The extraordinary Andrew Zimmern has introduced his millions of viewers to the delicacies and stories of food around the globe (bizarre or not). He works diligently for numerous philanthropies, including the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the International Rescue Committee that was instrumental in helping restaurants survive during COVID. His support of the International Rescue Committee’s Voice for Nutrition, which strives to help the more than 51 million children around the world suffering from acute malnutrition, is inspirational. He’s been incredibly supportive of local restaurants and his charitable endeavors through his Andrew Zimmern’s Second Chances Scholarships have benefitted many struggling with extreme challenges. He’s given many a welcome and much-needed second chance. Bravo to one of our nation’s most renowned and caring foodies.
Travelgirl: I’ve followed you for years and years. I first became enamored when you launched Bizarre Foods and I’ve been a fan ever since. I wondered how you could eat the most unusual and sometimes rather ghastly things. You always had a smile and something endearing and enchanting to say. Was there one food item that didn’t appear enticing but really surprised you?
Andrew Zimmern: There have been so many. I remember the fertilized 14-to-16-day-old duck eggs in the Philippines. They were certainly something I had no idea I would enjoy, but I adored them. There were spicy, deep fried tiny little birds, which are available in jungle markets all over the world. They weren’t something I would think about every week, but I love them — they are delicious.
There are hundreds of sorts of Dr. Seuss-type animal experiences where you have no idea until you get to a place that certain foods are eaten there. For instance, iguana eggs don’t have a hard shell. The white shell on the outside of an iguana egg is rubbery and elastic. When it’s cooked you have to nip it with your teeth and suck the egg out, yet it’s delicious. People around the world do eat yummy food.
TG: It sounds as if nothing edible frightens you.
AZ: No, nothing.
TG: Where did your love of food come from? I’m Jewish and I bake challah. I make gefilte fish, kreplach, brisket, kugels — all types of Jewish food — and oddly enough, my mother never cooked. But my mother-in-law was a fabulous cook. Who inspired you? You have a great love of food.
AZ: My parents and grandparents got me started. Some of my friends’ mothers loved to cook and many would take cooking lessons at the 92nd street Y in the late 60’s and early 70’s. These moms would come back with incredible recipes. I was entranced and I wanted to cook everything that I could get my hands on.
I started working in professional kitchens in the summer of 1975. As a teenager that was my job and my love of cooking took off from there. As far as inspiration, I think I’ve drawn the biggest inspiration in a sense from the home cooks I’ve met over the years. They are the real masters of a specific dish or craft. I’ve known and I’ve worked in many kitchens under many famous chefs. I could rattle off a name and it’s a nice sound bite and I learned a lot in those kitchens. But when it comes to inspiration, it’s the home cooks. It’s experiences such as spending time in the home of an Italian family in Ravello, watching this family make meatballs in a way that I’ve never seen before. This knowledge can literally change my relationship to that food and how I cook it. This is what inspires me.
TG: I’ve read about AZ Canteen and would have loved to have been in Minnesota when you opened it. You’ve showcased not just food from around the world, but the history of food and that’s really interesting.
AZ: You’ve got to learn about the food first and then you can fall in love with it. You’re on the right track.
TG: You were born in New York, but live in Minnesota. Atlantans are very delighted you’ve set your sights on our great city partnering with and developing Chattahoochee Food Works. I do want to recognize the fact that Scott Selig, of blessed memory, was the impetus behind this development in the beginning. What most interested you in the project?
AZ: It dates back to the City of Atlanta for which I have an incredible love and abiding passion for. My family came over to the United States in the early 19th century and came into the port of Charleston. They were German Jews and meat cutters and they made their way to Atlanta, which was a booming bustling city. They wound up heading north to New York City after the Civil War.
I’m a very modern scientific person. I’m sitting at a table talking to you and this table is extremely solid — it’s a 500-pound slab of red oak. It is rock solid and I could drop something on it and it’s impervious, but science tells me it’s actually not solid. Science tells me it’s a swirling mass of electrons, right? I feel pretty stable in my chair, but I know the earth is 19 degrees tilted and spinning through space at 20,000 miles an hour so not everything is at it appears to be.
