cosuelas) of braised pork, with chilies from Columbia, you go on and on. You can find the best examples of it here.
And in fact there are many people who argue and rightfully so that when it comes to certain dishes because of the quality of our ingredients here that in certain Chinese or Thai restaurants for example the average quality in great Chinese restaurants here in America may be tastier than great Chinese restaurants in China because of the provenance and quality of the ingredients.
It’s a fascinating argument to make and it’s something that people like me debate over dinner tables all the time. But it does really flip flop both ways in terms of quality and quantity and what’s dumbed down and what is a good example of ethnic cuisine. I mean, look, there’s bad food in Paris. I mean, there’s bad food in Rome. Less of it than there is, in Pittsburgh but it happens.
Of all the places you have been in the
United States what would be a couple of cities that you would really encourage
people to visit that you don’t think they are visiting so much?
Oh my gosh, the first thing I would do is, I mean, I’ve been on this rant about West Virginia because of the mountainous topography doesn’t even have big cities. Its two largest cities are still measured in the low single digit hundreds of thousands. Ninety nine percent of the population lives in small, teeny little towns hidden and tucked away in little hollers and notches and gulches.
So, if you want to still visit communities that live the way that we did in past generations, West Virginia is gorgeous. From a traveler’s standpoint every time you come around a curve and see a different river, a different mountainside, a different little town built into a hill. I just think that from, September through November there is no better place that I’d rather be than traveling through West Virginia.
There are places, it’s also become an outdoorsy sort of Mecca for people who are into rafting and mountain climbing and hiking and hunting. So there is now an infrastructure to support tourism there. And I’m just - every time I’m there I’m charmed. I mean, it’s one of the few places in America that whenever I visit I’m always looking at real estate ads. And I get to go everywhere.
I love, absolutely love Texas. Obviously a lot of people are going there and there’s a huge, huge amount of tourism for the music and the food scene in Austin. But I can’t get enough of it and I still bump into a lot of people that don’t go.
Central Florida, everyone goes down to the - to Southeastern coast of Florida, obviously people love the beaches. But Central Florida is I don’t know, I find it infinitely charming. And they are very proud of their cracker culture.
The Sea Islands obviously are very popular but I think, more people say oh yes, I love the islands in Coastal Carolinas without actually going there. South Carolina to me is one of those hidden gems as well.
I also have to give a plug for my home state. I think that the Minnesota/Wisconsin/Iowa tri-state area is today one of the most vibrant and exciting places to visit in our country. What used to be flyover country is now dictating I think a lot of what happens and is taste making.
We find it warmly ironic that the things that we’ve been doing for years there in Minnesota, canning, pickling, the home arts, making your own bacon, is stuff that everyone’s grandma does in Minnesota.
And I think Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Twin Cities, are now the 14th largest metro in the country if I’m correct with a food scene that is second and takes a back seat to no one regardless of what style of cooking you want. I think three of the last four regional James Beard winners in our category came from there.
And I just think that from a food and travel standpoint, Minnesota is a place that needs to be checked out. The Lakes Country, the boundary waters, I’m really - I love where I live.
When you go to a new place what do you look for to highlight it?
Well actually it works a different way. The thing that’s most important to me are stories that are relevant to the culture. That’s what we’re there to do. And I like to tell those stories through food so I have to be able to find places that are relevant to that and that achieve my goal, right?
So we tend to
develop stories first and when we get enough of them we can then go to that
place if that sort of makes sense. Nowadays with, research techniques
and the advent of the Internet and certainly it was easier to research this
season because you can hop on the phone and call a lot more people in today
than you can where you’re trying to network with people in Mongolia. It - we were
able to find some really, really vibrant stories. But that’s basically how it
Do you recall the first bizarre food you ever tried?
Yes. I was about two years old. I had finally had my little teeth set and I ate what I think is probably the most disgusting bizarre food of them all, it’s called a commercial American hot dog. The government has laws that protect the companies who make them from telling us what’s in them. God I love answering that question.
With another of your shows. Can you tell us what the
crowd that’s going to gather downtown for the shooting can expect?
Well, I do - I have a whole bunch of projects that I work on. One of the things that I do is a series called Appetite for Life that this year airs on both msn.com, it’s there right now, and on travelchannel.com. It’s sponsored by my good friends at Toyota. And I make about 25 of these webisodes a year and it’s some of my favorite television that I make.
And for those that don’t know, we have a season that’s airing right now but we also have a new season that starts shooting in about two weeks and one of my stops is in Baton Rouge where I’m doing I think a cook-off fundraiser if I remember correctly.
Right now I’m consumed with our Los Angeles show so you probably know a little bit more about it than I do. We did the pre-production a couple of months ago and then it sits on my desk waiting for me to grab that file and get on an airplane.
But I’m excited to get going and cooking there and I’m doing a couple of public events down in Baton Rouge. So folks down there can pay attention to my Twitter feed which is @andrewzimmern. It’s always the best way to see what I’m doing and where I’m going.
