We like Andrew Zimmern around these parts. A lot. His approach to life speaks to qualities which we hope to celebrate — curiosity, love for the world, and critical thinking — and his enthusiasm is infectious. Perhaps because he rose to fame well into adulthood, Zimmern has managed to remain humble, down to earth, and bracingly honest, in spite of his success. He doesn’t trade in platitudes, hold his tongue, or suffer fools.
Those qualities — rare in a media-trained world — made the following interview tough to trim down. Particularly when so many of the TV host’s answers touch on major issues of the moment. It’s a long read, but we promise it’s loaded with gems.
Awhile back, you posted a story of mine about Black Lives Matter and the police — how it’s not mutually exclusive to support both of them — on Facebook… And you got slaughtered for it. There was a lot of support too, but some of the responses, whew!
I remember. The most horrifying responses that I get in social media are from people saying, “Stick to food.” Usually it’s, “Stick to food, you miserable fat fuck.” Ninety times out of 100, that comes from somebody who’s got 10 followers on Twitter. They follow 10 people but they have 20,000 tweets.
Is that just the price of being a celebrity engaged in political conversations?
Every week there’s a different person savaging me. Posting 10, 12 times a day. Especially on Twitter. The beauty of being an American is everyone can voice their feelings and opinions about things. I would never tell those people to cease and desist. Yet they feel really comfortable telling vocal celebrities to shut up — from Tom Colicchio and myself in the food world, Lizz Winstead and her Lady Parts Justice thing gets a ton of shit too… I mean, look at what happened to Leslie Jones. It’s absolutely unbelievable.
When we published my piece, we thought the idea that you could be pro BLM and pro police was kind of obvious. Then I saw the pushback that you got.
I come from a law enforcement family. The BLM movement and policing are not mutually exclusive. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m always shocked at the lack of perspective that some people have. There was a great piece that I actually retweeted yesterday and I’m blanking on who wrote it but their explanation of this … They spoke to a bunch of cultural and social scientists at some big East Coast university and reported back that there are huge tribes of people that care not a whiff about the facts. That they, to feel good, they have to be part of a hive that rejects certain ideas because to accept them would run counter to their comfortability factor.
I’ve seen that, working on the internet.
A couple of late night shows have showed it, Daily Show and some other people have sent reporters out to … I just saw Randi Kaye do it on CNN last night. Sent reporters out to Trump conventions and just said, “You’re a woman. How you do feel about him with the Miss Piggy comments?” And on, and on, and on, and on, and on. They just look at her and say, “I don’t care.” Or Trump’s assertion that climate change doesn’t exist and it’s the result of a Chinese conspiracy theory. Getting called on it in the debate and saying, “It’s a lie, I never said that.” Then, of course, a million people retweeted his tweet. He actually denied that he said it. He wrote it and pushed it out of his own Twitter account.
When you put those facts in front of someone, they become deniers. It’s almost like accepting the truth is so hard because it would mean changing their value system in such a profound way that it’s almost psychologically impossible. I find that absolutely fascinating.
But, yes, to answer your original question. If you’re a celebrity and you have an opinion, be prepared to get dragged through the gutter.
Particularly, I would imagine, for you — because you have this multi-level appeal. People like me, who skew very left and progressive, I like what you do a lot. It really fits with what I believe, after my career as a travel writer. At the same time, your shows have a great mainstream appeal and hook too. For those people, it’s armchair traveling in the coolest way.
There are two ways people view my shows — and I think we talked about this a little bit the last time, too. You can look at it as “fat white guy goes around the world, eats bugs.” And people love it for that. They’re like, “Oh my god” around the water cooler. “Oh my god, did you see what he shoved into his mouth yesterday? Ugh. But I couldn’t stop watching it. He’s so funny.” They love it, and they tune in in droves.
Then, there’s a whole other group of fans who, if you express that opinion to them, they’d say, “Oh, I don’t really think about that when I watch it. I love how respectful he is to other cultures and the inclusiveness of the show. And the message that, if we can accept another culture’s food, we might accept the other culture’s points of view or religious perspective, or someone else’s sexuality, just accept another culture’s people.”
