Interview: Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods, AZ Canteen + The Munchies)Photo courtesy of Javier Cabral
Andrew Zimmern is a man who’s become synonymous with adventurous, food-focused travel by shedding light on unique global specialties on his Travel Channel show, “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern.” In 2012, he launched “Bizarre Foods America,” focusing on U.S. destinations. Last year, the accomplished chef first rolled out a globally inspired food truck at the Minnesota State Fair, called AZ Canteen. He recently started serving Canteen Burgers at Target Field, home of baseball’s Minnesota Twins. He’s also teamed with General Mills and Tablespoon on The Munchies, a food awards program which combines 26 expert panelists with crowdsourcing to determine winners in three groups of categories: Terrific Tastemakers, Best Bites and Delicious Destinations. On April 2, I spoke with Zimmern by phone, where he shared unique insights about travel, television, food service, and The Munchies.
How has your definition of bizarre changed since you first started your show?
I had a premeditated purpose to using the term bizarre. I wanted to change the definition. I wanted to get it back to the classic Webster definition of unique and interesting. I felt that bizarre had taken on a negative connotation and I thought it was the perfect word to use, because what I was trying to do was tell stories from the fringe about food that people hadn’t heard of before, and it seemed like the best, most poppy way to capture that. I will tell you that my life’s experiences leading up to the creation of the show were such that I wanted to have people practice less contempt prior to investigation. It seemed like using the word bizarre would jumpstart that conversation. I wanted people to understand, in a world where we define ourselves by our differences – sexuality, religion, hair color, spiritual belief system, nationality, political belief, you name it – it was high time we started talking about the things we have in common, like food, and I thought stories like mine would help to do that.
Based on international travels, do you get a sense that foreigners find any U.S. foods especially bizarre?
Of course they do. Look, I’ve sat in African villages and had tribal chieftains and shamans wondering how I could even get home, because I didn’t even know which way to walk to find the bathroom, so how could I know which way to walk to get back to my country? When it comes to the food equation, they’re even more curious. Remember the Western obsession with cheese. Talking to people in most parts of the world that don’t consume rotted milk that’s dried into little squares. On the humorous level, you have countries like Argentina where they can’t stomach the idea of peanut butter and laugh at the idea that anybody would want to eat it.
Were you always so comfortable on camera?
Yes…I think you either have that or you don’t. Some people can be taught to be less self-conscious in front of a camera. I think the secret to my success is that I couldn’t give a shit. I wanted to tell these stories and I felt secure enough that people would pay attention to the story and the people and the information, and what I was trying to say, rather than the person that was saying it. It turns out that “I don’t give a crap” attitude is very, very useful when it comes to being on camera.
Is there anything you miss about being in a restaurant on a daily basis?
Every day. I love the theater of it. I love the creative aspect of it. I love the game playing issues involved, the engineering of it, in the sense that you have to feed 400 people, you have four hours to do it, you have 150 seats, most of them are going to come at 7 o’clock.
I love the instant gratification of nurturing someone with food and being able to delight and inspire on a plate. Now I get to delight and inspire by telling different kinds of stories. But also with my food truck and with other businesses that I’ve started, I’m still able to get pleasure by feeding them, so that’s a nice thing. I miss that every day.
What does a dish have to be to make the cut for your AZ Canteen menu?
It has to have a story, and it has to be delicious, and I think in that order. First and foremost, food has to taste good. Period. End of discussion. It then has to look good. It has to be textured. That all goes into how we appreciate food. Even subconsciously. Not just for people like me, who’ve studied it, but most people are like, “Yeah, I like that. I can’t tell you why.” It’s the balance between fat and textural balance. All of those things are very important. At the truck, what I tried to do was find foods I really loved, and then create the best possible versions of them that I could.
What’s your top seller from the truck, and why do you think that’s the case?
Our goat butter burger and our goat sausage sandwich are our two biggest sellers. They’re accessible, and they’re just new enough with the protein involved, goat, and when they take a bite, the reaction is, “Holy crap, that’s so much better than the dry, nasty goat curry I had when I was in the Caribbean in 1978.” Goat is kind of like soccer in the rest of the world. The rest of the world does it, we say we love it and understand it, but we don’t really. That’s changing.
You recently started serving food at Minnesota Twins games. Congratulations…How does what you serve at a major league baseball game differ from what you’d serve on the street?
Absolutely nothing at all. We had to engineer it so we could put a lot out over a two-hour period, but we’re serving our Canteen Burger – the goat burger – it’s fantastic. I had one yesterday when I got to the park.
So you have the same menu, or you’re just serving the burger?
We’re just serving the burger. We have a small footprint in the bandstand on the main rotunda. We’re just serving our goat burgers. I’m expecting that to change. I’m expecting management to love us more than they did a week ago, and I’m hoping we get to expand our footprint at ballparks all across the country.
Does this foray into street food and food at stadiums signal a return to a full-service restaurant?
You can take it however you want. I never shy away from that question. I love cooking. I love cooking for people. I’m definitely expanding my world in that direction, and people can definitely expect a lot of interesting things in the hospitality sector from me. I love making television. I will always be making television. I have no plans to stop making television, but I want to be exchanging ideas and flavors with people, as opposed to just telling stories about it on camera.
With so many culinary awards these days, what makes The Munchies special?
I think it was Maya Angelou who said, “If it needs to be changed, change it.” I was sick and tired of the complaining about these big, broad based, frontline contests about food, which were all about smart insiders picking winners, or all about crowdsourcing. It was either/or. I said, “You know something, there needs to be a hybridized award system that will allow there to be a national conversation about really great food.” General Mills, Tablespoon.com and I developed the Munchies. The best thing about it is that we have an incredible group of knowledgeable insiders who lead up food venues, food stars, magazines, websites, that are all nominating categories, then allow the general public to have at it. You get the best of both worlds. It allows us to exchange ideas about what it means to be good when it comes to our favorite foods.
What’s the criteria for a Munchies panelist?
Smart, knowledgeable insiders. We have several dozen of them. They are the best and brightest thinkers in this space, and it includes everyone from magazine editors to food festival founders to chefs to food writers. You name it, we have it on our list.