Interview date: 08/27/2008
Run date: 09/09/2008
In Bullz-Eye’s 2007 Year End TV Review, I declared the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” to be the Least Appetizing/Most Addictive Reality Show. “Here’s proof positive that the definition of ‘tasty’ is very, very relative,” I wrote. “Each episode of ‘Bizarre Foods’ finds your host traveling somewhere else in the world to embark on a culinary expedition which invariably inspires either nervous laughter or outright nausea in the viewer…and, yet, you can’t look away.” There is every reason to believe that the status quo will remain unchanged when the show offers up its third season premiere on Sept. 9, an event that gave Bullz-Eye the opportunity to speak to the one and only Mr. Zimmern. We chatted with him about how he ended up in a gig like this one, found out which Hollywood starlet is chomping at the bit to go on an expedition with him, got info about the very surprising ice cream flavor he enjoyed in Sicily, and discovered just how cast-iron his stomach really is.
Bullz-Eye: Well, it’s a pleasure to speak with you!
Andrew Zimmern: Oh, thank you very much! I appreciate it!
BE: We met fleetingly at the TCA Press Tour last summer…
AZ: Oh, wonderful!
BE: …and that was actually my first introduction to your work, but I have become an addict ever since.
AZ: Oh, right on! That’s great! Well, you’re really gonna like the new season, then. We have some really cool things coming up this year.
BE: Awesome. I’ve seen the screener of the first episode, actually, where you visit Phuket, Thailand. In fact, I watched it this morning with my 3-year-old daughter.
AZ: Oh, nice!
BE: Well, what was particularly funny is that we have a running joke with her where we’ll ask her what she wants for dinner, but we ask her something ridiculous like, “Do you want…grasshoppers?" And as soon as I saw you walking through the market and stopping at the bug kiosk, I called her into the room and said, “Sweetie, you’ve gotta see this…”
AZ: (laughs) I’ll tell you something: it’s amazing – and we’ve experienced this in amazing, amazing numbers, in terms of proportional growth – how many people I meet on the road who tell me that it’s the only show they can watch with their 13-year-old daughter, or that their 5-year-old is addicted to the show and they TiVo it so they can watch it on the weekends. It’s just amazing to me how many families watch this show together.
BE: Oh, yeah. My wife, she’s a meat-and-potatoes Iowan, born and bred, but she loves to watch the show, even if it’s kind of like watching a car wreck sometimes for her.
AZ: Oh, yeah, my wife is a meat-and-potatoes Minnesota girl, so I know your pain!
BE: Well, I guess I’ll start with a question for those who either don’t know your background or, for that matter, might not be familiar with you at all. I know you’ve been a writer, a chef, and a talk show host, but how did you get started on the winding career path that led to “Bizarre Foods?”
AZ: Well, I mean, I’ve always been addicted to food, in the best possible sense of the word, and I think that I’ve sort of come full circle. I started my food life as a precocious food child. My father and mother and I, we traveled a lot, and my father was one of those people who believed that, when you’re in Sicily, go to Marzameme and eat grilled tuna in a little seaside restaurant. So as a 5-year-old, 6-year-old, 7-year-old, that’s what I did. I never had a hot dog or hamburger option when we went out to eat with my parents. And I guess at some point that I never asked for it, also. I was just really into eating the food and living the culture when I was a little kid, traveling with my parents. So I kept that passion alive through grade school and high school, got to college, and ended up taking a three-week fling at cooking school, but I’d already worked in a lot of restaurants, and I felt I knew what was being offered in terms of the coursework, so I got involved in cooking. I took time off from college three different times during my college career to go to Europe and cook, and I got involved in the restaurant world in Los Angeles and New York and, at a pretty young age, started executing at a pretty high level. I ended up moving out to Minnesota in the winter of 1992, January of ’92…
BE: Always a good time to move to Minnesota, the winter.
AZ: Always a good time. (laughs) And I opened a restaurant here in May of ’92, a French bistro that very quickly became one of the better restaurants in town. So I found myself in my late 30s cooking in a restaurant -- and having done so for half of my life! -- and I loved it. I’d always been involved in the food business, so I started branching out about 10 years ago, when I started exploring the idea of doing radio and writing about food and doing food television. It was at a point in the food media world where you could actually volunteer yourself for that kind of job and people would say “yes” to you. I think now there are too many people asking for those types of opportunities, and, unfortunately, because of that, opportunities are limited for talented people looking to get in. But, at the same time, they have the Internet now, which we didn’t really have as much exposure or opportunity for folks 10 years ago. But I went to a radio station and told them, “I want to do a food show,” and they said, “Sure! We can’t pay you anything, but we’ll give you the air time!” So I started doing it. I did the same thing at a local magazine, I did the same thing at a local TV station, and within about three to six months, each of the places started paying me because it was working out. And the next thing I knew, I was doing a pilot for the Travel Channel, and the next thing I knew, they said, “Yes, we’d love to do it,” and it tested well, and…that’s the short story of how we got where we got! And along the way, the television program has, y’know, given me a much bigger platform for all of the things that I care so deeply about, which is sharing food that has stories with other people. I mean, I think that food that comes with a story attached is what’s important.