I mean, we love Mexican food but the jury’s out on Mexicans, as far as many Americans are concerned. Which is sad and the worst kind of ethnocentrism. You’re right to pick up on the two silos of fans that I have, yet I’m not trying to appeal to either one. I’m just putting out a product that I think is fun, and entertaining, and has a message.
And if you can hit the different notes, like you do so well, I think that you can pull people in a different direction. I think that you’ve done a great job with that.
I hope to. It’s scary, though, how many people … Look, I’m out there in the world all the time. I do events. I’m not a cloistered celebrity. I’m a C-list cable guy. I’m out there in the world. A lot of people come up to me, and engage me, and give me that first opinion. I start to talk to them about the real reason I make the show, which is not “fat guy goes around the world, eats bugs.” It’s the secondary equation that I would like people to start applying to their lives. It’s just amazing how resistant and how unwilling to see that so many people are.
You’re fighting the good fight though!
I hope so. Here’s the thing. I think there’s huge groups of people that just wish folks like me would shut up and stick to “what they do.” As I often point out to people, at least once a week in social media, that’s not what this country is about. I think we need to get back to more citizen politicians. I am, obviously, repulsed by everything Trump. However, I think over the last 45, 50 years in America, we’ve gotten away from this idea citizen politicians. Which is, I think, what our founding fathers all were. They saw the value in it. It’s why they set term limits. They never imagined professional politicians. I think they imagined people who were farmers, and doctors, and shopkeepers who would serve and then go back into the private sector.
We’ve developed a much different system several hundred years later. It’d be very interesting. When I’m done with the TV thing, my plan is to run for public office. I think it’s going to be … I literally can’t wait to engage people in this idea of non-professional politicians.
Did you just give Uproxx an exclusive on your political plans?
It’s my plan. I’m not sure if other people … I’ve not held it a secret. I’m so blessed and I have a great job. I believe everyone who has a platform, or some smarts, or the will to do it, should serve in some way. I’m 55, I came of age between wars. I had to sign up for the Selective Service and did so very eagerly. My life took a different direction. My number didn’t get called, I went off to college. It didn’t happen for me and I chose different career paths. I didn’t get a chance to serve in the military. I try to do a ton of good works in my life. Serve on boards and do all the charity work that I can and try to give back as best I can.
I’m fascinated by the idea of political service. I think that our country needs more … Paul Wellstone, who is, before he passed away, still is one of my inspirations, was a teacher at Carleton College. I’m picking Minnesotans here because I’m born here. Al Franken certainly was not a career politician prior to serving. I think both of them were and are brilliant legislators. I can picks hundreds of others who have gone to serve in Washington or locally, in their city or state, who are not professional politicians, or on the track to become one. I think we need refreshing voices, especially at the state and national legislative levels.
You know, the other thing is, and we talked about this last time, and I think it’s important to constantly underscore is, actually, it would almost be asking way to much to ask you not to write about politics or talk about politics because this battle against xenophobia really is probably your life’s work, in many ways.
Correct. It absolutely is. A lot of my fans come to my defense when people say, “Shut up and talk about what you know.” I often respond back with, “I’m 55, I own three businesses in Minnesota, I’m a dad, a taxpayer, a homeowner, and I’m politically engaged. I’m a college graduate so I’ve done some book learning. But most importantly, I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life traveling around the world, studying cultures. So many of the issues today swirl around the stuff that I’ve actually seen.”
I thought it was very funny during the first debate, when Trump brought up the airports in America as being third-world. I think every travel TV host in America, within three minutes, had posted, “Dude, whatever private airport you’re flying into. You have no idea.” As someone who’s been to 167 countries, myself, I said, “You have no idea. American airports are fantastic.” Yes, there are old ones and our political system requires bond bills and large amounts of money. Economies, in some states, have not been robust over the last decade, so we can’t just build airports. He was clearly pointing to some of the new airports in places like Singapore, Jakarta, other places that have these gleaming temples to international travel. The problem with that is that they’ve let the infrastructure of their own countries, the education of their own people, and a lot of their other public service programs be ignored.
I’d rather see us teach more kids to learn or feed more children before I’d build a new airport in America.
Do you think that your travel is what has given you this perspective?
Without a doubt.
Nashville Hot Chicken, from this season of Bizarre Foods Delicious Destinations.
It just all deltas out from that. Have you met someone who has traveled extensively who’s still close-minded in these ways that seem to be central to this election?
