Andrew Zimmern Reveals Why He’s ‘The Luckiest Person In Food Television’
You — and Anthony Bourdain does this also — find a really good balance between entertainment, high ratings, eating something “crazy”, but at the same time being very respectful and honoring the culture. Is that difficult? Does anything ever throw that balance off?
No. Not for us. You happened to pick the two luckiest people in food television. And the reason I say we’re the luckiest is that we’re actually allowed to be ourselves. That doesn’t mean that, you know, Bobby, Alton, and Giada aren’t themselves on Next Food Network Star. But there are a lot of people who are hired hosts on shows — stuff like what Tony and I do — and if you’re just a hired host on a program and the content isn’t a part of your DNA and you don’t want to be there, almost need to be there, if you don’t have a higher purpose to your storytelling, then you end up having to take the easy way out. Which is trying to be funny, or you make fun of other people, and you become disrespectful and you forget about the importance about being a guest in someone’s home.
Look, at a lot of the places I go, I’m the only white person they’ve ever seen, let alone conversed with, shared a meal with, been able to ask questions of. In Jeppe’s Hostel of Johannesburg, a very sad, sad place that turned out to be one of the most joyous places in the world, little kids were coming up and touching my skin because they never had the opportunity to see a white person close up. They’ve never left the system of four or five buildings they live in. Tony’s show and my show have a lot in common. I think the biggest part of that is the balance between entertainment and serious social commentary. I wanted to make a show that lasted as long as this one has lasted. I wanted to have a platform for the messaging. I really felt that in a world where we define ourselves by our differences, if we could have a show about discovering culture through food and learning about it, then we could have conversations about the things we have in common, and have patience and understanding for people’s skin color, political belief systems, what have you. By keeping 20% of our “intelligence”, we were able to have fun with 80% of our entertainment. And it is fun and funny. And the result has been that people like it. People want to watch the show and that is thrilling.
How would you weigh in on the culinary imperialism debate spurred by Francis Lam’s New York Times article?
I think the problem with the debate is that everyone sees it as one conversation. It’s actually five or six different conversations and five of six different points of contention. Let me try to distill this as succinctly as possible.
Firstly, anything being cooked in America is filtered, so it is American food. Secondly, I understand completely some of the most vehement outcries come for honoring the authentic, real, original cuisine. This comes from people who have been ripped off and appropriated in so many other parts of culture, that they say, ‘For god’s sakes, lets hang on to our culinary dignity, and culinary culture. We don’t want that to be stolen from us.”
As a Jewish-American, I know what it’s like for people to think of us in stereotypes. The Chinese Americans have dealt with this since the Charlie Chan movies. This is: Don’t Charlie Chan my food! I think what is really difficult for a lot of people to understand is how much of what people see on TV, in magazines, at places like Aspen Food & Wine, is just the tip of the spear when it comes to the food world. Edward Lee is in the other room with bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce. It’s remarkable. It’s absolutely remarkable stuff. I like that because I don’t see it as treading on Vietnamese tradition. I see it as opening the eyes of people to buying fish sauce. If they like that and they get into that, maybe they’ll want to use more of it in their food. Maybe people who weren’t into Vietnamese food will go out and try it more in restaurants. I think this is all a good conversation to have.
The biggest problem, I think, in the last couple of years, for those who are culinary cultural preservationists, is seeing chefs adopt a national cuisine and because of their own personal fame and skill-set, get a lot of notoriety. It’s frustrating for them. There are a hundred Mexican chefs in America, that no one knows about, toiling in anonymity, doing some of the most delicious and amazing mexican food imaginable. And they may end their careers without having achieved anything on the fame wheel. It’s the fame wheel that accelerates this thing. I think Eddie and Francis started talking about Alex Stupak. I don’t fault Alex one iota. He’s honoring Mexican food. He’s using it as a personal challenge. Chefs want to challenge themselves, create new flavors, open up their audience to new ideas and because he was so fascinated by the depth and breadth of Mexican food culture — and his wife’s heritage — he decided this was something he wanted to do. What are you going to do, tell Alex Stupak, ‘Hey, you’re a great chef, but you can only cook whatever your ethnicity is’? That’s the shallow part of the argument and the comeback and why I think some of this culinary nationalism when it comes to food is kind of a faulty argument.
