Andrew Zimmern: Finding Adventure through Bizarre Foods

Contributor
We spoke with the chef and TV host about his motivations and travels
Travel Channel
Zimmern has filmed nearly 200 episodes of 'Bizarre Foods.'

How would you like to sample curried iguana in Trinidad and Tobago? Or, some pingo and coconi in the jungle of Suriname? If you’re Andrew Zimmern, the answer is always a resounding “yes.”

Zimmern is the ultimate adventurer, but not in the way most would think. His adventures don’t have him zooming 100 miles an hour in a tube or jumping out of planes. His are based around food, specifically as a way to immerse himself into places around the world.

Andrew Zimmern was born in 1961 in New York City on the 4th of July. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, Rishia, and their son, Noah. He created and produces Bizarre Foods, which debuted in February 2007, but that is certainly not his only connection to the world of food.

As a chef, he was one of the first to introduce the U.S. to variety of food truck fare when he founded Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen in 2012. Unlike the food trucks of the past that concentrated on one or two specific items, Canteen brings foods Zimmern has discovered on his road trips to Minneapolis.

According to the Travel Channel, the most popular episodes of Bizarre Foods include Zimmern in the Samoan Islands, where he’s served pig organs; in New Mexico, where he learns to roast prairie dogs along with a Pueblo tribe; and in Tanzania, sipping a soup made from the intestines, tongue, and stomach of a cow, combined with the heart, lungs, and liver of a goat.

We were lucky enough to catch Andrew out of the jungle and at home in the suburbs of Minneapolis, where he’s been for the last 22 years.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did the idea to do Bizarre Foods come to you?
I wanted to tell stories about food that people hadn’t heard before. I thought those stories would be found at the fringes of culture. I thought that you could interpret a culture, and a people, and a history through a bowl of soup. I thought that I could make a difference by making a show that was about patience, tolerance, and understanding with other people.

I’m a food guy. I love the food, don’t get me wrong, but for my show I could care less about the food. I care about the people and the stories and the culture. I use the food as a way to tell those stories in an entertaining fashion.

What experience in Bizarre Foods filming stands out as the most unexpected?
It happens to me every time. It’s the feature of my show. Unlike other morons on television, I try to make TV every time out of the box where the audience, and myself, say every time, ‘wow, I didn’t know that.’

So much of other television is rote, and boring, and copy-cat, same old, same old. And, TV hosts are… they’re not doing shows that are unique to their abilities. They’re swappable. Hopefully that’s changing with access to the internet in a different type of viewer coming online, but I’m surprised every time I stand in front of the camera by what I show because we make it our business to try to present great ideas.

Is there any place you haven’t gotten to yet that you’ve been trying to get to and you just can’t work out?
We’re lucky. We’ve been on the air eight or nine years and filmed almost 200 episodes. The show airs in 70 countries. Luckily, I don’t want to tip my hand, but there are lots of countries that most people can’t travel to that we go to shoot television in.

Cuba was a great example. And, hanging out with lost tribes in Namibia, Botswana, the Golden Triangle, the Amazon. We’ve done all that. Yes, obviously, we are trying this year to get into places that are hot zones around the world where most people aren’t traveling.

I started shooting again in June for a whole other round of 20 shows that are going to be international.

What you define as a bizarre food?
Anything that’s unique or interesting, just like Webster’s Dictionary.

Is there anything that you won’t eat?
Walnuts.

Which makes you the most hesitant, eating in a jungle or a street cart? The place I’m most scared to eat is in an American supermarket. I’m not joking. More people get sick from the commercial, industrialized American food system than they do eating the street food.
Neither. The place I’m most scared to eat is in an American supermarket. I’m not joking. More people get sick from the commercial, industrialized American food system than they do eating the street food.

Street food in other countries and jungle markets, that’s the freshest food imaginable. It’s cooked and served by people to their neighbors, friends and family. You couldn’t find safer food.

What was your most adventurous meal?
Probably a lot of the odd fermented meats, like 30 day rotted pork in Taiwan with the Hill People. Things like that gave me pause, but they were delicious when I saw other people eating it.

Is there anything you’ve ever refused to eat?
Only twice. Both times the food was just…for my chemistry and my body, I thought it was a trip to the hospital for sure. There was this dish being made in the Philippines on this Southern island with the intestines of chickens and there were some that were discolored. I felt they were maybe from some sick animals and I chose not to eat it.

There was also some street food in India — and I love street food in India, I eat it all the time — but they were seasoning it with this brown sludgy water that was coming out of this tap in this tiny little town in the country. I just said, “I’m going to pass.”

Have you ever gotten sick from eating something on the show?
No. I’ve gotten food poisoning four times in the last 10 years in this country.

Why do you think so many people get drawn into watching your shows?
I think people love seeing things that they recognize in themselves in other countries. I think what we strive to do is to show people stories of people and places they haven’t seen before, but can relate to.

We put a family meal in every single show that we make. The reason that I love doing is that is because everyone can relate to sitting down to a meal to their family members. They can relate, even if they don’t speak the language.  You don’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand that the grandmother is telling the kids to sit up straight because there are guests in the house.

What made you start the food trucks? You were one of the first to put a unique one out there.
I miss the food business. I still do. That’s why I’m going back into the restaurant business. I love serving food to people and I wanted to complete the story-telling cycle. I used to tell stories exclusively through my food in my restaurants. Now I do it on TV and in my writing and in my podcasts. I want to get back to doing it with food.

Note: Zimmern’s latest project won’t have anything to do with bizarre foods. He’s signed a contract to work with Aramark to bring the Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen concept to the new stadium of the Minnesota Vikings, home of the 2018 Super Bowl. 

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