Andrew Zimmern gets it. While the original premise of his show Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel seemed to be “dude goes someplace; eats weird sh*t” the end product has always been a rebellion against that sort of oversimplification. Like his late friend Anthony Bourdain, Zimmern’s goal was to reveal the connective power of eating together and the core values all humans share, even while living widely disparate lives.
It wasn’t only in philosophy that Bourdain and Zimmern were connected. They also shared a history of struggles with drugs and alcohol and a willingness to talk openly about addiction. This common ground, plus their mutual understanding of the celebrity machine, drew them close. Zimmern, who has been sober for more than two decades, has spoken openly in recent weeks about just how personal and painful the loss has been.
All that considered, it was a deeply reflective chef who I spoke to earlier this week as he gears up for a new season of Bizarre Foods launching Tuesday (9 pm on the Travel Channel). We talked about his loss, the values he’s fighting for, and the way he sees our current administration perceived outside of the country. At the end of our conversation, we finally got to talk about this season of his show, which focuses on historic “trails” — from the Pony Express route to the Underground Railroad. Along the way, Zimmern trades tall tales, eats everything put in front of him, and, as ever, reminds us that treating one another with humanity often starts with a meal.
I’m going to cut right to the chase, and talk about the thing that I think affected us both profoundly since the last time we talked, and that is the death of Anthony Bourdain. How are you doing with that?
Much better than I was a couple weeks ago. I think the first ten days … Well, the first ten days were awful. The first three or four days, I can’t … Only when my child was very ill do I ever remember being as distraught and unsettled, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that over the last, I don’t know, two years, we had been communicating fairly regularly through text and phone call, and we were talking a lot about relationships, and children, and pretty serious things.
He was extremely happy in his life, verbally talking about it a lot. And so when this happened, it just… on one hand, didn’t make sense to me, but I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I’ve been sober 27 years, so there are regularly people who leave my world by their own hand, and I lose a lot of other people under a lot of goofy circumstances, and it’s something that I deal with often, and I have an incredible support group and support system with my friends, and my colleagues. I do not lead a compartmentalized life and I’m very transparent about a lot of things — because I have a lot of mental health issues, and I have to live that way.
After those difficult first days, how are are you holding up now?
In the ensuing weeks, what has become readily apparent to me, because I have been talking about it with so many people, and so many people are asking me about it, is how many people, especially in my industries, the entertainment industry, and in the food world, don’t have any daily practice or daily spiritual system. They don’t have a yoga. They don’t have something that allows them to match any calamity that life fires at them with some semblance of serenity and calm.
Life is fired at everyone the same way: point blank range. We never get a warning. Parents are dying, kids are getting sick. You’re getting fired, you’re getting promoted. You’re getting married, you’re getting divorced. You can pull into the driveway with everything in your life being perfect, and think to yourself, “You know something? I’ve got the world by the balls,” and walk in the door, and find that your world has completely unraveled.
No one’s immune to that. Rich, poor, black, white, no one is singled out as having insurance against life’s slings and arrows. And so you very, very much need to have something that holds you tethered to this ground for when really, really scary shit happens.
On one hand, I was very grateful I have it. On the other hand, I desperately want to help people who don’t have access to some kind of activity, or way of looking at the world, so they can make sense of life when things get really bad. Because I think it’s the only way as human beings we can survive and thrive.