Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern Dishes on His Travel Channel Franchise

'Lunch' with the foodie who believes good grub can save the world

I was joined today by Andrew Zimmern, three-time James Beard Award-winner, chef, content creator, social justice advocate and an all-around Renaissance man who certainly knows how to tell a good story tale.  Judging by the reception he got at Michael’s from gm Steve Millington and the steady stream of menu items that were brought to our table with great flourish, Andrew is a big deal in the foodie universe. But I knew that already.

I barely knew where to start when he showed up. His three-page bio reads like its own miniseries. His life story is just as interesting as his television show—in some ways, even more so. (More on that later). Andrew was in town from his home in Minneapolis for the Scripps Upfronts at Lincoln Center, where he was headed after our lunch. So he was more than happy to taste a little bit of everything on Michael’s lunch menu. “It’s from 2:30 until god knows when, so I’m eating a big lunch,” he said as he sampled the dutch white asparagus with English peas.

Andrew Zimmern, Diane Clehane

Among the many other hats he wears (he arrived wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words, Go Fork Yourself—the name of his podcast), Andrew is the creator and host of the Bizarre Foods franchise on Travel Channel. The fifth season of Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations premieres April 18th with 26 half-hour episodes, following him on incredible, edible expeditions where he discovers the secrets behind some of the world’s most popular—and often unusual—dishes.

Andrew has taken his love of all kinds of foods from different cultures and combined it to make nothing short of a media empire, one which has grown exponentially over the years. “Everyone has a super-power,” he said. “Mine is seeing what’s going to be important before other people do.”

“Food is the great connector,” he told me. “I never do a show where you don’t see a family sitting around eating together.” When he found himself in North Finland eating reindeer with a family of reindeer herders but unable to understand the language, he still knew what they were saying. “It’s the same everywhere—the grandmother would nudge a kid and they’d sit up straighter. Then she’d smile and offer me a piece of the meat. A certain look would say to the kids, ‘Stop bickering.’ You don’t need subtitles for that. It’s universal.”

Andrew told me it was his parents who sparked his culinary curiosity. His father Robert and mother Caren were early aficionados of foods from other cultures. “My mother went to Mills College and roomed with the woman whose father was Trader Vic. He used to give them cooking lessons two nights a week,” he told me. “My parents would travel anywhere in the five boroughs to find a certain spice for my mother’s pu-pu platters. In the 1960’s she was really ahead of her time.”

Andrew’s first job was as a chef at Hamptons’ hot spot Conscience Point when someone else didn’t show up. “I learned an important lesson about life—you don’t have to be the best, but you have to show up and work harder than anyone else.”

He’s obviously taken his own advice but not without tackling some serious issues along the way. When he began his career in the 1980s in New York City (“A decade I don’t remember very well”), he was dazzled by the variety and talent he encountered. “That period was such an exciting time in New York for food. It woke me up—it was like my brain exploded.”

He worked at restaurants run by many celebrated chefs including Anne Rosenzweig, Joachim Splichal and Thomas Keller. Over time, Zimmern found his own reputation was growing. “I was a rock star at work, but my personal life was falling apart. My drug and alcohol use was off the charts.”

Alcohol and drug addiction led to Andrew being homeless for a year in New York in the early 1990s, until an intervention by close friends landed him in Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota. He’s been sober ever since. The move proved to be life-changing in more ways than one. He began washing dishes at the Minneapolis outpost of New York’s Café Un Deux Trois and went on to spend six years as the restaurant’s chef.

“It was something of a culture shock,” said Andrew of his move from New York to Minnesota, but it proved to be the start of what has evolved into an extraordinarily diverse and accomplished career. After seven years at the restaurant, he wanted something more. “As a chef, I was telling stories to customers with food but I needed a bigger audience.”

He found it by becoming a features reporter for a local television station, a magazine writer and even hosted his own drive-time radio show. “I created a syllabus writing about food for television and editorial,” said Andrew. “I learned how to listen and be a good communicator—all the while pushing the idea of the Travel Channel show.”

His tenacity paid off. The test pilot he created ultimately became Bizarre Foods. In 1997, Andrew founded the Minneapolis-based multimedia content production company Food Works, whose properties include his award-winning podcast Go Fork Yourself and website, where he’ll launch the new Andrew Zimmern channel May 1.

He also helms Intuitive Content, a full-service production company that develops his television and broadcast specials. The first television series, Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food, premiered on Travel Channel in August 2016.

Given the state of the world at the moment, I asked him if his shows’ popularity (ratings are their highest since 2011) could be partially attributed to people’s hunger for escapist fare. “When I travel now I meet people who are very very concerned about what’s going on here,” he said. “I find myself saying the same things the Syrian people told me four years ago: [The American people] love the world—our government has a problem expressing that. It’s put a real context into a lot of the work we do.”

When I asked him how he manages to be as productive as he is and sleep just six hours a night, he told me, “I’m not afraid to ask for help. Some people see asking for help as a weakness, I see it as a strength.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Jack Myers
2. Mickey Ateyeh
3. Wayne Kabak
5. Walter O’Hara
6. Jack Kliger
7. Paige Peterson
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Brooke Hayward
11. Cindi Berger
12. Stefan Kaluzny
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. Arthur Bilger
16. Hunter Millington (brother of Michael’s GM Steve Millington)
17. Jorge Suarez
21. Gordon Pattice
22. Tal Keinan
25. Tom Goodman and Manuel Abud, president and CEO, Azteca America
27. Andrew Zimmern, Rebecca Brooks, president of The Brooks Group and Diane Clehane
29. David Sanford and Lewis Stein

[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at lunch@adweek.com.]