Interview date: 08/25/2009
Run date: 08/31/2009
First, he brought you bizarre foods from hither and yon. Now, Andrew Zimmern has expanded his sights to include a little bit of everything. His new series, “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World,” premieres on the Travel Channel on September 1st, and Bullz-Eye leapt at the chance to speak with him again. In addition to getting details on what to expect in the show’s premiere episode, in which he travels to Cuba, we learned where else he visits in the first season, with his exploration of Florida leading to a photo that must be seen to be believed. We also got Zimmern’s take on the fact that his exploits have found families gathered around the television to see where he’s going and what he’s eating next. Has he expanded your palate yet? If so, perhaps you’d consider a bite of roasted hutia. What’s a hutia, you ask? Read on…
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Andrew, it’s good to talk to you again!
Andrew Zimmern: Hello! How are you?
BE: I’m doing great! So what was the path that led you from “Bizarre Foods” to “Bizarre World”?
AZ: Oh, wow. Well, you know, someone much cleverer than I at the network actually phrased it the best, which is that it’s sort of an evolution, not a revolution. What happened, really, was…I’m a food guy, first and foremost, but I think that if you showed a cut of a “Bizarre World” episode to a “Bizarre Foods” fan, they would never notice that there’s less food. They would just be, I think, really psyched that there’s more non-food stories thrown in. And, you know, that’s the end result. But what led us there was…I guess it was the third show we ever taped, which was in Ecuador, and we found ourselves in a small town. We had done one of our stories, and we had about two or three hours of downtime, so we’re just wandering around the back streets of Otavalo, Ecuador, and our fixer said to us, “Hey, would you like to go to a real witch doctor?” And when I said, “There are no real witch doctors,” he said, “No, this is an Incan medicine man called a yachax, and we can get you in.” And it literally was one of those spur-of-the-moment things that we weren’t planning on shooting, but we got to this guy’s house, where he did his readings and cleansings. And he was willing to have the cameras there, and we fired them up, and we shot a great scene that ended up being an entire act in the Ecuador show. And we got more audience response from that than anything else we did the entire first year. It was one of our favorite acts…and we didn’t eat a thing in it! I mean, the guy spat up on me, he beat me with poisonous branches, he beat a guinea pig to death against me, he blew smoke on me, he spat up on me again, he lit me on fire…and he did all of this stuff in the name of purging demons from me! And I think everybody at the network and the production company…I think a big light bulb went off, which was basically that we take people along from the ride and immerse them in the culture, we love to tell stories through food, but we don’t want to leave those witch-doctor moments on the ground, so to speak, and not tell them. So for three years, really, we’ve all been sort of working towards this moment where we would get enough “Bizarre Foods” in the can, so to speak. We all felt that we had done that show and done a good job. I think we have something like 52 or 54 episodes, including specials, of “Bizarre Foods,” and it let us go on to a show that will allow us to sort of stretch and tell the non-food stories.
BE: Now, I have not yet seen the first episode – I guess they’re just sending them out today – but I did get a description of what went on during your trip to Cuba, and…I understand you got to sample some Cuban cigars.
AZ: I do sample Cuban cigars! (Laughs) You know, in the Cuba show…I mean, shooting in Cuba is different from any other place that we’ve ever shot in the world. Things we were allowed to do one day, we weren’t allowed to do the next day. Stories that we were told from the beginning that we could shoot, when we got on the ground, we weren’t allowed to do. And things that we were told, “No,” well, once we got there, we were told, “Sure, no problem.” So Cuba was really one of those episodes where we just let the cameras roll for a week and went with it. We visited a boxing training facility, we went to the Partagás factory, we went out into Viñales, where the finest tobacco in the world is grown, and picked the last tobacco of the season with a group of farmers and their families. We cooked, we ate, we sang, we drank, we played music, I took dancing lessons all over the island, we got on a boat…a thing that Cubans are not allowed to do, but the government graciously loaned us a boat and a government driver…and we went out into the Queen’s Garden, a series of 400 islands on the south side of Cuba, and we went out to some of the outer islands. We went to Trinidad and danced the night away at the Café de Musica. We had an absolute blast. Cuba is an amazing country, amazing people. And, really, Americans are Cubans’ favorite tourist to meet. There are very few of us there, and they’re really excited about the “palm curtain” rising.
