By Oscar Wolfe
Andrew Zimmern takes food to a whole new level. He not only makes absolutely amazing food, he brings philosophy, psychology, and culture into it. Watching him eat and talk about what he’s eating is like having an extremely fun and exciting social studies lesson. When he talks about food, you see it in a whole new way. I first met Chef AZ when I went to camp with his son, Noah. At the camp dinner, I spoke to him about things all the way from running a TV show to what I was doing at camp the next day. Considering how busy he is, I was very honored to be able to sit down and talk with him about his approach to food, business, and life. Also, I promise to eat tomatoes by the time I’m 18. (That’ll make sense after you read the interview.)
When you were a kid, I know you liked food, but did you think you’d run a restaurant some day, or did you think you were going to be on TV?
When I was 6, I knew I was going to be in the food business. And I knew it when I was 7 and 8 and 9 and 10. But television, in the ‘60s, was black and white, no remote, rabbit ears. And we had five channels. (Let the record indicate that the blog writer has raised his hands in a mock state of total confusion!). It was extremely limited. Never occurred to me at that age to do television.
What was it you liked about food?
My parents entertained a lot. They traveled a lot. By the time I became aware, I saw what food did for people: it made people happy. People came together around the table, there was conviviality, and I loved what happened. My mom had a garden, stuff would come out of the garden and get turned into gazpacho. My dad and I would go to the beach in the morning. We’d watch the boats‚ men would pull the nets in, pack all the fish on to the trucks. And a few hours later, on our way home from tennis, we’d stop at the seafood store. That fish would come into our house and go onto our grill. Then I started traveling with my dad and discovered this world of food and I knew I wanted to be part of it. Food really excited me—the stories around it.
Now there are a lot of shows for kids that are about cooking. Like MasterChef Junior. What do you think about those shows?
I think it’s fantastic. I think educating people around food is the most important thing that we can do for our young people. You might not care that much about trade policy with the Czech Republic, but you do eat food every day. Through food, you’re learning. Let’s say the challenge is, you have to make a main dish using only vegetables. Usually Gordon—because he likes to sound most important—will make some comment about how important it is to eat all your vegetables, and maybe they’ll talk about the different properties of vegetables. Now, if you went to a class at school and they presented that material, most people would be pretty bored. But if you put it in the form of a competition reality TV show, most people are really really engaged. The great thing about food, is that when I’m doing my show…which I know, you like much better than MasterChef Junior…
For the sake of this conversation, let’s assume you like my show more than MasterChef Junior.
Great. Through these shows, I can teach people about math and anthropology and sociology and history and health and wellness and philosophy and spirituality. And I do it all through food!
I think the bad part about all these TV shows, including mine, is that in America, we tend to overdo everything. We’re in this romantic era with food where we’ve put too much emphasis on it. I think we need to let it come back to the middle. I also get kind of upset because the entertainment that we’re making on television, just the same way the food our farmers is growing, is starting to be directed to too small a group of people—I call them the Haves. And I think there are a lot of people who are Have Nots, and their needs are not being addressed, and their numbers keep growing. So, you’re very lucky. Noah’s very lucky. You’ve got TVs, you have both your parents around to help keep you organized. And you don’t worry where your food is coming from. Do you? Worry about where your next meal is coming from?
You’re very lucky, because one in five children does not know where their next meal is coming from. I think we have to start addressing this whole other part of the world that isn’t worried about DVRing MasterChef Junior. Or in your case, binge watching Bizarre Foods all weekend! It’s a really serious kind of issue. You’re exposed to all kinds of other ideas about food: Oranges are good for you. Don’t eat too much fast food. Slow down on the sugar. TV shows reinforce those good ideas. There are lots of kids your age who never hear it anywhere. TV is a very powerful teaching tool, so I think it’s important that we create products that everyone can have access to. That’s my big concern with television right now.
Would you rather be a TV guy without food, or have food without TV?
