Andrew Zimmern knows plenty about food, but he also knows about hunger. Before getting sober 24 years ago, the Bizarre Foods host spent a year on the streets. “I took meals, many times, in places that offered a helping hand and a hot plate of food,” Zimmern says. That’s why he serves on the advisory board for local food rescue Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which will present him with the Thomas M. Menino Award for Leadership at its fifth annual Ultimate Tailgate Party. We talked taste with Zimmern before the Tailgate hits Cruiseport Boston on Nov. 22.
As an advocate for social justice programs of all kinds, especially those having to do with hunger, homelessness, alcoholism and addictions, [I feel that] food rescue systems touch all of those. … I’m very public about my own sobriety; I’ve been sober for 24 years. I spent a year on the streets of New York as a homeless person. And I took meals, many times, in places that offered a helping hand and a hot plate of food. So, once I sobered up and started to turn my life around, I tried to spend a third of my time being of service to others. I just thought that, up to that point I had spent a time being a user of people and a taker of things. I thought that the thing I should do with my life is make sure that a significant part of my time was spent being a giver to people and a restorer of things. I created a television program that some people mistakenly think is about a fat white guy that goes around the world and eats bugs. It’s not. My television program, to me, is 1,000 percent about teaching patience, tolerance and understanding in a world that needs a lot more of it.
You’ve accrued many awards. How does this one measure up? It’s humbling to look back on your career and see podcasts, books, articles and TV shows get recognized by your peers. That’s really, really cool. And I’m a very competitive person. When I’m up for awards, I like to win them. But this award is super special to me because it throws a little bit of light on a part of my life… well, to be recognized for it is the sincerest piece of flattery. Plus, to do it in a city like Boston—I lived there for a year and a half in 1980 and had my first real job cooking for money there. I made seven bucks an hour working at the Harvard Book Store Cafe. It was one of my first jobs in the food world.
I’m sure the culinary landscape in Boston has changed a lot. Oh my gosh. When I was working here it was over 30 years ago—35 years ago! I’m getting old. It was a different place in time. My big sadness is that Gordon Hamersley’s place closed. Hamersley’s Bistro used to be a place that I went every single time I was in Boston, wonderfully anonymously. His cassoulet, in the wintertime, was one of the great dishes in that city, that I’ll miss very much.
Oh my God, yes. [Laughs] I’m a broken record about it—I love Simply Khmer for Cambodian food. It’s so good that I profiled them in my show once—completely selfishly. I love what Ken [Oringer] and Jamie [Bissonnette] are doing. Coppa, Toro and Uni are three of my favorites. I always stop by O Ya. Years before anybody was talking about what Tim and Nancy [Cushman] were doing there I was writing articles from Minnesota, wondering why this wasn’t consistently one of the 10 best restaurants recognized in America. Because I think the food there is so spectacular. I love what Joanne [Chang] does. Myers + Chang is superb and I love her bakeries. Michael Scelfo—what he’s doing at Alden & Harlow. I love Oleana. I love B&G Oysters, I love Menton and No. 9 Park. Let’s see, where else do I go? Oh gosh, I love to go to Jumbo Seafood for Chinese food when I’m in town. There’s a Shabu Shabu hot pot place right around the corner from there that I like to stop into during cold weather and slurp down a bowl of something hot and soupy. I like Sweet Cheeks, I think what Tiffany Faison is doing is really, really wonderful. Matt Jennings’ new place, Townsman. I think Matt Jennings is one of the most underrated chefs working in America today. I think his food is delicious and beautiful and I think he needs to be in more national conversations about food. I’m rambling on! I’m probably leaving out a lot of my favorites. I like to go to Salumeria in the North End—I load up on a lot of spectacular Italian cured meats and salami and head back to my hotel room and sit and watch sports. I go to Boston a lot and I always keep forgetting about all my great meals there, but that’s a good starter list.
Bizarre Foods It’s probably a lot of the Dr. Seuss animals, which is what I like to call the foods that we never knew existed until we get to a place. I mean, just for what it represents, the palolo that I ate in the Samoa episode. It’s a sea worm that rises up out of the coral beds a couple times a decade when atmospheric conditions are just right. This little worm dies on the surface of the ocean and then sinks back down and rejuvenates the coral. It happens way out in the middle of the ocean and when the natives go out there and see it they gather it up and eat it raw or cook it up in a pan and eat it with bread. It taste very iodine-ish—a very strong tasting, spoiled sea urchin flavor. I think it’s just magnificent. But it certainly is the strangest thing that I’ve eaten.
It happens every day. You know, I keep reminding myself that someone’s grandmother is standing there next to me, and she made it, and it gives me a little more faith. But as the years go on, when we’re in certain villages—the show airs in 70 countries—sometimes in the smallest villages, in the farthest flung corners of the world, in Africa and Central Asia, in South America, people come up to me through the power of cable or the telephone. Remember that in Africa more people have [cell] phones than have electricity. You get recognized and someone puts something really funky in front of you, and it ends up being delicious. Most food cooked around the world is made delicious by good cooks, whether they run a little stand by the side of the road, or they’re someone’s grandmother or it’s in a restaurant.
My parents made sure I wasn’t a picky eater. They ate everything and they didn’t talk negatively about food in front of me. Children aren’t born picky eaters, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our DNA is encoded to want to eat food so that our bodies grow healthily. We receive verbal messaging from our parents from the beginning, when we’re 3 or 4 months old. So we hear things like “ooh, that’s gross” or “don’t eat that” or “yuck.” Even children’s books or TV commercials or cartoons play up the “yuck” factor. So of course kids get conditioned. I mean, parents have the hardest job in the world. I’m a dad, so I understand, but we have to stop talking in such a negative fashion about food and we have to get our kids to eat healthier diets and we’re not going to do it by maintaining the status quo.
Is there any food you’ve yet to try that’s on your bucket list? Bucket list food, no, but people are always surprised by the countries that are on there. I’ve not spent enough time in Western Africa or the Balkans. Those are two places in particular I’m dying to eat my way through more.
I think the world would radically change if we started eating more small little fish with their heads on them. We end up eating all these luxury species of fish—salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp—these are things we’ve eaten almost to the point of extinction, in the wild sense. And if developed countries ate small little fish with the heads on, in season, the way they do in many, many countries, we could restore a lot of the ecological balance in our oceans. And not only do those tiny, oily fish with their heads on them taste best, it would do our planet the greatest good.