To me, anyone who wants to cook should cook what they want to cook. Thank god, our food movement in the media-rich aspect of it. I tell stories and write stories, you tell stories and write stories, five years ago we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I think, where we’re better served, if people really want to do something for honoring that authentic quality of mexican food being cooked by Mexicans, vietnamese food being cooked by Vietnamese, let’s point out who those people are in this country. And I think that’s what people like myself try to do, particularly in my domestic series.
And the last part of the argument — what’s more important, even — is to remember… well, I was in Sardinia and I was having a meal at an 800-year-old restaurant with a local food guy and we’re eating this amazing fish dish and the restaurant only makes like six items — you go on there and eat whatever is put on the table. And I said, ‘Wow, I wish one of these was open in New York City.’ And as it’s coming out of my mouth, I realize how stupid and immature that was.
For what I do, I think this conversation is great. Because if people really want to experience that, travel abroad, go eat that cuisine, and then start talking to chefs and having a discussion. I think that’s the important thing. I think anything that limits American chefs from cooking Vietnamese food, for example, is dangerous. I think we want to encourage people all over the world to cook things. Some people say that leads to a very dangerous set of circumstances where the very real food is diluted. I’m not so sure about that. I think there’s an inevitable ebb and flow of civilization. And as the world gets flatter we need to preserve that, we don’t need to eradicate forward thinking.
Bourdain recently left Travel Channel to go to CNN — and said he was excited for the doors CNN would be able to open for him. Are there any places you’ve wanted to be able to go to that you haven’t been able to? Do you feel at all limited?
Well, of course, we all feel limited. We all want more control. We all want to do what we want to do. Right now, I’m at Travel Channel, I have a contract with Travel Channel, I’m happy at Travel Channel, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my internal conversation, everyday, metaphorically speaking, with the production company, with the network, is, “How do we challenge ourselves? How do we be more creative? How do we make the show better? How do we get to more places and do more interesting things?” Television is an evil mistress. Mr. Bourdain told me that the very first time that I met him — 10 years ago, or something. And then he reminded me of it seven years ago, when I joined Travel Channel. I’ve passed that little tidbit on. You create a product, the product is popular. There are so few popular shows on TV, really. I mean, my show has been on almost seven years. You can’t just stop doing that and experiment at your customer’s expense — the viewers, they’re the ones “buying” the product by tuning in all the time. They’re the ones who want to see me do certain things. By the same token, I want to do more things, I think I’m capable of more things. So growing a little bit every year is very important to me. I think that, at the age that Tony and I are at, with family and with all of our other commitments outside of television –
[At this point, we're interrupted by Nobu Matsuhisa. Zimmern greets him with a hearty, "What's up, buddy!" before the pair take a few iPhone photos of themselves (presumably to tweet). "He's one of my favorite people on the planet," Zimmern tells me when he sits back down. "He's been in two episodes of Bizarre Foods!"]
By the very nature of it, you want to spend more time with your family, you want to do other projects, you want to bring your audience along with that — you don’t want a disconnect from them, you want to grow it. And I think that for folks like Tony and myself, one of the really interesting aspects of this is that we live our brands. He’s doing what he does off camera as well as on, so am I. So the natural challenge becomes, ‘How do I get to a place where there’s a larger audience to reach and I can go to the places that are still on my list and I can do other, not more interesting, just other types of stories.’ That really is the nuts and bolts. After nine years at Travel Channel, it was time for [Bourdain to leave]. I’m just so proud of him. I think he is a true original voice in a world filled with imitators and the dirty kept secret in the whole business is what a kind and good person and father he is.