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You Won't Want To Miss What Andrew Zimmern Is Cooking Up Next
No one eats a Manila street vendor’s whole baby chicken with more gusto than Andrew Zimmern. His eyes twinkle as he reaches for a deep-fried morsel, then he raises one eyebrow and offers a puckish smile. “Mmm, I’m telling you, the beak is the best part.”
There’s no question that the shock-and-ick factor of Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods series helped make the show a Travel Channel hit and turned the 56-year-old chef into the award-winning head of a food-based multimedia empire. (Bizarre Foods alone has spawned four spinoffs.) But go behind the curtain with Zimmern at his new Minnesota headquarters, and you will meet a man who wants his fans to look beyond his bug-eating to learn about other cultures. “We need to engage in patience, tolerance, and understanding—and I think we can learn to do that through food,” he says. “The question that governs everything I do is ‘will it leave the world a better place?’” With that philosophy guiding him, Zimmern has not only found an astonishing level of success, but has finally been able to achieve the equilibrium he’s always craved: to make the work he does match who he is inside.
“I knew from the restaurant business that if I worked harder than everyone else and made myself indispensable, someone would hire me.”
It hasn’t been easy. The only child of smart, sophisticated New Yorkers, Zimmern lived a charmed childhood, traveling to Europe and Asia with his parents, and embracing each new cuisine so happily that “by the time I was five, they knew I was going to be in the food business.” Then, trauma hit. When Zimmern was six, his parents divorced. Seven years later, his mother fell into a coma after routine surgery, and suffered permanent brain injury.
The teenage Zimmern numbed himself with alcohol and a constellation of drugs, retreating into “a very dark world.” He made it through college, though, and during the 1980s made a career cooking and running some of New York’s top restaurants. But the clash between outer success and his fragile inner self was intolerable. “I felt like the world was a dangerous, scary place,” he remembers. “I was trying to define myself by what other people thought of as a success. Everything was about me—shiny objects and the acquisition of things. I was a user of people and a taker. I thought that was the only way to get ahead.”
His substance abuse skyrocketed, turning him into “an everything addict,” and “the guy you crossed the street to avoid.” An intervention by friends sent him to rehab at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota, where he began to redefine his approach to life. “I was sprinkled with dignity and respect, which I didn’t deserve but got anyway,” he says. “It’s amazing what that can do to rehydrate a shriveled human soul. I found a different set of principles to live by—including a regular spiritual practice and community—that wasn’t based on putting me first.”
He has lived in Minnesota—and stayed sober—ever since. He and his wife, Rishia Haas, married in 2002, and three years later, their son, Noah, was born. A reentry into the restaurant business brought success, but the feeling of imbalance returned: “I felt I needed a bigger audience,” he says by way of explaining his next unorthodox move: he quit and began reaching out to the growing food media world for new opportunities. No one responded, so he took yet another gamble, setting out to learn the business by taking unpaid internships at a local magazine and a radio and TV station. “I knew from the restaurant business that if I worked harder than everyone else and made myself indispensable, someone would hire me.” In the end, all three of his employers did.
The first episodes of Bizarre Foods, born from his realization that “you can tell the history of people on a plate,” debuted in 2006, with even mainstream viewers praising Zimmern’s “serious appreciation for social and culinary diversity.” Since then he’s been busy expanding his empire, with titles like podcaster, book author, content production company head, and mass food entrepreneur all under his belt. One of his newer ventures, AZ Canteen, is bringing global cuisine to the most American of locales. “We’re serving food made with recipes I found on the road in the Levant in American baseball stadiums!” he says proudly.
Zimmern’s work has won him four ultra-prestigious James Beard Awards (the “Oscars of food”), and he’s been nominated for eight more. But he’s never forgotten his own struggles and or his belief that it’s his duty to give back. His philanthropic efforts range from helping would-be chefs with entrepreneurial challenges and aiding special needs New Yorkers to bringing comfort to families living without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Not surprisingly, he also works with and for organizations that focus on hunger and substance abuse. In fact, he even credits his professional achievements to his hard-won understanding of the need to be “other-centered.” “Spiritual practices can be paradoxical,” he says. “If you want to go left, practice going right. If you want to achieve for yourself, start doing things for other people. Once I stopped putting myself first, amazing things started to happen.”