When I am in Atlanta, instantly I can feel the change. If I was blindfolded and I was flown somewhere, I truly believe if I landed in Atlanta, I could name the city when I got off the plane by how my skin felt. That could be just in my head, but I have and always have had, an affinity for Atlanta. That’s the reason I work with an Atlanta nonprofit called The Giving Kitchen. My relationship with The Giving Kitchen predates my relationship with the Seligs and my partnership with Bobby Montwaid and the idea of developing the food hall in Atlanta.
Atlanta is a special place for me. I saw the building itself, then I met the Selig family and I fell in love with them. I believe because of that combination, and of the scope of the project which includes the architecture itself, the physical space, the building and the series of brick single-story units spread out over 90 acres, I felt it was going to be something really special. My partner Bobby and I wanted to be a part of that.
TG: You curated and selected the restaurants. What was the criteria to become one of the 31 vendors in this 25,000-square-foot food hall?
AZ: Curation and selection are quite a bit different today than it was years ago. We had an idea of what sort of mix we were looking for. You have to curate and select vendors and determine a menu mix for the food hall. When we started, we made phone calls to every food person in Atlanta and then COVID shut the country down. There was the idea that everything would be mothballed for a while.
While I was off shooting my television shows, my partner literally went to Atlanta every other week and just walked and talked to people. You have to remember most restaurants were closed. The ones that were open were serving at only 25 percent or they were just doing to-go orders or some sort of delivery or take-out. My partner would visit these restaurants. He would ask where the best tacos and other sorts of foods were located and they would tell him. One by one, working the phones and working the streets together, we found some incredible entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs had to put their dreams on hold for more than 12 to 14 months due to COVID.
The people in the food hall, they are our partners, together they make up the rich tapestry of the experience of walking in there. This is not about Bobby or me; it’s not about selection or curation. I actually think it’s about the kismet of these incredible entrepreneurs who stuck it out and wound up persevering. Their stories are absolutely staggering and inspirational, and they make this collection of vendors what it is today.
For instance, it’s about the two friends who always wanted to make pizza together. It’s the mom and dad with eight children who are doing their take on their grandmother’s soul food. It’s the young South African kid who is doing some inspired food based on the food he grew up with. And it’s the pair of twins who for years, spanning decades, have worked for some of the best Mexican chefs in the country. These twins wanted to start their own business selling some incredible food, tacos, and other things and they are able to do it here. It really is a magical collection of people.
TG: I am sure for many of the chefs this is their first physical brick-and-mortar restaurant. What advice can you offer so that one day some of these chefs can walk in your famous footsteps
AZ: You just get up every day and you keep doing the right thing. I am certainly no one special. I just said yes to the next right thing. It sounds really cliché, but that’s rather complex because you are faced with hundreds of decisions every day and saying yes to the good stuff and saying no to the bad stuff takes practice. You may make mistakes, but at the end of the day, if your heart is in the right place, and you genuinely want to do things for other people, which I believe is our purpose here on earth, incredible things will come to pass.
TG: This is not your first food hall project. What attracts you to food halls both as a consumer and as a food expert?
AZ: First and foremost, the people and the stories attract me to food halls. I was at the Thursday night market in Berlin, which is one of the most famous food halls in the world. There are hundreds of vendors and it’s an extraordinary place. People come from all over Europe to sell there. There is a booth occupied by Dutch fishermen, a collective where they bring oysters and herring and all types of things, and it’s quite exceptional. There’s a booth that rotates every month, and it’s given to vendors as an opportunity to cook and raise money for whatever reasonable nonprofit or cause the group wants to raise money for.
The last time I was there I saw this lamb dish. It was a Syrian dish and I remembered there was a huge influx of Syrian refugees in Germany. I went over to see what the booth was all about and there were four Syrian families working there together, cooking Syrian food. There was a big line of customers because the smells, flavors, and tastes of their food were outstanding. I remember these families asking me what I wanted to eat and I said, although I really wanted to taste their food, I wanted to talk to them first. I would eat their food later. They were so surprised that I wanted to speak with them.