Not at all. In fact, there’s a very direct correlation. I’m not sure if we discussed this in our other conversations but, travel is transformative. You become the best version of yourself when you’re on the road. You’re more open-minded, you ask more questions, you’re less risk averse, you’re more willing to talk to other people, you’re more inclusive.
I’m talking about being a traveler, not a tourist. I’m not sure how much you learn when you go to the hotel in Cancun and don’t leave the hotel. For someone who knows that there’s a city of 1.3 million people on the other side of the highway from the beach zone, it’s robust and entertaining, with great food, and interesting people (I’m picking that purposefully because it’s a resort destination, for some people), the travel is transformative.
You can’t spend time on the road and not become much more attuned to the nuances of the problems that occur in our country where we tend to practice contempt prior to investigation. At the expense of preserving our freedoms. I know that’s a very big concept idea but you just look at what happened for the subject matter that you’ve written about. Contempt prior to investigation, judging a book by its cover, assuming that we know about what it’s like to grow up black in America, is ludicrous.
People aren’t very good at listening. I’ve learned, through my traveling, to be good at listening. I have studied it.
I think one of the things we keep trying to highlight is this idea of false dichotomy right now that we’re seeing all the time. People are telling a lie to themselves of, “Well, you can’t have this and this.” When it’s like, humanity can … A lot of these big ideas — Black Lives Matter and the police — don’t compete against each other.
The idea, for instance, that we can’t be smart about immigration or protect ourselves from terrorism without banning a whole group of people —
It’s ludicrous. It starts with the false assumptions of the cloistered. The false assumptions of the cloistered are that the system we have right now isn’t working. I challenge that particular idea at the assumption level because, when I’m listening to people debate this issue, or discuss it at whatever level — I’m on Capitol Hill every year talking to Senators and Congressmen for one reason or another, I’m active in social justice movements and work for the folks at One, for example — one of the things that’s very interesting is that, when you start to roll the idea back, you get to the assumption that it’s not working, right?
You have to roll back these ideas to their assumptive moments. Our immigration system, if you look at the records and everything, our border patrol people are doing an incredible job right now. We keep getting better, and better, and better at it. The idea that making an enemy out of people and marginalizing them is going to help those situations is a falsity.
I’ll give you a really, really great example from my own experience in the road. A lot of people are complaining about giving money to certain countries. How can you give money to Afghanistan? It got brought up in last night’s town hall. The president, very rightly, pointed out that helping farmers in Afghanistan is an economic development policy, it is a diplomatic effort to engage them in the ideas and ideals that our country represents. It’s also a national security program. Helping farmers grow potatoes, and giving them a market, and stuff like that, helps them from becoming part of the opium trade, it gives them a sense of purpose, it can turn whole towns around by creating new economies there. Food is a very, very important part of that.
As I’ve gone around the world, especially traveling to a lot of hot zones, it truly is the ignored, and disaffected, and those for whom there is no hope, who turn to any offer or organization that will give them purpose. Often those organizations are ones that are trying to do us harm. If you can help the disaffected, if you can help with farms, and water treatment plants, and jobs programs in foreign countries, you’re projecting the best of America.
We used to have a spirit of ambassadorship.
When I was young, traveling with my father, I remember, in every single home or business we went into, there was a picture of John F. Kennedy. I’m talking about in the late ’60s, early ’70s. For decades, traveling, I never saw pictures of U.S. presidents until President Obama. Where there were signs … I don’t know if you remember, when he first won, there were these pictorial essays on magazine websites and in news magazines and stuff of this incredible global outpouring that America had elected a progressive black president. I’ve seen pictures of him up in other countries.
The one thing that I’ve seen decrease, over the last 40 years that I’ve been traveling, is American projects in railroad-building, road-building, stuff like that. We’ve sort of given that over to the private sector. Our governments used to do that a lot. The gratitude and our status in the world, I think, has changed. The Chinese are doing the vast majority of that right now. As I travel around the world, everywhere from Belize to the Middle East to Africa, they are building bridges, literally and figuratively, to other cultures. That used to be our specialty in the world. I think we need to get back there.
Those are all things that travel teaches you.