BE: You mentioned that you filmed a pilot for the Travel Channel. I knew that you’d done a special for them, “Bizarre Foods of Asia,” and I was wondering if it had always been pitched as a possible series, or if it was a case where the ratings made them say, “Hey, here’s an idea…”
AZ: Well, we sent them an idea, and they liked the idea, and they wanted to see some film on me, so we rode around in the back woods of Minnesota and did some film on me. The next thing you know, they wanted 10 minutes of film on me, and they gave us a little bit of dough to go shoot something different. And then they shot two specials with me, one of which became the pilot. One was the “Bizarre Foods of Asia,” and the other was called “The World’s Best Ballpark Foods,” and I honestly thought I would get the job doing something more like “The World’s Best Ballpark Foods.” But they tested and re-tested the “Bizarre Foods of Asia,” and the audience for that kept growing, and they liked the way it paired up with some of the other shows on the network, and the next thing you know, we got the phone call saying, “Hey, we want to green-light this series!” And the rest is history.
BE: Out of curiosity, did you pitch it to the Food Network first? Or did you always intend to go with the Travel Channel?
AZ: No, you know something? It’s a very interesting thing. At one point, way before we even did the pilot, one of the production companies that I was working with had talked to four or five different networks about me. Everybody had said, “No, we’re not really interested.” I really didn’t care about them saying, “No.” I cared most about Travel Channel saying, “Yes.” Ever since the debut of the Food Network, I wanted to be a food guy on Travel Channel, and the reason was that I wanted to be in a place where I could tell stories about food and show people other cultures, because from a very early age, that’s what was most important to me. I didn’t want to be a talking head standing behind a cutting board; that was not my idea of compelling television about food. My idea of compelling television about food was the stuff that I’m doing now, and the place that I wanted to do that was with Travel Channel. I mean, that sounds like a very corporate toadyism, but it’s true: I always wanted to be the food guy at Travel Channel. That was my dream job.
BE: Does it ever surprise you how many people who love the show actually spend most of their time cringing as you’re popping something into your mouth?
AZ: Yeah, it is amazing. As a matter of fact, I’m amazed at the people who are real addicts of the show who turn away from the TV two or three times an episode! (laughs) And then there are some people who tune in just for those two or three moments! I do find it very interesting, especially since I’m such a cultural geek. My favorite moments…well, let me explain that a different way. If I’m in New York City and I’m eating cockroaches or rodents, then I’m just selling schtick, you know? Then it becomes “Fear Factor” and something that’s not me. But when you’re in a place where they actually eat those things and they do it regularly, and you’re sharing those moments with other people, I just think it’s just the coolest thing in the whole world.
BE: I presume you do a certain amount of research before you go on a trip, but do you arrive with a wish-list of things that you want to try, or are you content with letting the local guides recommend the cuisine?
AZ: No, we do a ton of research on the country. We come up with the things we’re interested in doing, and then we network through local food writers and producers, who we use as fixers, to help us nail down our stories. We start out with 20 ideas, and we end up with five or six when we go into each shoot that are fully nailed down and ready to go. A lot of people think that we would be best served by just showing up somewhere and executing the show without knowing what we’re going to do, but it’s the exact opposite. We have to know what we’re going to do before we get there, and then along the way, we also shoot some surprises as we find them.
BE: Have you ever gotten the impression that a local guide is giving you the business with something he’s suggesting? Like, “Oh, yes, the marmoset scrotum, you can’t leave without trying it…”
AZ: Oh, for sure! It’s actually…I mean, every show that we do, at some point along the way, we end up getting rid of one story in order to do something that we didn’t know existed until we got there. At some point, there’s always something on the ground that’s way more compelling that what we knew going in.
BE: I’d guess that you’ve gotten a fair amount of response from people on your reaction to the dreaded stinky tofu…
BE: …but is there any time that you’ve gagged that we didn’t actually get to see on screen? Do you try to get all of the reactions on camera?
