With the Music City Food & Wine Festival now less than 24 hours away, Eater interviewed chef and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern.
First I have to ask, where in the world are you right now?
I'm on a gangway trying to board a plane at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. I'm coming from the Faroe Islands, so I have to fly from there to Denmark, Denmark to Holland, and then home to Minneapolis.
So how was it?
The Faroe Islands have been famously described by their own poets as 'the windy edge of nowhere.' I'm not sure a lot of people have been there. What I found there was in a sense the oldest Norse community, cut off from the rest of the world in the Darwinian sense, as it's a series of islands. And a culture where there are no movie theaters and restaurants are a ten-year-old phenomenon. People are still fermenting muttonheads in their homes to preserve for the winter. They still eat seagulls. Yet, in the last ten years, there's television, there's the internet. It's a pretty wild juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. It's an amazing environment.
You're currently filming the new season of Bizarre Foods, you have a restaurant, a cookware line, making appearances on the festival circuit. You're a busy man. But what's next?
I'm devoting more and more time to charitable causes, which is great. I'm really energized about expanding our AZ Canteen business. In 2015 we're going to expand that into brick and mortar restaurants and into a lot more sports stadiums and airports around the country. So that footprint is going to get a lot bigger. I'm really thrilled about the cookware line. I think a lot of chefs come out with the same old same old, but I've scoured the world in my global adventures and tried to bring back specific ideas and pieces that I think will make the American cooking life more robust, more interesting. No one can design a better bean pot than a country that's been cooking with them for hundreds of years. So we've got some really cool stuff. And I'm branching out into producing other people's shows as well.
Any shows in particular?
(Laughs) None that I can talk about right now.
Fair enough. You've been doing Bizarre Foods for a while now. I'm pretty sure I already know the answer to this question, but is there a point where you feel like you will have exhausted the limits of it? I guess there certainly is always a story to tell.
That's the key element here. A lot of people, if I asked them to describe my show, would say 'fat white guy runs around the world and eats gross food.' And while to a certain extent there's some truth to that, I see that as being ten percent of what the show is about. The rest of it is about exploring cultures through food. It's about telling stories and leveling out our humanity so we can practice a little more patience, tolerance and understanding with people. In a world where we converse way too long and way too often about the things we don't have in common, like our language or our skin color or politics or religion, I think telling stories about the global love affair with food and culture and the way we express that identically with other people is really important.
Talking about the Faroe Islands, we did a family meal there with a family of farmers. And at one point the mom points with her finger at her kid, and you didn't need a translator to know that she was saying to sit down, take your elbows off the table, be good for five minutes, stop kicking your brother. It was just like every other family. If you can relate to that, then maybe you can relate to other elements of those cultures. And I really think that the larger my footprint can become in that direction, the bigger a platform I'll have to address a lot of other stuff that I think is important.
I get involved in a lot of hunger issues. I'm an entrepreneur-in-residence emeritus at Babson College, the foremost college in the world for entrepreneurship, and I try to direct a lot of attention towards global hunger problems. You talk about an industry where there's a lot of upside, people always have to eat. And we have so many opportunities. I sort of ascribe in life to the advice I give entrepreneurs, and that is that I keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing what comes next, as long as it excites me and I'm learning and experiencing food through culture. And I hate to say it, it's not a joke, but I like traveling to places like Nashville and doing the food festival because I like to hang out in places where there's other people who live differently and eat differently than I do. Hopefully I learn a little something and get to export it back into my own life.
There has definitely been a maturity over the years of the show, where it has gone more from eating truly bizarre things to really telling people's stories.
Well that's the Trojan horse. I had an evil secret plan. I wanted to get on mainstream television, I wanted to talk about culture and tell stories about people. And I pitched that show for five years and no one wanted it. The minute I added the 'white fat married guy puts bugs in his mouth,' all of a sudden, there was interest. I had a conversation with the head of the network, he and I alone over dinner one night, and I said 'I want to do this, but I want to put twenty percent of intelligence into this show. And I get that it's entertainment, but I still have my integrity and there's a greater plan at work.' And he gave me some great advice. He said you got your twenty percent, and if this works and you get an audience, you use that as leverage to create that show that you want to do. And that's what I've been doing since day one. Every year I think the show gets better because we try to get away from the gimmick and focus more on the intelligent aspects of what we're doing.
I've seen Anthony Bourdain quoted several times, in reference to his show and his travels, that at some level, in introducing an international audience to these unique, authentic, well off-the-beaten-path restaurants, it's like 'killing that which you love.' Because after the show runs, everyone knows about them, and that in some way could obviously change them. What are your feelings on that, say in terms of the Faroe Islands?
Well I hope people come and visit there. I think it's an easier example to talk about. I'll address the Faroes. Those people need people to travel there. They need people to come and see how amazing their seafood is there so that commerce can take place. These people are desperate for new ways to support themselves. Because of their positioning as a territory or a protectorate of the Danish government, they have a lot of hoops to jump through. It's a stunning, stunning place, but there's 60,000 people that live there, and they don't want to have the same problems that we see in communities all around the world. Like the communities I find when I visit the western villages in Alaska, where all the young people are unemployed, can't find jobs, have no life in their villages. I think putting a flashlight and throwing some attention on these communities will help people identify ways in which these communities can join the rest of the world. The world is changing, there's nothing we can do to stop that.
I think the flipside of that coin is when I go into a sleepy little meat and three in a tiny little tucked away part of the south, sometimes they're out of business and they don't know it yet. Everyone's pulling a shift for free, the menu has shrunk to five items from twenty. When they used to do a hundred people for lunch now they're doing twenty. And they're on fumes. We go in and show people what the worth is of that place, and then I find out a month after that show airs that their future is brighter, sales are brisker. And that happens every episode. Look, when I go into Alinea, I'm not helping Grant and Nick out, they've got all the business they can handle. But even like going to Nashville, putting Sarah [Gavigan's] ramen pop-up Otaku South on people's radar screen. Maybe that helps her go from two days to three days, maybe it helps her finance the brick and mortar place a little faster. Maybe it means that ten more people in Nashville will have jobs. That's the way it works.
Tony and I share a lot of things in common, and we both share the opinion that yes, to a certain degree, I don't like writing about my favorite pizza place because the next thing I know I'm waiting in a two hour line, and then maybe the product changes. And maybe there's too much attention, like building the railroad station right next to the restaurant. However, I think that's far outweighed by not only preserving some of these cultural touch points, but probably more importantly showing other people out there that you really can open up a little neighborhood meat and three, and you know something, life isn't a bunch of sour grapes. Where I think I differ from a lot of people on television is that I believe in the resoluteness and the upward mobility of the human spirit. When I'm in a little fishing village in Madagascar and I show the story about their fishermen, maybe someone somewhere sees something. Maybe people in that community, where the show airs, maybe it gives them a little more hope that things are okay and businesses are viable. Maybe that's a little too rosy and utopian, but I believe that the rising tide lifts all boats, and I believe in it wholeheartedly.
Since you mentioned Nashville, you were here back in December filming. Have you been back since then?
No I have not. I'm pretty excited to come down. I have some friends that are down there now. And some friends from some other cities that are there. Like Sean Brock opened up there. Trisha Yearwood and her husband have moved back. Folks who I know and speak to away from the festival circuit. Plus being able to go to some of my favorite hot chicken joints, or spend the night around a fireplace with some friends. Coming back to Nashville is just great, it's a nice city to visit. And the festival's great. It's small, intimate, you get to reach out and touch people, and it's tethered to music, which I love.