We’re in this era when everyone else … I think people really take a lot of pride in knowing about food. They like to be very definitive, whether they’re saying, “You’re an asshole monster if you put ketchup on a hot dog” or any of these things. What do you think about the cultural literacy about food and why it … Is it just a thing that we like to be authoritative about because there’s so much gray area in the rest of the world? What’s your thought on that?
I think it’s operating on two tracks. The first track is that people are collecting food experiences like notches on bed posts or beaver pelts in the early 19th century. It’s a status symbol, “Oh, have you eaten at Momofuku?” You know? “Have you eaten at the French Laundry?” You can pick restaurants or food experiences in every culture. Look at the cult of … It’s high and low. Let’s say you just had a Franklin Barbecue, are you willing to wait on line for three hours for a plate of brisket? Who has access to that and who’s collected that pelt? It’s a perverse form of Monopoly that we play. I think it’s just such an unimportant part of life.
Life is not made up of those things. Life is made up of people and relationships. Yes, those things make it richer and more fun, for some, but it’s become so competitive. We’ve perverted it to such great degree.
The other track that you brought up, and I do think that they’re two different ideas, is this notion of food scourge. Ketchup and soy sauce are my two great examples. Chopsticks at sushi bars. You can start to list them. How you pronounce the word P H O. I live in America in 2016 in a Midwestern state. I don’t speak Vietnamese so I pronounce P H O “foe,” as do the majority of Americans. My 11-year-old corrected me all the time because he has heard people on TV pronounce it “fuh.” I tell him, “Yes. There’s a Vietnamese and French influence on this word and when I’m in Vietnam and I’m ordering a bowl of that soup in a street stall, or modest little restaurant, or whatever, I pronounce it “fuh” too.
The next level is the argument about personal taste. Does ketchup belong on a hot dog? You ask my son, he would tell you, “Fuck yes, it does.” Is he wrong? Absolutely not. That’s how he likes it. He gets to make the choice about how he wants his hot dog. I do not like ketchup on … I love ketchup. I think ketchup is a fantastic condiment, I use it on all kind of things. However, I like mustard on my hot dog, preferably spicy brown mustard, and a little bit of sauerkraut. That’s just what my taste tells me. I think everybody has a right to choose to do it.
The next level is the honesty and authenticity piece of the puzzle. Which is where things get really, really murky. We all know that you eat sashimi with chopsticks but you should eat sushi with your fingers. High end sushi bars will actually not place chopsticks at your place setting when you order sushi. The really good ones will have a small, folded, wet piece of cloth to your right or left hand, depending on what you use to eat with, so that you can wipe your fingers in between grabbing pieces of the sushi. There are many sushi bars where they will not have soy sauce in a little ramekin next to your place setting because they are going to sauce, and accent, and garnish each piece of the nigiri experience for you. They’re going to curate your food experience.
Now, that is honest, that is authentic. I just was in New York City, one of my favorite, sort of regular sushi bars places I go to a lot. A place called 15 East. That experience is what unfolded in front of me. Now, I have been there with people who have asked for soy sauce and they have been accommodated. However, there are many restaurants they will simply say, “No, that’s not how we serve it here.”
Just because an experience is honest and authentic doesn’t make it good to the person who is consuming it. From a personal standpoint, I think you are missing out if you dunk everything in soy sauce with tons of wasabi in it. Those flavors don’t belong on a lot of things that you’re served. But we’ve Americanized the sushi experience, we sell sushi at supermarkets and gas stations these days. We’ve Americanized it to the point … You can subsidize the word homogenized, that we’re blurring the lines. This is where it becomes very murky because I believe that those lines need to be respected somewhere. If we’re eating, I’m not going to tell you how to have your sushi, but I will tell you that the problem with homogenizing everything is that we lose the original. We lose the earned experience.
Then we live in a world of syncretic dishes — like chicken tikka masala and General Tso’s chicken. Dishes that are unrecognizable by Indians and Chinese. They weren’t invented in their countries. General Tso’s chicken was invented here. Chicken tikka masala was invented in England. By Indian and Chinese chefs trained to appeal to American tastes. The story may not be true but the Vancouver sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo, who still has several restaurants in Vancouver, is famous for “inventing” the California Roll.