AZ: Oh, we do get all of the reactions on camera. The show is all about me and my experience, so it becomes very easy to…we always have the cameras rolling, we don’t heighten anything for the sake of heightening it, in terms of reaction, or diminish anything for the sake of diminishing it. What you see are my real reactions, and it’s obviously the first ones that are the most important.
BE: Is there anything that you simply haven’t been able to get yourself to try?
AZ: No! (laughs) Not yet! That being said, I was just in Africa and I was with some tribal people that were sacrificing animals and drinking their blood, and I was, like, “Okay, this is crossing a line that I never thought I would cross…” But when you’re with people who do it regularly, it’s sort of an easy thing to do!
BE: I know you’ve had Anthony Bordain as a guest, but do you get any feedback from any other TV food peers who want to be a guest star?
AZ: You know, it’s funny, but most people who also do what I do…we get a lot of folks who say to me, “God, I would love to do that,” but mostly it’s actors. Most recently, I was on a talk show out in California a couple of months ago, and Leelee Sobieski, the actress, it turns out that she and her friends are, like, huge fans, and she was just begging to come along. She said, “I will go wherever you go! You need to send me your show info, because I would just love to try some of the stuff…” You know, we have people who watch the show and want to get involved because they’re fans. We do have food people, mostly folks who are chefs and restaurant owners, who would love to be on. One of the really nice places that the show is in right now is that, when we first started, it was very hard for me to convince food luminaries to get involved in the program, but now that the show’s a big hit, it seems that everybody wants to come on and eat something completely crazy with me! So that’s a nice part of having a successful show.
BE: Just to bring up a couple of my favorite items that have been on your menu over the course of the first two seasons, the yam and cheese ice cream served on a hamburger bun in the Philippines was just downright surreal.
AZ: Oh, my God, it was so goofy, and yet it made so much sense once I was there eating it, because the Americans rolled into the Philippines, and they left behind gazillions of hamburger buns…and they didn’t have cones, but they had all of this ice cream, and they weren’t really into, like, strawberry cheesecake ice cream. So they started putting their own flavors as mix-ins, and they started making their own crazy stuff, and they just got addicted to the buns. So it’s kind of…it’s like I said: I love food with a story, and that’s a great example of a good food story.
BE: And on a related note, given the flavors of yam and cheese, have there been any odd flavors that you tried without expecting to enjoy them, only to find yourself saying, “Hey, this is pretty good”?
AZ: Oh, it’s insane. Actually, in the upcoming Sicily episode, I tried artichoke ice cream, and I was, like, you know, I’ve been in enough fine dining restaurants where chefs are doing sweets with savory ingredients, and I’m all for it…sweet potato pie is a really easy example to get your arms around the oeuvre…but I didn’t think artichoke ice cream would work. But they put a little bit of lemon zest in it, and I couldn’t stop eating it. It was the best ice cream I’ve ever tried.
BE: Wow. Well, my wife’s late father was from Iowa, and he was a huge fan of pigs’ feet, so when you went down to Trinidad and Tobago, she couldn’t help but think how much he would’ve loved that episode.
AZ: My god, souse! I mean, there again is a great story. People down there, they do the liming thing, where they just make hors d’oeuvres, open up their front yard to folks, and sell it, and all those sort of pickled pigs’ feet and pickled chicken feet and all the different souse ingredients…it’s just so much fun. And when you see people playing music on their lawn and inviting people in for dinner, it’s pretty wild!
BE: When you went to Beijing, you had rather a lot of…well, let’s just let it all hang out…there was quite a lot of penis on the menu.
AZ: There was a lot of penis on the menu! I mean, it’s kind of hard to avoid when you go to a restaurant that specializes in penis…
BE: Well, sure.
AZ: (laughs) I still laugh out loud when I think of that restaurant. I mean, there are 300 different penises on the menu at any given time, and how interesting and different they all were. I still get more feedback from folks about that episode…most recently, I think, because all of the China shows were re-run because of the Olympics…but, yeah, people are in love with the idea of foods that we never eat in this country. You’d never see that on a menu in the States! But if you go outside the United States, it’s everywhere!
BE: You’ve clearly got a cast-iron stomach, but to put this as delicately as possible, have you had to deal with any digestive issues as a result of anything you’ve eaten?
