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.