Chef and longtime host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern has traveled around the world to experience some of the planet’s most unusual delicacies. The three-time James Beard Award-winning chef took time off out his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his travels to more than 70 countries and his work with “Bizarre Foods.”
What should travelers look for when finding meals or restaurants when traveling?
I look for happy diners, and happy employees, it’s the first thing I look for in any dining room I walk into. It’s the difference between great and good food. Also, I want to smell cooking. If it’s not there I am suspicious.
What should travelers avoid when finding meals or restaurants when traveling?
I am shocked at how many diners walk into and sit down in an empty restaurant with solemn patrons and the obvious lack of ‘buzz.’ It’s the one thing you can see right away and an obvious tip off that something is wrong.
Do you prepare before trips with any food research? If so, how do you decide which restaurants and dishes to try?
I do a ton of research, I talk to local chefs, writers, etc… but my key tool is social media. You can find Romanian chefs in Romania on Twitter, Instagram, etc…you can look up notable food lovers, authors, cooks and food geeks on Google, and search them on any social platform and see where all the plugged-in people are eating. And doormen. Every hotel I have ever stayed in, I have asked the folks at the door where they eat.
How do you navigate a menu when traveling in a country that speaks another language?
I look at other tables’ food and point. I hate to quibble with the question but I have truly never seen language as a barrier when ordering food in a restaurant, on the street or in a food hall… food is the great cultural commonality and is universally navigable, even non-verbally.
If you could give one rule to travelers looking for a good food, what would it be?
Eat like a local, hot food hot, cold food cold, look for honest food…wait, that’s four…
What made you decide to start “Bizarre Foods?”
I wanted to tell stories about culture using food as my way-finding tool. I wanted to encourage conversation about the things we had in common, not the ideas that divided us, like sex, politics, religion, skin color, etc. I wanted to make a show that encouraged patience, tolerance and understanding. I wanted to do it on a global platform, in an entertaining way…it was very intentional.
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You’ve been to 70+ countries for “Bizarre Foods.” What are your top three criteria when picking locations to visit?
Great stories, great characters are key and I think that stories people haven’t heard before but can relate to makes for great TV.
What’s on your to-visit list next?
I am off to Disney World with my family, then NYC Wine and Food Festival, then Babson College for Food Day and then off to Kazakhstan, China and Vietnam.
(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in early October, when the Wine and Food Festival and Food Day were coming up)
What was a food highlight from your most recent trip?
Diving in Waipi’o Valley on Hawaii for freshwater prawns. Its sacred land, mystical and powerful, once home to 40,000 islanders, is now home to seven or eight homesteaders. It was the cradle of their civilization at one point.
How do you bring your “Bizarre Foods” experiences to your family vacations?
There is no difference to me. Travel is travel, it’s transformative and our greatest tool for learning. But I have fewer cameras when I’m with my family.
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Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com.