Andrew Zimmern is host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” which recently kicked off its second season. Zimmern, a native New Yorker who is a former chef, restaurant owner, and graduate of Vassar College, now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and child. Despite a very busy travel schedule, Andrew sat down with us to talk about how he ended up as the guy who eagerly ingests cockroaches and sheep’s bladders with nary a second thought…but often with a second helping!
Paul Giorgio: How did you end up as a chef?
Andrew Zimmern: I’ve spent my whole life cooking. I love the action; I’ve eaten all over the world traveling with my parents, so I learned about food at an early age. In high school I figured I could hang around all day and work at night, while my friends worked all day. I had my first job at the Quiet Clam in East Hampton, Long Island during the summer. I’m pretty much self taught, although I took a semester off from Vassar and went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). I lasted one day. When I graduated from Vassar my father thought I would go to Wall Street, but I went to work in a restaurant.
PG: How did you end up in Minneapolis?
AZ: I came out here 13 years ago for rehab and stayed.
PG: What is your favorite country ~ culinarily speaking?
AZ: Oh my gosh, I have to answer a couple different ways. First, I always love the country I’ve just come from, but I love Asia, Korea and Japan specifically. The biggest surprise is the food of the eastern Mediterranean ~ southern Turkey. Turkish food is the most underrated food. It is complex, it is thrilling. It has a great combination of flavors. I just love the mezza [tapas/appetizers]. Turks are some of the most gracious people I’ve encountered.
PG: What is the most bizarre food you’ve eaten?
AZ: It had to be in Chile. I ate a Piure, which is like a sponge. You cut it open and inside are hundreds of bright red and yellow sacks which have the strangest flavor I’ve ever experienced.
PG: Coming from the US ~ where a fishwitch is as far as someone will stray from a Big Mac ~ the question is, what got you into this?
AZ: I traveled with my father at a young age around the world and we ate what everyone in the local towns ate. We ate the local food. I live in 21st century America but I step back in time when I eat. I love eating like a native Samoan.
PG: I’ve seen you eat a beating snake heart, what was that like?
AZ: Pretty benign. It is the least flavorful muscle on a reptile ~ but some peoples believe that when you eat the heart you are getting all the powers of the animal.
PG: I’ve also seen you eat all manner of blood and blood products.
AZ: The world has a fascination with blood & I have a fascination with the world.
PG: I’ve read that you have never been sick, how can that be?
AZ: I have a very strong constitution, maybe it comes from eating certain funky foods from Mexico or China. I have developed the antibodies ~ however, my crew gets sick. I tell them to eat what I eat but they don’t listen.
PG: You seem to have a preoccupation with penis dishes ~you even have eaten snake penis soup. Why?
AZ: Certain cultures have a fascination with the penis. In China, they think eating it will make you virile. Beijing even has a penis restaurant, where that is all they serve. It is not surprising that it seems only men eat there. I was surprised at the different textures. The Yak’s and the donkey’s were my favorite ~ the larger ones have more meat.
PG: Why do cultures eat penises and not women’s reproductive organs?
AZ: I had female reproductive organs of the cow in China and in Chile. I think you’re talking about male dominated society ~ but every culture has a uterus dish, too.
PG: What do you consider to be comfort food?
AZ: When I come home I eat my wife’s roasted chicken with lemon & garlic. I love a good hamburger, or pizza.
PG: Why are Americans such squeamish eaters?
AZ: Because we don’t have a big food culture ~ we’re only 250 yrs old ~ thank God for immigration. We have a big restaurant culture, one of the greatest in the world. The biggest trend in America is local peasant food ~ roasted chicken, braised short ribs. We are going back to the farmhouse. American chefs are seeking new cuts of meat; we are trying to define ourselves. We are defining the American cuisine. We are discovering the farmer. We’re not hiding him. We now want to know were the lettuce comes from. I’m proud of American food culture.
PG: What is the most bizarre American food?
AZ: American cheese singles or the Twinkie.
PG: What happens when your producer wants you to visit cannibals in the Amazon?
AZ: I don’t think I’ve eaten human flesh even though I‘ve been around people who do. We are going to Papua, New Guinea and plan to interact with cannibals. It will be interesting to see what happens when I get there. But I don’t have to make that decision today. This question has come up a couple of times.