Who Shaves Andrew Zimmern's Head?
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Good-natured and approachable, food television personality Andrew Zimmern is a fun guy to interview. He seems to have been everywhere (and eaten everything when he's been there) and he's passionate, knowledgeable, and humble about food. And well, he just seems like a good guy. Take for example, his willingness to answer over and over again fans' questions about the worst things he's ever eaten, and to not take the question of whether he shaves his own head seriously. So this preview interview with the celebrity chef and TV host, looking forward to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and his participation in it, was a good time (note to beginning food journos, when you end the interview laughing, it's probably a good one).
In this interview (part of a series leading up to the festival launch) among quite a few other things, Zimmern was happy to talk about his upcoming South Beach Wine & Food Festival events in Miami, that city's best-kept food secret (forget Enriqueta's and David's Café), discuss the number of times he eats durian every year, explain how goat is like soccer, where he'd never like to return to (well, not quite), Minnesota's up-and-coming restaurant scene, and his own expansion plans into airports and stadiums. Read on for all these good bits and more.
You're participating in three events, two of them demos at the Grand Tasting, can you tell us a little about them?
One day I'm doing Asian street food, and the next day I'm doing South American... Latin street food. In the world I live in you submit these kinds of things six months previous to the actual events. I'm pretty sure I'm doing a demo on Saturday and then a demo on Sunday under one of those big tents on the main drag there. I love demoing stuff that I see on the road and can then sort of make real for the home cook without sacrificing honesty and authenticity. Just because it's honest and authenic doesn't make it good, but it's a heck of a great place to start.
What sets Miami apart from all other cities, food-wise?
The food in Miami is singular. Remember that Miami is the unofficial capitol of South America.
How do you mean?
Well, just take a look at the population! I mean, you can expand that — the Caribbean, pan-Latin American, Central and South American populations there dwarf all the others when they're added together. Now I mean look, if you go up in the Panhandle you'll find some old guy frying mullet roe by the side of the road, but other than that, the majority of the food experiences, especially in the South, is really dictated these days by Latin influence. Now that makes perfect sense, and I really believe in eating what's around you, and the contributions that are made to the national food discourse from the Latin influence in food in Southern Florida are epic. So I mean, when I go to Miami, I look forward to going to El Palacio De Los Jugos and having their great chicarrons and going to the great little one lechon stall that's right there as you walk in. I mean that's how I like to eat when I'm there.
Good segue to the next question. which is are there any restaurants in Miami that you're particularly interested in hitting this time?
I will try to eat wherever Michelle Bernstein is cooking. If I make it to one meal this time, its Michy’s. That's where I'm going. I just think that she's one of the best cooks in America. I adore her food.
What about her food is so singular?
Michelle has an incredible incredible knack... not only does she have expert technique but she has great taste buds as well. And I know that sounds like every chef should cook that way, but she's able to cook things from the soul and balance things in terms of flavor and texture contrast with just a limited number of ingredients that I think is the envy of every chef who gets to taste her food. Her ability to season so appropriately and her tatse buds are so refined... you know those games that they play on those cheftestant shows where they blindfold them and make them taste a bunch of stuff? I always think Michelle Bernstein would win that if you put the100 best culinarians in the country against each other — she would win that. I was joking with a friend last year... my money would be on Michelle Bernstein. I've never been around a chef, and I've been around them all — the most famous names, the least famous, the most highly regarded — and I've had the opportunity the last couple years, to be with Michelle when she's tasting food that she's about to serve... she made it to finals ofthe Cochon 555 in Aspen last year, we also did an event together at the Marlins' stadium last year, and I got to taste her food while she was cooking samples of it before the doors opened, with her staff, trying to get the seasoning and the garnish exactly where she wanted it... she thinks about food and executes at a level that I just find amazing. She's a very special talent.
What's your favorite part about the South Beach Wine & Food Festival? Is there any one event you look forward to more than others?
The after-parties. I lead a very sedentary lifestyle in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and when I'm not home, I'm on the road shooting my show. So I go to bed early and wake up early. What I love the most about being away at the food festival is I get to stay out 'til three in the morning and have fun. Now that being said, yes it's work, but I love being out amongst the people. I think if you do what I do for a living and you don't genuinely like people you should be in a different business.
That comes across. You're a well-liked guy, an approachable guy, and I imagine that wherever you go, people come up to you and think you're their best friend.
Well you know, it's funny what TV does. I get to come into peoples' homes all the time, and I'm a culinarian that doesn't do a food demo show, so that is a very unique place to be. There aren't many of us who do a food show where we're not cooking all the time. You know, if people saw me cooking all the time, they'd go, you know, "I don't like this," or, "I saw a better vesrion of that on Barefoot Comtessa," or whatever, I get to be out in the world brining ideas and flavors and experiences into peoples' homes, so I have a blessed place.
Where have you not gotten to that you're really looking to get to? I'm sure that's one of those questions that you're asked all the time, but I haven't heard it.
No, it's a great one. I'm actually not asked that question all the time. I want to spend time in Western Africa. I haven't been to some of the countries there. I'd like to get to Uruguay and Paraguay so I can cross South America as a continent off my list. I also have only been to China about 10 or 11 times, and even though I've spent about an average of 10 days per trip there, I haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to travel in that country. And that's one of my favorite things about traveling the world. There so many places that I want to go because I haven't spent enough time there, not because I haven't been there at all.
Is there some place you'd never want to go again?