Is there a classic American dish that you think is our
national bizarre food that just everywhere just doesn’t translate?
No. I get annoyed when food writers write about things like new America cuisine and stuff. We still haven’t really developed an American cuisine fully to even have a new American cuisine. Usually they’re talking about modernist European cuisine created with American farmhouse ingredients from the 19th century so it’s a little bit of a disingenuous subject.
The most popular foods in our country, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, are all things that came from somewhere else. Traditional first people’s food of the Americas which is something that I have explored oh God, probably in six or seven states now with about nine different tribes of what are conventionally referred to as American Indians have cooked a whole variety of things.
And usually it’s very, very simple roasted and boiled meats that are seasoned with local herbs. And in some cases - I was just with the Pueblo in Santa Fe, outside of Santa Fe about two hours into the mountains and had prairie dogs that they stuffed with the wild cedar and grilled fur on over an open coal the same way they have been doing it for 1000 years.
And while that might seem somewhat shocking to some people, the flavor of if you were at (El Bulli) last year and you had, a wild Spanish rabbit that had been cured on a bed of juniper and then roasted on a fire, everyone would be jealous that I had an opportunity to eat that meal. Basically it was th home cooked version of that is what I had with the Pueblo Indians. And so I find those kind of things very, very exciting.
But as far as first people’s food being exported there’s just not a lot of opportunity for it. Most things come into this country, very little goes out. In fact one of the stories that we told a couple of times in our show is actually a sad one which is whether it’s in the Philippines, Vietnam, Russia, the Middle East, South Africa, South America, you name it.
I always come across a community with an incredibly rich food tradition where the kids don’t know how to cook the food anymore and don’t like the food anymore because American and European fast food chains have opened in the village 20 miles down the road and that’s where they go to eat.
I remember when I was - the last time I was in (Schion) in China, a big city, I mean, 9 million people or so. And the only restaurant you couldn’t get a reservation in was the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s.
What do you eat in the Zimmern house for dinner and how bizarre is it -- or is it just meat and potatoes at home?
We eat meat and potatoes at home. My wife is from a Minnesota farm community and obviously my son is as adventurous as I am because he doesn’t know any other way to eat.
I mean, the issue that I have in our house is that, I mean, my friends at (unintelligible) or some farm somewhere will send me a pig’s head and I’ll throw it on the barbeque and roast it. And we’ll sit there and pick all the meat off of it and my son rolls them into tortillas and makes little tacos. And I dip them in spicy mustard and my wife, wants me to cut out the cheeks and put it for her on her plate so that it looks like what she calls normal food.
I mean, we sautee calves liver in our house with onions and vinegar. Some people will think that’s strange. We eat sweet breads. We, I mean, eat game birds and stuff like that.
But, when I’m doing my - when I’m in tribal Africa I eat, (kudu). When I’m down in, West Virginia I’ll eat squirrel. When I’m at home in Minnesota in my own kitchen it’s not the Andrew Zimmern Show.
I come home from the office after picking up the dry cleaning and my wife has cooked dinner for my son and I is usually how it works. I don’t know if there’s any married folks with families on the line but, I mean, I live a pretty normal existence when I’m not, when daddy’s not at his day job.
What is your favorite not bizarre food to eat?
My favorite not bizarre food, oh my gosh. I was just talking to someone the other day if I had to have one last meal it would be, roast chicken with stuffing and gravy and I would have preceded it with as many cherry stone clams on the half shell as I could eat.
Every show, every show I come back and I do something. I cannot wait to start stuffing animals and roasting them on the grill -- right now it’s a little cold in Minnesota for outdoor cookery -- with cedar chips and with other green wood that I have in my backyard that I learned in Santa Fe.
I’m getting ready to cook a pop up dinner this Friday in Los Angeles and I’m using techniques that I learned in Santa Fe about braising tongue with red chilies that I learned at a ceremony where they cook an entire pig.
So, I mean, it’s
all around me. I’m using a technique for working with geoduck that I learned in
Seattle last summer. I mean, I’m constantly growing and evolving. And as a chef
I love cooking what I have just been most fascinated about.
Did you notice
any new food trends or items that will be food trends coming season?
I think something that’s going to keep growing and growing and growing is the meat tarts, I mean, whether it’s charcuterie, salami, things like that. I mean, artisanal butcher movement has not even begun to run its course yet.
I think southern food pathways are going to become more and more popular. I mean look at what guys like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, the Lee Brothers, Josh Besh, Don Link and I mean, I could keep going on and on and name chefs in the six or seven state region that are just going to keep making their food more and more popular.
But I think probably the biggest national food trend that you’re going to see over the next two years in our country is the influence of Korean cuisine. I just think in America we cyclically rotate through all the Asian cuisines and I think up next is Korea’s turn.