BE: I saw on the press release that you do, of course, try out some bizarre foods. What was the big spotlight food that you tried?
AZ: Probably the hutia, which is a probably 25-pound jungle rat, much like a landlocked nutria, something that we sampled in the gulf. It was…uh, it was something. We trapped them at night, and then we roasted them whole with the famers in Viñales. Everyone in Cuba eats hutia, especially outside of the city.
BE: So where else have you visited thus far on your “Bizarre World” trips?
AZ: Well, we did Cuba, Belize, and the Kalahari Desert, which is the favorite hour of television that I’ve ever been involved in. In my life. And we also did South Africa, Germany, Sulawesi, Bali, Florida, and Wisconsin. And that’s all of Season 1A. But we have a whole bunch of other shows that will start again in the winter.
BE: So there is, clearly, a mixing-up between the US and the rest of the world.
AZ: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. It was surprisingly so at first, though it’s now been proven and is no longer a surprise to us, but the most popular shows that we do, ratings-wise, are the ones that we shoot here in the States. The most popular episode of “Bizarre Foods” ever was our Appalachia episode, and the second most popular was our Minnesota episode. And I think the third most popular was Cicily. But it’s amazing how popular the shows are that we do here.
BE: I see that David Koechner is going to be in “Fully Loaded.”
BE: So I understand that they’re trying to get Adam Richman to do a lutefisk challenge on “Man vs. Food.”
AZ: Oh, are they really?
BE: No, not really.
AZ: (Laughs) That would be one of those foods…look, here’s the thing. It’s funny that you say that, because I get to talk to Adam a lot, and we’ve gotten friendly since his show started on the Travel Channel, and, y’know, a lot of the foods that he eats…? I mean, you have an adverse physical reaction from eating a lot, but I remember talking to him about the spicy wings or something that he ate that was very spicy and the adverse reaction, and…if you eat too much lutefisk, you could keel over and die. I just think it’s one of those things that no one should eat more than a few bites of.
BE: Did you enjoy the opportunity to turn up on Adam’s show?
AZ: Oh, my God, yes. I absolutely adored it. As a matter of fact…well, number one, it’s fun to do someone else’s show because the pressure’s really off, so from that standpoint, I absolutely adored it. And then in terms of the content, I got to take him to…his producers allowed me to pick the restaurants that we went to, and we ended up just focusing on one restaurant, which was one of my friend’s places, in Minneapolis. It was called Brasa, and it was wonderful!
BE: Given how busy you are, I’m amazed that you update your “Chow and Again” blog as often as you do.
AZ: Oh, my God, thanks. You know, “Chow and Again”…I try, and we’re pretty good about updating once a week, and occasionally I get to it twice. But, plus, I’ve got my blog at TravelChannel.com, plus I’ve got the stuff that I do at AndrewZimmern.com, so… (Laughs) …there’s a lot of stuff to put on there!
BE: Not that you don’t do quite a bit of it between those three places, but, still, with all of the TV work you do, do you once in awhile find yourself thinking, “Wow, I kind of miss writing”?
AZ: Yeah, y’know, I always missed writing until I wrote my book (The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked out the Door Mouth First . . . and Came Back Shaking My Head). (Laughs) Then I said, “I don’t miss writing so much.” But, yeah, I do. There’s something about being able to… (Sighs) Here’s the thing. You eat a lot of spaghetti, you want a steak. You eat a lot of steak, you want spaghetti. The grass is always greener. When I’m immersed in a lot of writing, I miss the spontaneity and the “once it’s over, it’s done, and you move on to the next thing” aspect of doing TV. Somebody said it’s as close to live TV as you can get. We don’t do any do-overs on our show. We sort of go in, fire up the cameras, have the experience, and, yes, we edit back at the production company, and the shows are aired long after they’re shot, but what you see is what you get on our show. We don’t do recreations, and we don’t do do-overs. I like the spontaneity some days, and some days I really like just being able to sit on top of something and come back to it and craft it, which is what I love about writing.