He did so because American diners in his restaurant … He opened up a sushi bar and they ignored anything wrapped in seaweed so he did it inside out with rice on the outside, hid the seaweed, and he put ingredients that he thought Vancouverites would all recognize — like dungeness crab and avocado — into this thing. Created what he originally called the Tojo roll and now is known all over the world as the California roll. These syncretic dishes, they may be delicious, they may be fine, but the murky area is that the more we participate in them, the more we lose the original experience, the original dish, or the authentic dish. We end up bulldozing culture.
We need to decide, as people, what we’re going to hang onto and what we’re not going to hang onto. I worry that, personally, if we lose all the original stuff, we won’t have that history to fall back on. Then you’re wandering aimlessly in the woods. I’m not arguing to bring back the horse and buggy, I just think we need to know why people used the horse and buggy, and why horses are important and why buggies are important. Let some people decide to still use them. God bless the Amish. I say it all the time in Minnesota. We have Amish communities up here in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I say it all the time. I’m in cars with people like, “Oh, I wish those horses and buggies would get off the road.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? That’s a link to our past and a simpler time. Maybe we can learn something from these people. Busy may not be that good.”
What the horse and buggy represents shouldn’t be lost. The same can be said of these food traditions.
Yeah. You have something going on there in Minnesota, which is a story that we’ve been all over, which is a chef trying to bring back Native American foodways for the first time. It’s just such a potent and fascinating story because we get into these conversations about appropriation. I think Bourdain said something last week about, “We’ve all been fucking each other. We’re all mixed.” On one hand, there’s appropriation, and on the other hand, cultures do combine and mix, and get remixed. I don’t think anyone would say that Roy Choi is appropriating or abusing cultures through fusion.
The people who do say that are the same ones that say Rick Bayless can’t cook Mexican food. Fuck them. Those are the same people who say Michael White, who’s from Beloit, Wisconsin, can’t cook Italian food. Fuck them. Those guys are two of the best chefs in the world, within their genres. Chefs in Italy and Mexico would say so too. It’s ludicrous.
I think what makes a difference with the Sioux chef, is that someone needs to step in and correct the cultural wrongs so that we can preserve this stuff. It’s why we tell those sorts of stories. I’m sure I’ll get a ton of shit about it [when an upcoming show on the Pacific NW Indians runs], like, “Get back in the kitchen. Why are you talking Indian politics and doing a drum circle?” I said, “Because it’s important. Most people don’t see it, don’t get a chance to hear men, who are part of the drum circle, talk about why it’s important to them.” Everything else has been taken away from them.
I think it’s very important that we preserve some of these things because to not do so would be tantamount to losing … It’s an endangered species.
You’ve just made an amazing point. An amazing thesis. Which is essentially your proposition for problem solving is to slow down and listen. Which is —
With everything! I think when we slow down in life, we understand there’s other aspects. Our society has sped up and mechanized over the last… This is a 200-year problem. We have, since the industrial revolution, sped up and mechanized, and rewarded systems that are perceived to be faster, that are, in fact, killing us.
I love the social media… I love the apps that are on my phone, the camera, and the functionality. It’s wonderful. It also means that anyone can grab me anywhere. I’m not sure those are all good things. We’re dealing with the same thing with GMOs right now. Everybody says, “All GMOs are bad.” I think that’s ridiculous. There’s plenty of GMOs that are fantastic. We’ve been messing around with GMOs since Mendel blended peas. Do I want some freakish five-legged, eight-finned, four-sided salmon to get loose into the ocean? Absolutely not. Should never be done, it should never be attempted. Super chickens are ridiculous. Let’s just stick with chickens. They’re pretty fucking good just as they are.
But if we can use GMOs to breed cows without horns for beef consumption, it’s much more humane and saves the animals a painful de-horning, with certain breeds, that are very good for meat. If we can improve on certain species in a containable way, whether it’s a vegetable, a fruit, or a hooved animal, I think we have to look at that very carefully. Look what’s happening with the Cavendish banana. My grandson will never know what a Cavendish banana tastes like.
I’ve been lucky enough to be in places like in the deep Pacific islands, off of Samoa and Atoll and stuff, where there’s 20 varieties of bananas that I’ve never seen before in my life. They only grow in that part of the world. They’re not reproducible anywhere else. It gives me an appreciation for bananas, I can tell you that.