Truly great dishes, says Andrew Zimmern, “are a balance of complementing and contrasting textures, temperatures, flavors, and spices. Without contrast, you can end up with a mish-mosh that’s not fun for anyone. If you want to be serious about what you do in the kitchen, I recommend James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. How to create and construct balanced dishes is laid out in there.”
The colorful array of companies and efforts that could be called “Zimmern World” found a new home last year, when the chef moved all his businesses under one roof in St. Louis Park, just outside Minneapolis. The headquarters, where much of the magic happens, includes a 1,400-square-foot test kitchen for trying out recipes, as well as for entertaining, brainstorming, and shooting videos. He gestures expansively as he offers a peek inside at the carefully designed space. “Everything happens in the kitchen; it’s our company’s North Star.”
Zimmern, who’s traveled to dozens of countries on six continents, literally had the world at his disposal when it came to outfitting his own kitchen. For counters and backsplash, he chose Cambria natural stone in the new silky and low-sheen matte surface option. Zimmern also put Cambria counters in his family’s personal kitchen.
Test Kitchen Tales
Andrew Zimmern’s studio kitchen, designed by Shea Architects, is rich with an array of colors, metals, and wood finishes, and meets Zimmern’s need for flexibility with a cleverly movable center island and shelving units. The chef also relies on a dozen KitchenAid appliances (including several in a prep area that is hidden when he films). Work surfaces in Cambria CARRICK™ and Clareanne™ designs complement the Nordic farmhouse look—and the Cambria Matte™ low-sheen (and low-maintenance) option means there’s never glare under camera lights.
“Cambria’s a family-owned Minnesota company; so, as a local, I’d been aware of it for a long time,” he says. “As a culinary professional, I was especially impressed to learn its surface is nonporous and nonabsorbent, which reduces the potential for spreading harmful bacteria. I thought, ‘Wow, what a great brand asset—all you have to do to maintain it is wipe!’ Cambria really stands alone as a forward-thinking brand in its category. It performs beautifully and it looks beautiful as well.”
It’s anyone’s guess what new projects will emerge from Zimmern World, but it’s a fair guess that they’ll include elements of the exotic and an edge of adventure. It’s even more certain that they’ll be projects that feel right to Zimmern himself—projects from the heart. In fact, not long ago, one of his nearly 1.2 million Twitter followers sharply criticized him for posting a political comment. He replied with a tweeted shrug: “Meaningless in light of [the] bigger issue, which is to be yourself.” With a life that fell so profoundly out of balance and that he so painstakingly reclaimed and realigned, Zimmern is not about to be anything else.
Zimmern’s Splendid Seafood
Focus on freshness. “I don’t buy frozen fish; it’s just not as good,” Zimmern says. “Remember that nowadays you can have impeccably fresh seafood sent directly to your door from seafood shops across the country.”
Know your source. “Never buy seafood from someone who can’t or won’t tell you where it’s from, who caught it, and when it got to the store,” advises Zimmern. “Be a good customer and engage with the people who are selling you your food.”
Buy what’s local and sustainable. Zimmern laments that “People can be very rigid, they’ll walk into a store and see five species that are so fresh they’re still in rigor mortis, but if a recipe calls for swordfish, that’s what they’ll buy, even if it’s two days old. There’s fabulous fresh lake trout and whitefish all over Minnesota where I live, yet most Minnesotans don’t cook it. I wish the whole country would stop cooking shrimp, halibut, salmon, crab, and tuna for an entire month, and investigate other fish.”
Refine your technique. “Fresh seafood is best when you do as little to it as possible,” says Zimmern. “You need to know how to sauté a piece of fish, how hot to keep the pan, whether to use butter or oil, whether to flour a fillet or go in naked. You should know how to combine shallots, capers, white wine, butter, parsley, and lemon to make a basic pan sauce. My website, andrewzimmern.com has how-to videos as well as thousands of recipes.”