Andrew Zimmern has lived a life. He’s an renowned chef, a hugely successful TV host, and a prominent voice in the world of food writing. In an age when hovering PR teams and staying “on message” have made being famous seem bland, Zimmern calls it how he sees it and isn’t afraid to let words fly. On the phone, he comes across as both down-to-earth and big-hearted. He’s also very open about his more difficult times — in order to help those struggling with addictions of their own.
Zimmern participated in our Uproxx 20 series back in April, but with Bizzarre Foods: Delicious Destinations set to premiere tonight on the Travel Channel, we caught up with him again to talk entrails, travel philosophy, and building a culture of tolerance.
Travel and food have become synonymous. Do you think that this interest in new foods, jumpstarted by shows like yours, has turned people into more thoughtful, experimental travelers?
I think we’ve always traveled that way. It’s just that it’s never been fetishized like it is now. People collect food experiences the way they used to collect baseball cards — it’s an unbelievable experiential collectable. As American travelers, we absorb other cultures first through our mouths. Then we’ll allow ourselves to be exposed to their music, and their dance, and, God forbid, their people. Sarcasm intended. So yes, I do think we’re becoming more culturally aware and the way we’re becoming most culturally aware is through food. I’m flattered to be considered part of a group that’s created interest in that.
Do you feel like people watch you thinking, “That guy will eat whatever! I’m not going to eat that, but I like to watch him do it.”
I sold Travel Channel a Trojan Horse. One way to look at it is “fat guy travels around and eats bugs.” There are some people who still view it that way. But after the nine or ten years I think people have seen that the food is irrelevant. I don’t care if it’s a taco in Mexico City or a piece of rotted bushmeat in the Aha Hills of Botswana. The show is about the people. More importantly, it’s about increasing patience, tolerance, and understanding with people around the world. My show is about the things we have in common like food and not the things that divide us like skin color, religion, or sexuality.
Have you eaten foods where you think “Okay, I’m game to try this, but it’s awful”?
Every day. There are a lot of times in the show where I’d much rather be a better guest just trying things and less of a snarky TV host who has to react. I want to continue to encourage people to be a noble traveler and a great example of their own culture. I’ve also had plenty of experiences where I didn’t immediately like something then, over time, came to like it. Something like the thousand year old egg, where I’ve come to love it gradually as an ingredient in other dishes and now I’m finally able to enjoy it on its own.
The palette grows and develops and your show is definitely a part of that — so what are your “bizarre foods for beginners”?
I’m proud about whatever small role I’ve played in increasing our nation’s appetite for new foods. I think anytime you can increase your choices it’s really important. I tell folks to head to their neighborhood ethnic restaurants. I love Asian foods so I push my friends to try small fish with the heads on or prawns with the heads on. Beef tripe or intestine is difficult as a starter point but liver, lungs, kidneys and heart are absolutely delicious. There’s nothing gamey or off-putting about them at all. I encourage people to go to Asian or Latin restaurants where those dishes are a big part of the culture and they know how to properly prepare them. When I meet people who won’t try scrapple from Pennsylvania Dutch community, or sisig (which is a Filipino dish made of chopped hog face and liver), I remind them that terrine in a French Bistro is essentially the same thing combined differently. The short answer is “make yourself order something that you wouldn’t order with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Jim.”
What are some of your favorite destinations, whether on the show or without cameras running?
We’ve never shot a show in Costa Rica, but that’s a favorite spot for my family and I. We’ve never shot in Belgium or Holland (although that’s changing in a few weeks) but I love those parts of the world because they’re uncrowded and less varnished compared to their Southern European counterparts. One place that I haven’t been in a long time and want to return to is Croatia — which to me is a paradise. The Croatian culture, especially the south western part of the country around Split, is like Italy the way it was 200 years ago. The food, the people, the natural beauty…it’s low cost too. It’s one of those places I would return again and again.
Do you think going through the things you’ve gone through and enduring periods where you didn’t have enough have turned you into a more appreciative traveler who really feels deep gratitude for the generosity of strangers?