Oh gosh, no. There isn't. I've had some off experiences. I think I'm the only person in the world to go to Goa, India, and not see what all the fuss was about. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to go back because I mean, how many times do you go to a restaurant that you have some food and it's, you know, it's all right, but you don't see what all the fuss is about, but then you go back and, it's like, "Oh, they had an off night." I would like to go and explore a lot of parts of the world that I only saw one side of. I love India. So I'm dying to go back to the south there, to see if what I saw the first time wasn't the quintessential experience.
We all know about Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop and David's Café when you go to South Beach, is there less well-known spot that really makes the best cuban sandwich or medianoche?
Yeah, I mean not even close. I am not a Cuban sandwich guy, but love Enriqueta's and David's. The place that I would insist the whole world go to visit is a tiny little strip mall fritanga, which is like a little Nicaraguan cafeteria, which is called Fritanga Montelimar. It's 20 Nicaraguan grandmothers in the kitchen making the food of your dreams.
Anything about going into the food truck business you didn't figure on that's really interesting and how have Minnesotans taken to the truck?
Minnesota loves the truck. We have a very fast growing truck community here because when first couple of trucks rolled out, the city officials immediately acted and allowed for there to be several truck zones designated and certain street zones designated, so that the trucks could actually get out there. So most of the ones that started here four years ago, like Chef Shack, are still in business. I'm very lucky in terms of financial hurdles. Most people turn to trucks because it's an easier way econonimially to get into the food business than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. So I'm not the typical food truck entrepeneur story. Most of the food trucks in this town like in other towns, are talented young cooks who say, "Let's not raise half a million dollars to open a restaurant. Let's get $50,000, own it ourselves, retrofit a truck, and get out on the street." For me the decision to buy and get into the truck business is that I was able to do it faster than most and I get a little bit more attention wherever the truck is — right now it's in Florida — because it's a truck owned by by a guy who has got a TV show. But we really spent a lot of time testing, and measuring, and creating really vibrant recipes. And our stuff has been as perfect as we could make it, and it's been extremely successful here in Minnesota. It has been less succesfful in Miami because despite the amazing food trucks down there, I mean some of best food trucks in the country are in Miami, the place that most of them exist is just a few nights a week at these truck meetups. Miami is not as forgiving when it comes to its city-wide ordinances allowing people to set up shop to sell food. I think that's a shame. We all know that city government should not let food trucks go anywhere they want at anytime the want, and do anything. That flies in the face of reason. But what I would like to see in the city of Miami and other cities like it across country that have restrictive covenants on the books, that prevents entrepreneurs — and I could care less about myself, I mean, I'm doing just fine, my food truck's doing just fine — but there are so many people struggling down there, because they can't park their truck in reasonable places and vend food. And I think the citizens of these cities really want those opportunities.
Does your truck have a vanity plate?
It's a regular license plate. I wish I'd thought of that. You're the first person to ask and now I'm killing myself.
What's your signature dish? Is it also the most popular one?
The vast majority of our sales are in our two goat items. We do a goat butter burger with roasted tomatoes and grilled onions, and we do a baby goat sausage sandwich with lime and cabbage slaw with our homeamde pepper relish. Those two items are our two biggest sellers since day one, every day of the week all the time.
And was there a reason you chose goat?
I stand for and believe in the value of alternative protein and the belief that pursuing alternative proteins will help self correct the damage we've done to our food systems because of all the foods that we've worshipped for years and years in this country. Items like goat are a symbol of the restoriative power of the food system to heal itself. The other thing is that goat in America is like soccer... we say we understand it, but we don't really understand it. And it's the most popular thing in rest of the world. And I think peope who taste my goat burgers and taste my goat sausage, come back for it again and again because they do see how delicious it is.
Are there any chefs or restaurants, young ones or new ones in Minneapolis, that more people across the country should know about and visit?
You know what's amazing is that despite fact that Minneapolis is a very popular place for food magazines and food blogs to cover because we have so many great chefs working here... several of the best ones have still not gotten their due. Doug Flicker at Piccolo, Steven Brown at Tilia — I think they are two of the best chefs in America. I would put their food up against anyone, anywhere, anytime. And I think anyone who comes to the Twin Cities and doesn't eat at their restaurants is missing out on a very singular experience. There's another young chef working here in the Twin Cities named Erick Harcey. He has has a restaurant called Victory 44 that is one of my favorite little experimental gastropubs. I think in a couple of years I'll be talking about him in the same category as the other guys — I don't think he's quite there yet, but his food is stellar. I just think he's young and with maturity as a chef I think you learn to be a good editor of your own work... I eat there all the time, I adore Erick's food, I think he's a young guy on the move.
Any new plans on the horizon you can share?
We're taking a look very seriously into expanding AZ Canteen into airports and into sports stadiums. It's the perfect place for that business in particular of mine to expand into as far as an obvious place for it to go.
Everyone asks you what's the worst thing you ever ate, but what's the best?
Oh gosh. You know, I just came back from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and there's a small place there run by a family, it doesn't even have a name, across from a factory, and they serve their local community, it's the sort of thing that foodies seek out, we were at their truck drinking ginger juice and eating a bowl of salt fish with peppers and tomatoes and a side of greens, and you know, if it was plated a little differently would be the most talked about dish in America when it comes to a fine dining restaurant. And it reminded me that the best food in our world is still being cooked in the hidden corners of our universe. And I think finding that stuff is what's most rewarding for me.
Under what circumstances would you eat durian again?
I try it all the time. I've tried it at least 14 times, about three or four times a year since I first tried it... I still don't like it.
Our inimitable public relations manager Tim McGeever wants to know if you shave your dome yourself or if you have someone who does it for you.
Well, I used to shave it myself, but now that I'm a big TV star, I have a really young intern who does nothing but travel with me, sees to my bags, and shave my head. Of course, I shave my own head! Feel free to print all of that.
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