Andrew Zimmern is an ambassador of the weird. The four-time James Beard Award–winning TV personality, chef, writer, and teacher (and Minnesota resident) has been exploring odd and undiscovered foods around the world in his Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods” for 11 years. His new show, “The Zimmern List,” which premiered this spring, embraces a different concept, one that many of us practice.
That ever-evolving, running list of favorite restaurants written on scraps of paper and Post-its, where you’re equally comfortable feeding visiting relatives, or booking a table for one. It’s those spots that Zimmern tours and invites viewers to consume with their eyes, as his fluid, easy demeanor welcomes us like a pat on the seat next to him.
A dedication to promoting acceptance, and open-mindedness also feeds Zimmern’s career. His episodes are love letters to the intoxicating, but often overlooked places and people that connect us through food. And it’s this connection—an embrace of the unfamiliar—that he champions as a solution to eliminating division and intolerance.
We snagged a few minutes of Zimmern’s time to chat about where “Bizarre Foods” has taken him (and our nation of eaters) and his plans for “The Zimmern List.”
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The Growler: What goals did you hope to achieve through the show “Bizarre Foods?”
Andrew Zimmern: What traditionally defines bizarre is something unique and interesting. Somewhere along the line we started misappropriating it. I wanted to return to the original definition of the word. Things that are interesting are what I love about life; it’s why I love to learn new things.
The show also allows me to tell stories that people haven’t heard before. They’re on the fringe. They’re way more interesting. When I introduce the audience to a new source of food that they haven’t considered before, I consider that to be a great service. I’m trying to open up people’s eyes, because if you can feel that way about a food, maybe you can also do it about other aspects of other cultures—most importantly, people.
As Americans, we experience other cultures first and foremost through our mouths. I think I’ve had Mexican food in all 50 states—even in Alaska, where you couldn’t be farther from Mexico. We appreciate Mexican food in all its glory; so I think it’s very sad we don’t appreciate Mexican culture and people. With these stories, we can learn to practice patience, and most importantly, we can learn to appreciate other people.
G: Would you say you’ve accomplished that goal?
AZ: The stats we get are phenomenal. I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t get emails, social feed responses. I get stopped in the street with people telling me, “My kid now eats broccoli because they saw you eating rabbit.”
G: How has the show evolved over the years?
AZ: Less bug eating. The first few years, we went heavy and hard on unusual ingredients. We knew the stories were important, but over the course of the years everything has become more about the story, more about the people. And evolving technology has allowed us to improve the look and the feel.
G: Would you say the general eater has become more adventurous?
AZ: Yes. I was the first one saying everything is edible and we need to expand our definition of what is edible, and this is now a big focus, whether for hunger solutions, health reasons, or farmers’ rights. In many ways we were the first to bring up and raise these ideas, especially when it comes to exploring what the first people of the world were doing culturally and culinarily, and I’m very happy to say we were one of the first to do it. No one was in tribal Africa, showing what culture was like, how enjoyable the food was, and how gracious, kind, and intelligent the people were.
G: Part of your entrepreneurial nature seems to be identifying the unexplored and perspectives not covered, from “Bizarre Foods” to your food truck AZ Canteen. Where did you get this from?
AZ: I don’t know. I’m not sure in all the years that I’ve been doing this I’ve had someone say that to me, but we discuss this all the time in our offices. We’re doing the same thing as other offices, team-building exercises where you say what your superpower is. I’ve always identified this as my superpower, and my role in the company is to be that visionary. It’s something I’ve always been keen on. We believe everyone is better off not in being the best, but in being the only. And if you have superpowers, you have to lean into that.
G: At the same time that you’re seeking out all these unusual dishes, you’re doing a lot to elevate more regular, ubiquitous eating experiences—as examples, I’ll point to your work to increase the quality (and decrease the cost) of stadium food, and also your collaboration on The Dayton’s Food Hall & Market. Can you talk about how these two missions work together?
AZ: It’s all rooted in the same thing. The stadium food thing came about because I was at a game with one of my business partners and I was saying, “Why am I paying $20 for wimpy hot chocolate?” I have no problem ordering hot chocolate in a cafe in Paris because I know it will curl my toes. If a family goes to a game, you’re going to pay the kind of money you’ll pay, and it is at a premium, why shouldn’t it also curl your toes? So we set about solving the problem.
I also watched several food halls come and go, and they just weren’t going to do that the right way. So when the Dayton partnership approached me, I said if you want to create something the best way possible, then I’m in. And they did. And it’s always about trying to solve something; there’s no point in doing something unless you’re going to invent something that makes the world a better place or if it’s going to solve a problem.
G: Do you often find yourself having to educate people about the amazing work local chefs are doing? Is there a misconception that you come from a place with very conventional food?
AZ: A little bit still. I think for the last five or six years we’ve been getting so much attention. I’m always endlessly touting what goes on in our state. I’m noisy and I’m squeaky. You start to work the world of food writers and show them what’s going on. There’s not a food person who’s coming in and doing a national roundup who’s not putting Minneapolis or St. Paul on their list. That’s not true 10 years ago.
Our longstanding food writers and editors—there are people who have been doing this for a long time as well—they’re as responsible as I am for the national love affair of Minnesota and the Twin Cities; and people outside of the Twin Cities are looking for good, new stories, and there’s a whole bunch of us determined to give it to them because we’re so proud of what we have here.
I was in Atlanta and someone asked what’s the next best scene, and I said, “What about Minnesota?” And someone said, “A year ago that was true, but what’s happening now?” That was the first time I’ve seen someone outside our state say that. I think we’ve delivered on the promise that our city and our state is as vibrant as any other in the country. We don’t have the depth or breadth that New York has, LA, Chicago, but those are massive cities that have been churning for decades. Our best matches up with any other city. And we’ve got a growing and evolving community, and therefore our food scene is evolving. I’m excited for what’s to come.
G: Are you willing to name some locals who are experimenting and taking risks with cooking?
AZ: Jim Christiansen at Heyday, despite his awards and accolades, is still the most underrated chef in Twin Cities. Mike DeCamp is a phenomenally undervalued as a talent here. I’m thrilled that Jamie Malone at Grand Cafe, Ann Kim of Young Joni, and Christina Nguyen at Hai Hai are getting their due. We have a really vibrant food scene here.
G: I think everyone has their own “Zimmern list,” so I love the concept. What inspired you to create “The Zimmern List?”
AZ: I wanted to do something was that was very personal, that my production company made, and that was really important in terms of being different from “Bizarre Foods” and showing something that anyone could go do. It’s about being really friendly and making it actionable. When I’m living with an African tribe, traveling by boat, not very many people are able to do that. In “The Zimmern List,” anyone can go and do what I’m doing.