I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and one of the tools we use to stay sober is developing and practicing an attitude of gratitude. So gratitude is baked inside of me. The more interesting side to that equation is that travel is transformative. When we travel we do things that we’d never do at home. We’re more inquisitive, we take more risks, we’re kinder to strangers. We open ourselves up more. Folks who don’t travel are very very trapped in life. I don’t mean that you need to empty the bank account and run to Europe. If you live in Toledo you can hop in the car and drive to Lake Country in Michigan and have an incredible experience over the course of a weekend. Just going to the other side of town makes you ask questions, try something new, experiment. Those habits are how we grow. For some reason we often stop doing those things and become know-it-alls. In a world that needs fewer know-it-alls, travel provides that growth. At home, I’m a softy. When I’m on the road, I’m one of the ballsiest motherfuckers that I know. In Samoa, I got on a rickety boat and risked life and limb to cross a section of open water in 40-foot seas because I wanted to get to the uninhabited island on the other side. We go out there and do things that teach us something, then (most importantly) we export it back in to our lives at home. We’re better versions of selves on the road but we bring some of that back home — we’re kinder, more patient, and more appreciative. It’s another way that traveling pays dividends that other activities don’t.
Any packing tips or travel hacks that you’ve picked up since doing the show?
I think I’m a rare bird, I have an entire set of luggage that never gets unpacked. It’s ready and waiting. I’d advise people to at least get a second toilet article bag and fill it. Why bother unpacking? Just keep going. I’m also a more is more person. I’m a rare breed that way, I don’t want to be without certain things. I want my choices. There’s nothing worse that not having the right pair of pants or shoes. I tell people, as a guy, if you don’t have a nice blazer you’re making a big mistake.
So what are the things you can’t live without?
I bring survival gear. I think we’ve lost touch with part of our personhood. 100 years ago, people knew how to kill an animal, they knew how to start a fire. That classic “personhood” — or for me, since I’m a guy, the “guyhood” — skill set has disappeared. I kind of represent a group of men who knows how to do that stuff. So there are certain things that you bring with you in case something bad happens. If you see me on the plane, and there’s trouble, I’m a good person to hang out with.
You’re making a show for an audience with excess when a lot of the people in places you visit are struggling at a subsistence level. Is it tough to balance those two things out?
What I try to explain to viewers is that it’s our American ethnocentric racist bullshit that makes us think that people who have less are somehow worth less. There is opportunity poverty certainly in some of the places I go, but they don’t look at opportunity the same way either. Look at the places I’ve been in Africa: there are things that are shocking to American viewers, but if you turn to someone in a village who seems to have nothing and you ask “Dude, are you happy?”…they’re ecstatic. They’re with their families, fully engaged so that they don’t need luxury cars or all the other bullshit that we spend our lives trying to collect. I just try to remind people that everyone has a different opinion for what they need to be happy and successful in life. It’s another reason traveling helps you learn — because you can’t help but be impacted by that.
Can you share one true act of generosity that was shown to you on the road?
Well, there have been thousands but one that sticks out is from Madagascar. We spent the day with a fisherman, named Java, who had the hardest life of any human I’ve ever known. He had ten kids and every day he went into the Mozambique Straight in a little canoe with a handheld sail. He would collect little fish then use those to bait hand lines so that he could catch bigger fish, spear them, haul them into the boat and cover them with salt because he didn’t have any other way to keep them fresh. Every few months his house would blow away. All he had was a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, and a rusty piece of metal that used to be a knife.
We had wrapped up shooting for the day and Java wanted to cook for us. He apologized for cooking tail of the fish but the head and body had such bigger value that he couldn’t spare them. While we were there, his wife went to corner of the house and dug in the earth to reveal a small box. Inside of the box was a grayish-white powder which she mixed into chipped cups filled with boiled water. The water was from the same pot that she had cooked the rice in, so there was some cooked rice in there too. When she handed it to me, it took me a minute or two to realize what she was offering. It was 15-year-old instant coffee which had completely lost its flavor. She had hidden it away, protected for a long time, and saved it for a special guest because for her it had such high value. I just started crying watching as she went through this process. It was one of the most beautiful and sweet things I’ve ever seen and a very humbling experience.