The Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern opens up in a candid and in-depth interview about his life as a foodie, philanthropist and family man.
Get the scoop about the award-winning chef and world traveler. Make sure you watch Bizarre Foods on Tuesdays at 9 E/P. Andrew is hungry for new experiences!
Q: How did your fascination with food develop? What shaped it? Was it gradual or sudden?
A: I like food, I am a chef and a traveler, and I am a paler version of my dad. He is a legendary eater and traveler, and my mom roomed with Vic Bergeron's kid in college. Trader Vic taught her to cook. So I was raised in a home that sought out the unusual, honest, authentic food experience. By the time I was 10, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Be in the food business. And I started getting into serious kitchens by the time I was 14.
Q: How do you decide which countries you visit? What inspires you to travel to a specific place?
A: I decide by what interests me. For example Syria, no one ever goes there. So no one is telling the stories about the Syrian people's relationship to food and culture. No one. Same in Cuba. In both cases, we were the first show of our kind to tell those stories. Same with going into the narco-traffickers' headquarters in the slums of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro. It's the only place to see the best foods coming on immigrant waves from the jungle towns. I wanted to see that.
Q: How important is the journey -- the process of getting to a destination -- when you're trying new foods?
A: It's the most important because you shed your urban American skin, and you make yourself ready to download and immerse yourself. You make yourself available to be changed. You perk up your ears and your taste buds and open your eyes.
Q: What sparked your interest to travel? How important a part does food play in your travel experience? What drives your curiosity to try different foods?
A: Travel is the only place I know of where I am challenged and learn new things. Go to Nicaragua with a few dollars in your pocket, a visa and no plan -- stay there a month. It will change your life. Food is the simplest way for me to learn about another culture. Share a meal with folks and it will change your life as you see what real people are thinking and feeling. I like to try different foods to collect experiences but also because food from other places fascinates me.
Q: How does culture reflect the food and vice versa?
A: In America, we are extremely wasteful and often ignorant of the world around us. For example, we are the only culture in the world to rip the heads off shrimp and sell them and eat them without. That's where all the flavor is. So obviously we eat for speed and convenience. Eat shrimp in America and you will learn a lot about us. Eat them in Japan where they trim the tails with a scissors. They arrange them on a plate and serve the heads as a second course to call out their importance. You learn the nature of Shinto and respect in their culture.
Q: What won't you eat?
A: Walnuts! Everything else is still on the table. Q: What are your favorite places to travel for good food (cities or restaurants)? Why?
Q: What are your favorite places to travel for good food (cities or restaurants)? Why?
A: Hong Kong and Chengdu have insanely great Chinese food. Syria has pure undiluted Middle Eastern cuisine that makes your toes curl. New York City is the greatest food town on Earth. I love Venice because eating a seafood meal at Al Covo or Al Fiore, and then walking back to the hotel is my idea of a great night. San Francisco has an inventive and radicalized food spirit that exists nowhere else. Lapland in Northern Finland is great because the New Scandinavian Cuisine is, at its roots, the best.
Q: Does your background in the culinary arts and your profession as a chef influence your family's eating habits? If so, how?
A: Well, of course, but my wife is not a food professional and feels, thinks and cooks the same way. Ingredients with corn syrup for example don't exist in our house. Aside from a small handful of items, the hundreds of foods in our fridge, pantry and on our counters would all be recognizable by my grandmother. The night before I left on my current trip we made homemade parmesan-crusted chicken fingers -- dipped in flour, then egg, then parmesan bread crumbs -- because Noah, our son, had a friend over and that’s what they wanted. My wife makes pasta sauces from scratch and freezes them for convenience. So we have a pretty sophisticated, yet simple, food life, but freshness is key.
Q: What has been the most memorable cultural experience you've had traveling around the world?
A: Walking into Jeppe's Hostel in Johannesburg, or Favela Rocinha in Rio, or the Himba camp in Namibia, or with the J'untwazee in Botswana, or with the Freegans and Food Not Bombs peeps in San Fran. Having all of them express the same idea to me, "Everyone else comes to stare and takes pictures, you came to share time and eat with us." Those are amazing experiences. If I was pinned down I would also add the fact that we were the first show of our kind to get into Cuba, first into Jeppe's, first into Rocinha -- that's an amazing stat. In Jeppe's Hostel, they kept coming up to me to touch my skin because no white people have ever dared go in there. I felt humbled to share their food and their 21st-century Zulu culture. The tribal shows in Botswana, Namibia, Suriname and other places are pretty special, too.