AZ: No, as a matter of fact, I haven’t! And I was actually talking to my doctor about this, just in between the last two trips, because he was asking me about it, and I said, “You know, it’s the question I get the most from fans and press people.” It’s the one everyone wants to know. But, no, I’ve never gotten sick on a trip. It’s not like I’m doing some safe dieting! I’m in some of the most bacteriologically compromised places, eating some of the most pathogenically different foods for a Westerner, but I think what it is, is that over time, you either develop antibodies for some of this stuff or you don’t. Because I’ve eaten food and had my crew try things, and then they have an upset stomach for awhile and I don’t. I think a lot of it just has to do with…I’m at the point right now where, when I was in India, I didn’t drink the water, and when I was in Mexico, I didn’t drink the water, but just about everywhere else, I do. When I was in Africa, they gave me this honey water to drink in Tanzania when I was living with the Masai, and I drank it, and two days later, one of my cameramen asked me, “Do you realize that you drank a whole cup of, like, raw, unfiltered water that was brown in color?” I didn’t even realize that I’d done it. It was kind of wild. But I had no side effects! But, no, I’ve had no “digestive issues.” (laughs) And I keep waiting for it to happen! Not because I want it to, but it’s just like I’m rolling the dice, you know? Enough already!
BE: You’ve gotta be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
AZ: Yeah! And I keep a big medical kit, I’ve got my Cipro, just in case, and my doctor’s always telling me, “You know, you can always take an antibiotic as a preventative measure when you’re going into a situation,” but I’ve never had to. I’ve never gotten sick…and, knock on wood, I won’t!
BE: What does Andrew Zimmern consider to be “comfort food?”
AZ: Oh, my God. My wife’s roast garlic and lemon chicken, her tater tot hot dish, pizza from our local pizzeria, cold Chinese food on a Sunday morning, from our local Chinese restaurant. The usual.
BE: Speaking of family, I mentioned that I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter, and my rule of thumb with her has always been that she needs to at least try something once. It’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she still needs to at least try it. Have you tried to instill your kids with the same mindset?
AZ: Oh, yeah, well, Noah, he’s been on shoots with me. He’s eaten guinea pig, he’s eaten crickets. The Minnesota Twins just did a “’Bizarre Foods’ Weekend” promotion here, and on the Saturday, we had a food event before the game, and they had toasted crickets for the people to try, and stuff like that. And Noah was just chomping down on ‘em. He’s three and a half, and he’s definitely his father’s son. No doubt about it.
BE: And you since you mentioned that your wife was a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotan, what’s the most exotic thing you’ve convinced her to try?
AZ: Um…fish? (laughs) She is a real meat-and-potatoes girl. She just couldn’t care less about the funky stuff. She wants pot roast and mashed potatoes. It’s funny, though, because it illustrates perfectly the nature vs. nurture thing that we’re always bringing up on the show. She is the victim, like many of us are, of too much nurture, and my son is the proof that it’s in our nature to be open-minded about food, because he sees Daddy eating it, and he tries it. I got him to try bugs before he got the message that bugs are gross.
BE: Very important.
AZ: Yeah, well, it’s just an interesting…it’s not like I’m experimenting with my child. I’m not like a Franken-dad or anything! But I find it fascinating that the foods he has tried…he’s got a book called “Yucky, Yummy,” and it says that worms are yucky. So he’ll eat all kinds of bugs, but he won’t eat worms because, “Ew, Dad, worms are yucky!” All he had to do was read that book once, and that horse had left the barn!
BE: What’s been your favorite trip to date?
AZ: Oh, it’s always the last one I’ve been. It really always is. I just came back from Japan and Korea for two weeks, and what an exciting place to eat, that part of the world. I will say that the biggest surprise for me in the upcoming season was Sicily. In a place that’s essentially very mainstream, to find so many great stories and so many unusual foods was just a treat for me. And being able to go to Uganda and live with the Embege tribe for a week and shoot here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I just don’t think I’ll ever forget that as long as I live.
BE: Last question: did you ever expect you’d find yourself in a position to be able to use the phrase “gelatinous goodness” on a regular basis?
AZ: No, and as a matter of fact, we had a meeting at the production company about words that I overuse, and one of the new ones that got added to the list was “gelatinous.” And I’m, like, “That’s my favorite food word!” (laughs) To be able to use that at work so much…it’s a privilege.
BE: Well, my wife will be the first to tell you that she has texture issues when it comes to food, so as much as she loves to hear you say the word, it just makes her absolutely cringe every time.
AZ: (laughs) Well, that’s great. Tell her I’m rooting for her. Gelatinous is good!
BE: Well, I’m looking forward to the new season. Like I said, I loved the first episode, and I can’t wait to see more.AZ: Thanks, I appreciate it! Take care!