His ‘Bizarre’ Appetite for Adventure Knows No Boundaries
By Melissa Bryant
“It’s two-month-old fermented wild boar,” the purveyor from Dragonfly Izakaya & Fish Market said with a beam of pride as he motioned for me to pick up a Chinese take-out box containing a sample. The Miami-based modern Japanese pub was just one of the many local vendors serving Asian street market fare atop the W Fort Lauderdale for the 2018 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s (SOBEWFF) Lucky Chopsticks event.
Staring down my wooden utensils at the small chunk of pinkish meat, I couldn’t help but think of the irony, seeing as the event’s host—four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer, teacher and fearless eater—Andrew Zimmern, stood a few feet away taking photos with guests. It looked good, and so, in keeping with Zimmern’s signature slogan, I ate it, and was pleasantly surprised at the burst of flavors packed into the small piece of game meat.
If you’ve seen an episode of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on the Travel Channel, then you know of the popular TV personality’s passionate quest to go, eat and conquer some of the most interesting foods served around the world. Though just as compelling is the serendipitous moment that became a catalyst for the rebirth of his culinary career.
A Twist of Fate & Dash of Fortune
“At age 13, I became a daily drug and alcohol user,” Zimmern told International Opulence in an interview. “Within a few years I was a chronic alcoholic and addict and began to experience the consequences of all those so similarly afflicted – jails and institutions, homelessness, loss of friends and family, personal trauma and much more. By 1990, I was homeless and sleeping in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan. A year later I was at Hazelden-Betty Ford [in Center City, Minnesota], and I’ve been sober ever since.
“During the 1980s at the height of my disease, I was also highly functional and enjoyed many years working in world-class restaurants in NYC and overseas.” So, in 1992 when a line cook missed his shift at Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis, Zimmern, a graduate of Vassar College who worked at the restaurant as a dishwasher, stepped in. Less than two months later, he earned the title Executive Chef.
Following a six-year tenure at Café Un Deux Trois, Zimmern set his sights on breaking into the media industry, working as the ‘in-house chef’ on HGTV’s TV programs “Rebecca’s Garden” and “TIPical Mary Ellen,” in addition to doing live local news as a features reporter, contributing to Mpls.St.Paul Magazine as a dining critic and restaurant columnist, and hosting his own drive time radio show. With the stage set for success, he eventually created a test pilot for the show that would catapult him to stardom.
Taste of the Limelight
“I wanted to tell stories about the cultural dissonances that we were defining ourselves by,” said Zimmern. “We should be telling stories about the world underscoring our commonality. So I developed a show about interpreting culture through food, but I needed a “hook.”
“I thought it best to tell stories from the fringe that people could relate to, a great idea but very difficult to pull off. I ended up with a life mantra for my work. Food is good, food with a story is better, food with a story you haven’t heard about is better than that, and food with a story you haven’t heard about that you can relate to is best of all.”
“Bizarre Foods” debuted on February 6, 2007. The pilot episode alone was a lot to stomach as viewers watched Zimmern travel to a getemono bar on Tokyo’s Memory Alley to eat a frog’s still-beating heart, an exotic outdoor market in Bangkok for spoonfuls of bird’s nest soup made with an actual swallow’s nest, and an open-air roadside stall in Penang (Malaysia) for a taste of salted, dried shrimp paste with sautéed fish roe.
Some 173 countries later and Zimmern still travels with an open mind (and mouth). When asked what street food item he thought he would regret eating, but actually ended up loving, he surprisingly said, “The first time I tried balut (fertilized duck embryo) was so strange, even for me, and I love it now.” However, having such a tolerant approach does come with some remorse, like the time he tried “those awful fake pizzas in the market in Udon Thani in northern Thailand’s Isan province,” which come in a variety of flavors—hot dog, seafood, seafood curry powder, and Hawaiian—all made with artificial ingredients meant to resemble the types of pizza Westerners are accustomed to.
There’s always more locales the celebrated chef wants to check off his travel bucket list, but “on the personal side,” the doting father says, “I want to take my son around the world for a year and show him what I’ve seen. Best education a kid can have.”
Visit sobewff.org for information on the next Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival.