Andrew Zimmern’s Nonstop Road (and Food) Show
Posted September 11, 2018 3:56 p.m. EDT
WAYZATA, Minn. — On a warm August evening at an outdoor charity rock concert not far from Minneapolis, restlessness overtook Andrew Zimmern.
So he pushed through a cloud of cigar smoke, dodged a waiter handing out tuna tartare on edible spoons and charmed his way past a guard at the backstage fence. Somehow, he ended up on stage with Cheap Trick, screaming the group’s 1978 hit “Surrender” into a microphone, a Hamer “Gonna Raise Hell” Explorer guitar slung over his shoulder.
His deep need to stay in motion is apparent whether you’re a fan of his long-running Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern,” one of his 2 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, or just a reporter along for the ride.
He drives his Audi too fast. He pulls his ball cap low and snakes through crowded restaurants to avoid fans seeking selfies. He hustles through airports like a sled dog with a cellphone.
Zimmern is on the road so often — on his way to make television about food or give a speech about food or tell business executives what to do about food — that his head hits his own pillow only about a third of the year. Even when he is home in Minneapolis, the city where he landed 26 years ago strung out, broke and with no options left but one more stint in rehab, he is so tightly scheduled he can’t find time to call up an old friend for dinner.
Still, without the grounding he finds in Minnesota, who knows what would have happened to this son of New York with a Vassar education and a taste for expensive furniture, guitars and disc golf?
“I’m always surprised at the number of people who don’t know who he is here,” said Adam Platt, the executive editor of Twin Cities Business, who edited Zimmern when he was a food writer for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. “In the Midwest, and especially in Minnesota, there is a substantial community for whom food is simply fuel.”
A little anonymity is a good thing for a man who needs a security team when he travels to many of the 150 countries where his show appears. “I think if I were in New York or LA, I’d be a lot more douchey,” Zimmern said.
Zimmern, 57, might be one of the last acceptable old white guys in food media. In an age of reckoning over sexual harassment and the rise of global American cuisine that rejects cultural appropriation, the man who once sold T-shirts printed with the slogan “Food Woody" and made a career eating coconut grubs and raw pig testicles in other countries should be getting pummeled by ratings and torn up on social media.
But so far, the opposite is happening. He has never been more successful or more popular.
“Andrew has this way of A, getting what he needs out of a situation without destroying anyone involved in it, and B, making people feel respected even if he can’t meet them where they are,” said Jordana Rothman, a friend and the restaurant editor of Food & Wine magazine.
She and others in the food business say he has become a confessor and a guide, showing people how to navigate the industry with a measure of grace and honesty, especially after a year of tumult and scandal.
“He is willing to knock the big rock over to show the squirrelly, wormy bits underneath it,” Rothman said.
Zimmern has had to do a fair share of self-correcting lately, both personally and professionally.
Some changes have been subtle. He has quit using the phrases “ethnic food” and “hole in the wall,” which he came to see as derogatory and steeped in white privilege. Others are more substantial, like taking on a muscular new business strategy. Some are just sad, like trying to unpack why he and his wife, Rishia Zimmern, are getting divorced.
The split is difficult but amicable, they say. The couple have a son, Noah, who is 13.
Zimmern is bracingly frank about where his marriage went wrong. They met 18 years ago at a cookware store in Minneapolis and married two years later. He was leaving the restaurant business and starting a career in food media, a shift he thought the would allow him more time to be a family man. It had the opposite effect, especially as his career took off.
“I wasn’t there for my wife, and I wasn’t there for my son,” he wrote in an email. “My wife gave me a thousand chances to make it right.” He underestimated his own ambition, he wrote, and “the strange dependence I would come to have surrounding all the attention and the merry-go-round of being a public person.”
It’s something he used to talk about with Anthony Bourdain, who killed himself in June. Bourdain’s Travel Channel show “No Reservations” started two years before his, and over the years they became friends. They would huddle up when their paths crossed, exploring the dark places inside both of them, and the perils of using the road and fame to fill them.
“We shared a very, very deep feeling of wanting to get off this crazy roller coaster, but at the same time knowing that this was our work,” Zimmern said in an interview on the day Bourdain died.
The death has intensified Zimmern’s quest to learn balance, something he says is elusive for chefs, athletes, actors and other celebrities. “In all honesty, it’s at the core of what the impostor syndrome is all about,” he said. “People telling you all the time how great you are, how much you’ve accomplished, screaming, ‘We love you! You’re the best!’ from the car speeding by. But at the end of the day, on the inside, you don’t always feel good about yourself.”
His solution is to double down on health and sobriety. “I want to be the best dad and the best ex I can be.”
Still, his ambition runs deep. So does his taste for business, which he started honing as a young drug dealer at the Dalton School, an exclusive Manhattan prep school he graduated from in 1979.
“I always say I don’t want to be the best. I want to be the only,” he said over hand-cut noodles one recent afternoon at Shan Dong Restaurant in Oakland, California, a favorite of his. “You want to bust your ass and make the perfect hot sauce and market yourself against 300 other brands of incredible hot sauce? You’re a schmuck. You actually want to go out and make something different. Be the only.”
Zimmern is the star of four shows, including “Big Food Truck Tip,” which premieres Sept. 19 on Food Network. His production company, Intuitive Content, is firmly in the black, he says; it’s cuing up food shows, documentaries and branded content for companies like Caribou Coffee and Renaissance Hotels.
He has endorsements, a catering company and a food hall project here. He once had a line of reading glasses, based on his own round spectacles, called the Zimm; proceeds funded his “second chances” scholarship through the James Beard Foundation.
Then there is Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen, which sells food at sports stadiums, and a coming chapter book for children, “AZ and the Lost City of Ophir,”that he hopes to spin into its own entertainment franchise. He still finds time to cover food at the Minnesota State Fair like the local TV reporter he once was, and fill his social media feeds with cooking videos and jabs at President Donald Trump.
He is even pondering politics, which is not a stretch in a state that elected Al Franken, a comedic actor, to the Senate and Jesse Ventura, a retired professional wrestler, as governor.
But first, he has to nail what he says is the most terrifying business venture he has taken on. In November, he plans to open Lucky Cricket in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. It’s a Chinese restaurant with tiki drinks — a sort of P.F. Chang’s for a new generation. The menu is inspired by his travels and the Chinese food he grew up eating. It’s designed for replication; Zimmern’s partner, Michael McDermott, founded the 46-restaurant Kona Grill chain, and McDermott’s father started Chi-Chi’s and Fuddruckers.
“I’m not opening Lucky Cricket in Flushing,” Zimmern said, “but why shouldn’t someone in Des Moines have a good time and a tiki drink and a proper bowl of house-made won tons in chili oil? What could be more fun?”
His philosophy, he says, is “land and expand.” It’s a strategy he honed when he was breaking into television. “Bizarre Foods,” it turned out, was a perfect Trojan horse.
His producers helped him see that the show needed to be about 25 percent education and 75 percent entertainment, instead of the brainier show he had envisioned. So when the pilot aired in the fall of 2006, he was an affable white guy eating fruit bats in Chiang Mai and a beating frog’s heart in Tokyo.
Slowly, he has turned the ship. The show is still an easy-to-consume hour of travel with unusual food, but now Zimmern walks more directly into cultural issues like race in America, which he did in a recent episode about the Underground Railroad.
Michael Twitty, the food writer whose book “The Cooking Gene” traces a genealogical journey to his family’s African roots, was a guest. He walked away enamored.
“He has what I call ‘the grandma effect,'” Twitty said. “When you are there with her, you feel like you are the only, only, only one. And then you realize she is that way with every grandchild and every child and every person she sees. And that’s him.”
Zimmern is smarter than the average viewer may give him credit for, said Cheryl Yaffe Kiser, executive director of the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College in Massachusetts, where Zimmern is an entrepreneur-in-residence.
“He’s like this walking human encyclopedia of food cultures and people,” she said. “There isn’t anything he doesn’t know about anything. I could talk to him about retail clothing and he would know something.”
But she, like others close to him, worries about how much time he spends on the road, and how much emotional capital he gives away. “It feeds him in a very important ways, but because I love Andrew I am concerned about him,” she said. Zimmern talks regularly to sober chefs who are thinking about relapsing, and people who want to stop drinking. He texts friends who he knows are on the edge of emotional breakdowns. He has spoken at more jails and rehabilitation centers than he can recall, and in June bared his soul at a closed-door support group for restaurant workers at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.
It helps keep him sober. So when a program manager at San Quentin, the death-row state prison on San Francisco Bay, asked him to speak to about 120 prisoners who were graduating from sobriety and behavioral programs, the answer was an easy yes.
On a July morning, Zimmern stepped to a lectern in a cinder-block hall, shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and launched into his story. “I have spent my life always trying to game whatever situation I was in,” he began.
For the next hour, he laid it all out. Born in Manhattan, an only child, to parents who were divorced by the time he was 5. His father was a world-traveling former Navy man with a big appetite who got into the advertising game and lived much of his life as a closeted gay man.
His mother struggled with the effects of brain damage from a botched surgery to remove an appendix scar. She slipped into a coma while Zimmern was away at camp. When he came home, his father’s advice was never to talk about it.
“I thought, ‘Fantastic,'” Zimmern said.
He started drinking in earnest then, and became a drug dealer in high school and college, where he drank so much he was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. He was arrested a lot.
Zimmern took some summer jobs cooking, and discovered he was good at it. He got better when he worked in European restaurant kitchens during breaks from college. By the late-1980s, he was cooking in New York with chefs like Anne Rosenzweig and Thomas Keller.
He became the indispensable guy who could put out 120 servings of poached eggs for Sunday brunch, or execute perfect risotto no matter how high or hung over.
He fell in love with heroin, and his addictions grew so bad that even restaurants didn’t want him anymore. He kicked the drugs, but not the drinking. He ended up living in an abandoned building, stealing purses from the backs of chairs at outdoor cafes.
“I was the vagrant pushing the shopping cart that people crossed the street to avoid,” he told the inmates.
At the end, Zimmern rented a cheap hotel room and started draining plastic bottles of vodka. The idea was to drink himself to death. When that didn’t work, he surrendered. He called a childhood friend for help, and within a few days entered a treatment center in Minnesota.
At San Quentin, he told the inmates that he had found a higher power and a purpose: “I want to teach tolerance and love and understanding in a world that doesn’t have enough of it.”
Afterward, he hung out at the back of the room, forking through a slab of sugary orange-flavored sheet cake and drinking a cup of blue punch an inmate had scooped from a plastic cooler.
“I’m more comfortable here than in the room I’m going to walk into to make television tonight,” he told them.
“You’re good, man,” one inmate answered. “We got you.”