BE: When you and I talked last time, I mentioned how my daughter had enjoyed sharing the chocolate-covered crickets that we got from Travel Channel on your behalf…
BE: ..and we also talked about how, with your son, you had to approach him early on some things because you missed the…was it the bug window?
AZ: Actually, I miss the worm window. (Laughs) He likes crickets, and he likes everything creepy-crawly but worms, because that kids’ book, “Yummy Yucky,” was read to him three or four times before I offered him his first worm. So he said, “Dad, that’s yucky!” And I just went, “D’oh! They got to him!” But he eats pretty much everything else!
BE: Do you hear from a lot of parents who tell you that they watch the show with their whole family?
AZ: It’s staggering. What shocks me more than any other aspect in the history of the show is how many families watch it together, and how many young people watch it. I’m delighted that college kids watch the show and do a drinking game every time I say the word “interesting,” you know? I love that there’s dinner clubs that twentysomethings have in the Pacific Northwest around the show. I adore the fact that teenagers and ‘tweens love the yuck factor. The show’s extremely popular with the 10 – 13s in that sense. But the single greatest pleasure that I have in doing this show is when I meet families with 6, 7, 8-year-olds, or teenagers, who say, “It’s something the whole family can watch, and it lets us show our younger children that one man’s ‘weird’ is another man’s ‘wonderful,’ and we all kind of live in the same place.” It’s just the best part of my day. We’re shooting Florida, doing a “Bizarre World: Florida” episode, and we just left the Weeki Wachi Mermaids show, where I was performing with the mermaids…
AZ: …and a lot of families were there, because it’s very much a family-friendly atmosphere. And the parents with little kids who said, “Oh, my 7-year-old just has to watch, she turned us on to you,” I mean, that’s staggering. And the parents tell me that their kids are much more open-minded eaters now! I get letters all the time at the office, probably three or four a week, from parents who said, “My kids ate chicken nuggets and PB&J, and then we started watching your show, and we said to him over one dinner, ‘Well, Mr. Zimmern would eat it.’ And that just started him off. He started shoving everything he could into his mouth.” I just think that’s fantastic.
BE: Speaking of Florida, there’s a lovely photo of you in full drag on AndrewZimmern.com as your new alter-ego, Pandora Lexington. (Writer’s note: The full slew of shots can be found over at Miami-Gay-Blog.com, courtesy of their top-notch photographer, Juan Saco Miranoff.)
AZ: (Laughs) Oh, that was one of the greatest days, one of the best days that we’ve ever had shooting. What a miraculous story, and what a great bunch of guys…I mean ladies…at LIPS, in Fort Lauderdale. I mean, it was just incredible for them to let us into their world and to let us really immerse ourselves. And when we got there, the great surprise for us was how many families and what a straight – in every sense of the world – entertainment experience they’re offering there, with a fabulous brunch. And we got to share that with them. And how excited the drag community at LIPS in Fort Lauderdale was that we were there, telling their story without a smirk and without any snark. It’s a fantastic, fantastic act in our show. I think when people see the Florida episode on October 20th, they’re absolutely going to be thrilled. We did a lot of cool stuff here. We went to a drag strip and raced the cops in a beat-the-heat race, we did the drag queen show, I got to perform with the Weeki Wachi mermaids in a mermaid suit…it’s been a great trip so far.
BE: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but what’s your favorite guilty-pleasure food?
AZ: My favorite guilty-pleasure food…? Oh, my gosh. You know, being so consumed by what I do…I mean, I really live my brand. I’ll just tell you what’s on my mind these days. The Minnesota State Fair is coming up, and all I’ve been thinking about literally for the last month are some of the foods that I only eat once a year there. You know, the foot-long hot dogs and the cheese curds and all the sort of fun state fair / carnival foods. Mini-donuts, stuff like that. I happen to be a hamburger geek. I’m a bit Culver’s Burgers guy. We do Culver’s at least once a week at our house. The crew and I just stopped at Chick-Fil-A, which we don’t have in Minnesota, and we’re just…are you in the South?
BE: I am. I’m in Virginia.
AZ: Do you have a Chick-Fil-A in your neighborhood?
BE: Absolutely. I love it.
AZ: Exactly. I mean, it’s the kind of thing where if you don’t have one…well, anyway, we just stopped at Chick-Fil-A, and it’s heaven.