I find the human story to be most compelling and then the food comes after. Here were four families, which included a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher, and they all had horrific refugee stories. They had suffered through really traumatic experiences and it was heartbreaking to hear their tales, but it wound up becoming a love story. These were the lucky ones who were able to get their papers in Germany and start their lives again. The doctor someday will hope to practice medicine again and the lawyer will one day hope to practice law. The accountant had already started with accounting work and the teacher was teaching Syrian children in the community. They had suffered from a lot of anger and hate directed at them because they were immigrants from another country.
You find all sorts of stories in food halls. The world is not made up of fried chicken, fast cars, nice watches, and iPhones. The world is made up of people and I find people extremely compelling.
TG: You are the ultimate foodie, a renowned celebrity chef. You are an accomplished author. You have a wealth of top-notch television shows and you’ve won an Emmy. You teach, you produce and direct, and you’ve won four coveted James Beard awards. You are also a philanthropist and you make it a priority to be there for those who need your help. Which of these most defines you? In my opinion, it’s philanthropy.
AZ: I would agree with you. Philanthropy is the thing that occupies me and my time the most. The stuff that really interests me are the nonprofits and the boards I sit on and the development work that I’m doing here in Minnesota, in my own communities to try to heal and repair damage that has been done. This is what I hope will be the longer lasting legacy of mine.
TG: How do you balance your busy and rewarding career and your personal life? You’re a guiding light for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, diligently striving to save restaurants affected by COVID-19. You are also an inspiration to students with extreme challenges. You’ve given them an opportunity through your Andrew Zimmern’s Second Chances Scholarships and you scored a huge success with the International Rescue Committee. How do you balance it all?
AZ: I don’t; I wish I could. I get up every day and I keep going until nighttime. There’s so much need and so much to do. I don’t know any other way to approach it, so I dive into the deep end of the pool and get busy.
There were 20 or 30 of us who got together in the beginning of March 2020 and we knew there was going to be a big problem for the independent restaurants and bars and the millions of people employed in this industry who would be affected by COVID-19. We decided to do something and we founded the IRC (Independent Restaurant Coalition) and several of us on the leadership committee sent a group text and as the SBA dollars started flowing, we were sort of collectively crying together. It was an incredible achievement. In over a year and a month, we went from being nothing to delivering $28 billion. We were finally able to deliver something to the people who needed it the most.
You asked about the Second Chances Scholarships. I have one at the CIA, [Culinary Institute of America] and one at the James Beard Foundation. I was given so many second chances in my life and if I hadn’t been given these chances, I would have died a long time ago.
TG: What shows are on the horizon including your Family Dinner, which can be seen on Chip & Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network?
AZ: That’s the newest one, [Family Dinner with Andrew Zimmern] on Discovery+ and on the Magnolia App and the Magnolia Network, which takes over DIY, which happens in January 2022. We have a bunch of other really cool shows in the works which I’m very excited about.
TG: You’ve eaten, written about, and developed television shows in almost 200 countries. Is there one item America’s most famous foodie never leaves home without when you are packing to hit the road?
AZ: Yes, crushed dried red chilies. I like spicy food and I find myself ordering room service at a hotel at 10 p.m. and the one thing they usually send up is a tiny bottle of tabasco. I always like to have dried red chilies for the bowl of pasta I order from room service.
TG: Is there one country you haven’t visited that’s on Andrew Zimmern’s bucket list? Do you have a favorite destination?
AZ: Shockingly I still haven’t been to the Czech Republic. If I go to Paraguay, I can cross all of South America off my list.
TG: Do you have a favorite destination, some place you really love?
AZ: Yes, southern and southwestern Africa. I find it a magical place. I find the indigenous people there to be kind and spiritually connected to their world and that is very special to me. This is real traveling and it takes forever to get into some the tribal communities there.
TG: Thank you for enlightening and enriching our lives through all of your endeavors.
For more information or to donate to Andrew Zimmern’s wealth of worthwhile (delight enriching) causes, please log onto https://andrewzimmern.com.