I can’t do either one without the other. Like I was saying, food is the most important cultural totem for teaching, and I know the most about it. But, if I don’t have the media outlet, I’m just talking to a wall. They’ve become inseparable to me.
So, I’m kind of a picky eater. If I came to a restaurant where you were the chef, what would you serve me?
I don’t really believe in pickiness. A lot of parents say to me, ‘my child only eats hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken nuggets.’ Or they only eat brown food. Or they’ll only eat pasta. Or they can’t get him to eat fish. And I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ And they immediately get defensive, and say, ‘Well, you know, most American kids won’t eat fish until they’re older. That’s an acquired taste.’ And I start to get angry. Children are not born genetically disposed to eat one food over another. In fact, when you came into this world, you would eat anything as long as it had the right balance of protein and fat. Culture got to you. Kids in Japan eat pickled and fermented fish when they’re babies. The most popular after school children’s snack in Japan is squid and fish jerky.
Here’s the deal: dried fish is much better for you than goldfish crackers. Kids are not born saying I don’t like fish. Look at all the other cultures where kids only eat fish. That proves to me that what’s different about kids in America: their parents aren’t making them try enough foods. They aren’t insisting that they eat it— in other words, this is dinner, if you’re hungry eat it. We spoil our kids in America. We’re all guilty of it. We live in a land where there’s lots of choice.
I used my kid as a little experiment. When he was really little, we would feed him bugs and all kinds of things that I ate on the road, and he loved them. And the reason was, he had never heard from anyone that those were gross. When he was 6, we were in the garden and I turned over a rock and there were tons of worms. He’d always wanted to eat weird things with me, and so I asked if he wanted to eat one with me, and he said “No, those are yucky!” And I thought, interesting. Someone got to him. Somewhere he learned that.
Like a year ago, when he was 10, we were giving away his old books—the cardboard ones you read when you’re young?
Yes, Yummy Yucky. This is a book that says, “Apples are yummy. Worms are yucky.” It’s amazing that to this day, he’ll eat all this other stuff, but a worm, he won’t eat. I truly don’t believe there are picky eaters. There’s circumstance and culture. What’s one thing you won’t eat?
Perfect example. I guarantee by the time you’re in college, you’ll be eating tomatoes all the time and loving them. Here’s what’s going to happen: You’ll eat something—maybe at an Indian restaurant there will be an incredible sauce, and you’ll go, ‘Oh is this red curry?’ And they’ll say, ‘No it’s tomato, seasoned with spices.’ And it will go from there. You will learn to love tomatoes. The reason I say this with such certainty is the acidity and sugar balance in tomatoes is perfectly keyed.
Has there ever been a food that was too gross for you?
No. Twice, I backed down because I knew it was something that would make me very sick. But under other circumstances, I’ve eaten those same foods. It was chicken intestines in the southern islands of Indonesia. This one was all shot through with polyps. It was a bad intestine.
It’s time for the rapid fire round. Are you ready?
Let’s do it!
Favorite place to travel. Botswana
Favorite food. Chinese food
Favorite food to cook. Anything that comes out of the ocean
Favorite ice cream flavor. Coffee
Favorite ingredient. Lemon
Favorite thing to do on a long flight. Email
Favorite color. Blue
Favorite holiday meal. Turkey
Favorite junk food. Gas station pizza
Favorite food culture. China
Favorite drink. San Pellegrino
Interesting! So, final question. What advice would you have for people who want to be on TV, for people who love food—for anyone who wants to do what you’ve done?
We tend to talk ourselves out of stuff. We set expectations for things that are unachievable, we celebrate certain aspects of perfection that prevent us from getting started. We don’t dive into the deep end of the pool first. I’m just an ordinary dad with an ordinary family in the middle of America. But I have a pretty extraordinary job. The difference is, I just started it. I just asked. In life, just go out and start. You’ll learn much more by starting than by not starting.
Keep up with everything Chef AZ is doing—and it’s a lot!—at andrewzimmern.com