I think people watch Bourdain’s show and my show because they know, with two very different styles of presentation, that they are going to see how something exists in its place of origin. Yeah, do I get on my high horse sometimes and say, “This is how it’s done”? You bet your ass I do. I want people to have an appreciation for it. But I explain to them why it’s done and I explain why it’s important.
You’re going to the source. That’s like drinking water from the source of a river and going, “This is really fresh water because it’s the fucking source.” I promise last question. Right now, I feel like food trends and what tracks on Instagram are guiding such big parts of food culture. Are there food trends that you rant about, that you hate, that you like, that you think need to die? Anything like that?
I think it relates to the speed thing. I’ll just pick an example. Fried chicken, five years ago, when no one was doing it, except a few little regional places. Social media propped it up and, all of a sudden, FRIED CHICKEN! Someone cooked fried chicken on Top Chef and the next thing you know, fried chicken’s exploded in America. Do I think it’s a bad thing? No. Do I think it over saturates the market? Yes. Do I think that someone who comes up with a business plan based on what they see somebody else doing is doomed to fail, in some senses, because they’re not ahead of the curve, they’re behind it?
The people who succeed in life are ones that are either ahead of the curve or catch the wave just at the right point. It’s like surfing. Otherwise, the wave has passed you. If someone came up to you or I and said, “I want 50 grand from both of you. I’m starting, wait for it, a hamburger food truck.” We would laugh at them. Already done. Recipe for failure. If that person said to us, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m the exclusive license with the folks at Beyond Meat. We’re not just going to offer vegetarian and vegan burgers, but we’re going to offer test tube meat burgers.” We would sit there and be like, “That’s very interesting.” I think social media has increased that speed up sort of thing.
I wish more people would do what Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are doing with Locol. One of my big problems, and I have a responsibility because I think, indirectly, I’ve helped create part of the problem. Eating well in America has become a class problem and a class issue. We think of food deserts and all other problems. The bottom line is that the lifestyle that’s being sold on TV with food shows, in magazines, and everywhere else, podcasts, and the rest of it fetishizes food, but it’s preaching to such a small audience. The majority of people in America cannot relate to the centerfold in the food magazine or to the experience that people like Bourdain and I have on television.
I think, if we’re going to make a real difference in America, we need to make sure that kitchen table issues become politicized and they become part of the national conversation. The people who said, “Fuck it, that’s not happening. We’re going to make it part of the conversation on our own” were Choi and Patterson, when they started Locol.
Everyone says, “Are you going to open a restaurant?” I said, “I’m doing sports concessions now and I’m going to be opening little kiosks of eight AZ Canteens all over the country.” In airports, and malls, and this and that. I want to serve good food, at a good price, to real people. It’s not that I don’t love restaurants. I do. I just think that we have other obligations. I would like to see the trend of real food for everyone to get that gas pedal pushed. I think that’s the secret. I think we need to decentralize our food system. I think that’s a crucial element.
I think it’s very much a simple trend that, right now, they’ve become more egalitarian. It used to be just for the elites. Farmers markets, organics, when these things resurged 20 years ago, they were expensive, they were only in certain neighborhoods and cities. Just a mess. Now, as I travel around the country, I see this has become a very, very all things for all people movement. Social justice is like that. When you’re in the middle of a 25 year social justice movement, it’s hard to see the horizon line. You don’t know where you are. I really think we’re headed — I’m very optimistic about this — I really think we’re going to crack the problem of the school lunch programs. Get sodas, and chocolate milk, and all that other crap out of our school systems’ lunch programs. Those are the trends that I like. Chefs, even in fine dining, are the ones who are leading that charge. It’s not the politicians, those kitchen table issues are not being engaged in by politicians. I’d love to see that go forward.
Anything you want to see end?
What I would like to see end, because I think it’s harmful, is this idea of experiencing food and collecting the pictures like pelts. Forgetting that there’s people behind the food. We do a lot of analytics on my social media. I post a picture of a salmon, the fish, on a dock and it gets 10,000 likes. I post a picture of myself with the woman who caught it, whose grandfather was the chief of her tribe, First Peoples in Oregon, and it gets 700 likes. Again, life … Yes, salmon is a part of life. But life is about people. If we stop long enough to get to know some of them, those food experiences, those other experiences become all the sweeter.