Andrew Zimmern | Interview with the Bizarre Foods America host

Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern Photograph: Julie Dennis Brothers

Back in Chicago for his second exploration of the Windy City’s diverse restaurant scene, Bizarre Foods America host Andrew Zimmern, 51, is out to find everything from high-end chef creations to ethnic delicacies transported from the homeland. For the sixth season of his award-winning show on the Travel Channel, Zimmern focuses on the stories still to be told in the U.S. He doubles as a food writer, vlogger, editor, author, and most recently, Entrepreneur in Residence at Babson College in Massachusetts.  He sat down with us to talk about his fondest memories from the show, the evolution of “bizarre” foods, sustainable eating and his family.

Why Chicago…twice?
There was a point in time in the country’s history where Chicago was sort of the central breadbasket. I take a lot of my cues from history for stories in the show and the responsibility that Chicago took for helping to feed America is something I find really fascinating to build on here. [Chicago is] representative of a lot of the biggest trends in food globally, so whether it’s what Paul Kahan and his team are doing at Publican Quality Meats with their salami and whatnot, [or] what Grant [Achatz] and Dave Beran are doing at Next, it’s the result of great sourcing, great ingredients, great inspiration of their environment. Where do they get their ideas from? Where do they go shopping? How does Chicago stimulate them in the creative process?

What does “bizarre” mean internationally versus domestically?
When I go over into tribal Africa or some tropical island somewhere, people expect that there’s a certain thing they’re going to see that they never would have seen coming in a thousand years, but they come to expect that. 
When we do a show in New Orleans and everybody thinks, “Oh, you’re going to do gumbo and crawdads,” but we take them to the largest Vietnamese population outside of the country of Vietnam and do duck-blood pizza that everyone is making in their own homes there, they’re really shocked. So bizarre foods out in the rest of the world in many ways is more predictable than bizarre foods in America where we’re trying to show people what’s going on in their neighbor’s basement that they never imagined possible.

Do you bring work home with you?
All the time.

You’re a family of bizarre foods, too?
Absolutely. Look, my wife and my son do not eat duck-blood pizza. Neither one of them would touch that—well, my son might, he’s seven and a half. But they love all the arcane ingredients…and they go to these places many times with me, so there’s that, and we cook a lot of these foods at home.

Favorite story?
The thing that I’m most focused on now overall is telling stories that will help us to change our food system back to the way it was when it was healthy and efficient and made sense. There’s environmental sustainability, but there’s also economic sustainability, cultural sustainability. In nature, when you take one leaf and push it to the side, it has consequences that ripple throughout the ecosystem. So in the Carolinas and coastal mid-Atlantic region, it’s just this horror story of cause and effect. One by one all of the protectors of [this coastal] land are disappearing. The last people hanging on are the ones that have the most reason to get out, and those are the fishermen.
So I’m down there, and I meet these guys…who are crabbers. Their business is tanking and they don’t know what they’re going to do. One of the daughters in the family marries a Greek guy from Long Island and he moves down there and he’s celebrating Thanksgiving down there with them, for the first time, so he makes an octopus salad, remarks to them how expensive the octopus was. It was imported from Spain or Mexico and they started talking around the family table. “Wow, I wonder why you can’t get local octopus.”
Off the coast of that part of our country, it’s all sand, and octopus hunt in rocks and they live in rocks, so there’s octopus to the south in parts of Florida, there’s octopus to the north in Massachusetts and Maine, but there’s no octopus in the Carolinas and in coastal Georgia. So these guys say "Well, fish move, so octopus got to move, too—maybe they’re just swimming past us." They take this old PVC tubes and they fill them half with cement and attach them to long lines and create these fake octopus condos, these fake rocky environments and they throw them out into the ocean with a string attached, and they go home and two days later they go back out—75 percent of their PVC tubes have octopus in them. At the same time as there’s this huge explosive interest in Spanish food and Latin foods and octopus is kind of like a chic, cool protein, all of a sudden they now have a domestic market for octopus. They can undercut the expensive imports coming in and they’ve found a new way to make money off of the water.
I love that story above all others because it shows the resilience of the American spirit and it shows what we can do when we get creative and do the right thing and hang on there and it also shows people the importance of eating sustainably and being a good partner to the people who put food on our tables. I just find [those stories] endlessly fascinating because they keep me very positive.

What about vegetarianism?
God bless ‘em. It bores the pants off me. I’m a meat eater, personally.

But from a sustainability standpoint?
We are running out of land to graze animals, we are increasing the number of mouths to feed, so it’s at that point, ethically, morally, and all those other ones, we have to start to decide things like smaller portions, higher quality, and use the Asian model, for example. America is the only country in the world where 14 oz. of meat is the centerpiece of every plate, along with a baked potato, broccoli, and help yourself to the salad bar beforehand.
So we eat a lot less meat in our house…The happiest thing that I’ve ever seen is we were in the supermarket about six months ago and we’re walking along and Noah [Zimmern’s son] was hungry and went running over to the red bell peppers in the supermarket and grabbed one and started eating it like an apple. Now, he was stealing, but I was so happy. It just was great to me that that was his option, that’s what he thought looked good and tasted good and he remembered it was what he wanted. I was really charmed by that. I’m doing something right.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)