BE: I saw that you’d written about Brian Boitano’s new Food Network series on your blog. Has there been any talk of you appearing on the show?
AZ: No. I mean, I would if I was asked. I don’t like to judge a book by its cover, and I’m all about checking out the experience, so in fairness to him, I have not seen the show yet and I’m really anxious to check it out. But one of the problems that I have with a lot of food and travel television is that I connect to people who are living their brand, and what I love about being a part of the Travel Channel…and this is not a corporate line, this is how I really feel and why I went to Travel Channel with my idea first and always wanted to be a Travel Channel guy…is that, when the cameras are off, Tony (Bourdain) is Tony, Samantha () is Samantha, Adam is Adam, and I’m me. I hang out with these people, we’ve all gotten friendly over the years, and so it’s really fascinating to me how genuine the appeal is. And that’s why I think our shows are successful. On a lot of other networks, people are hired to be hosts who I’m not really sure are the way they portray themselves to be on camera, and that’s what I relate to when I’m watching TV. But I’m looking forward to checking out Brian’s show. And, plus, I also…I’ve got a lot of stuff on the TiVo and the DVR that I’ve got to watch. There are a lot of imitators who have come across the airwaves thanks to the success of my show, people who are trying to do the same sort of thematic material that we covered with “Bizarre Foods,” and I’m interested in seeing a lot of the food and travel shows that relate to that.
BE: So you do watch food-related shows, then? I wasn’t sure if it would be overkill, given what you do for a living.
AZ: Oh, no, no! (Laughs) My wife and I, we watch all the “Top Chef” stuff, and I’m friendly with ¾ of the people who were on “Top Chef Masters.” I was thrilled to see my friend Rick Bayless win that. He’s just a delight. So I watch that show, and I watch a lot of the PBS stuff, plus a lot of stuff on our network. Yeah, I’m pretty much…if it involves food and travel, I want to see it. As a consumer!
BE: And, lastly, do you currently have ownership in any restaurant at this point? I know you certainly used to, but I didn’t know if you were just on the road too much these days.
AZ: I don’t. You know, what happened was that, eight or nine years ago, I left restaurants and I got into doing radio, writing, and television. I said to myself, “I’m going to give this a couple years, but I can always go back to the restaurant business.” I just thought that there was a window that was going to shut, you know? I could just sense it. And I’m glad I got in when I got in, because I went to a radio station, a TV station, and a magazine, and with all three, I got an appointment with their HR people and said, “I will work for free for three months, I just want to learn how to do what people do here.” And within three months, all of them started paying me because I was able to garner an audience. My TV career started with doing one segment a week, ten years ago, on a UPN affiliate…back in old days when there was a UPN network in Minneapolis. My radio career began by doing a five-minute segment on someone else’s radio show, and my writing career began by doing a 300-word column in a Minneapolis / St. Paul magazine. And I think that, if you go to those types of entities now and offer yourself up for free, they just don’t have room for people anymore! When I started in the restaurant business, I went Europe and I walked in the back door of restaurants and said, “I’ll work for free!” Just like any other eager young cook, I wanted to work in a great restaurant…and you could do that in those days. I guess it was about three years ago, a guy I work for in New York named Thomas Keller, who’s got a couple of restaurants now and is very famous in Northern California, Vegas, and New York, I asked about any opportunities that he had for apprenticeships and internships, and he told me that they were getting about 10,000 applications a year but that they only gave out two positions. So the way in which I learned to become a chef, the old-fashioned way, side by side in really good kitchens, really isn’t available to people anymore. And I don’t think it’s available on the media side of things any more, either, so I’m glad I got into it when I did. Right now, I’m enjoying everything that I’m doing. The new show starts September 1st, the new book drops on September 8th, and I have no plans to stop doing that. But, you know, if and when at some time that ends, and I still have the sand in my shoes, I can get back into the restaurant business.
BE: All right, Andrew, I’ll keep you on your schedule, but it’s been great talking to you again.
AZ: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed it. And say “hi” to your daughter for me! Tell her to keep eating those chocolate-covered crickets!
BE: I’ll be sure to keep her supplied.AZ: (Laughs) All right, my friend. Thanks again!