International man of mystery and crusader for healthy and sustainable food sources, Andrew Zimmern, is understandably passionate about his job and the culinary world as a whole.
As the host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, Zimmern has no qualms about presenting viewers with episodes that challenge their palates and perceptions of what a balanced and healthy diet can and should be — while are the same time having loads of fun in the process.
FishbowlDC had the opportunity to speak with this gastronomic giant in our latest Q&A — as we geeked out hard about the DC food scene, food in politics, the grossest thing he’s ever eaten (spoiler alert: it’s walnuts), an episode from his new season of Bizarre Foods, as well as a phenomenal MFK.
Check it out!
FishbowlDC: You named Ethiopian food as your #1 favorite moments from the DC episode, did you have a favorite dish?
Andrew Zimmern: “We ended up cooking in someone’s home and she made a chicken wat that was transcendently other worldly. Ethiopian food is so fantastic. It’s so beautifully flavored. It’s elegant, it’s rich, it’s a tapestry, and it’s really difficult to find the level of cooking that’s appropriate, what it’s potential can be, in restaurants — especially American restaurants.
So much of Ethiopian food is designed out of techniques that are “scoop and serve.” Much in the same way the Southern food icons are best enjoy in what are called “meat free restaurants” – where you eat cafeteria style. You pick the protein and wonder down the line, and pick out three sides and grab your tray and hit the table. When you go to an Ethiopian restaurant, so many of the dishes are very long cooking — stews and braises — and they are layered with a ton technique and ingredients that all take many, many hours to prepare some of these dishes.
Most restaurants make a lot of the food ahead of time, which is totally appropriate, and then when orders come in they can reheat, they can pull something out of an oven, and serve. It doesn’t mean all the food is that way, but a lot of the stuff is. And I think in someone’s home they have a lot more ability to showcase all the nuances of it that is missing in a lot of Ethiopian restaurants I eat.”
FBDC: Was Jose Andres offended when you put him at #2 in your Top 5 for DC?
AZ: “Jose Andres is one of my best friends. He is a colleague. He is a mentor. We were very close. We spent time with his family, and he with mine. So, I understand very well the spirit with which I intended that. If I chose a food experience with him over a family meal at a home in DC, he would probably question that choice.”
FBDC: If you could have a meal with any politician, who would it be?
AZ: “Oh my gosh… Right now? I’m gonna say Hillary Clinton. Well, alive would be Hillary Clinton — just because at the day and time which you’re asking, she is the one I would have the most questions for. So, I would want to talk to her.
In the ghost category, I would take Teddy Roosevelt because he is so many of the things I aspire to be. He was an international man of mystery back in the days when you could be an international man of mystery. He developed our American park system. He was the first police chief of the city of New York. He was a New Yorker, first and foremost, and the, moved away. And like me, I’m a New Yorker who no longer lives there. He was a hunter, an outdoorsman as I am. He was a thinker. He was dedicated to public service and the idea of civic solutions to political problems, as am I. And I like Teddy Roosevelt.”
FBDC: Marry, “Kiss,” Kill: Adam Richman, Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri.
AZ: “You’ve picked three people that has left me no out. I would definitely marry Bourdain because the bastard love child of our union dominates the food and travel landscape for the next 100 years. I would kiss Adam Richman because he’s mishpocha and I can’t kill the Jewish guy. Guy Fieri is a very good friend of mine, and he’s one of the most misunderstood and most misrepresented people in food media. I can’t say I could kill him, except if I had the vampire-like powers to resurrect him. So, there’s a nice answer that saves me.”
FBDC: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but besides walnuts (your least favorite food), what is the grossest food you’ve ever eaten?
AZ: “Dinner at your house last week was awful… But I don’t eat walnuts and I don’t eat raw cookie dough, I just don’t like the texture. I don’t eat spam. I don’t eat oatmeal.”
FBDC: I’ve seen you eat fermented fish in Japan, and these are the grossest things you’ve ever eaten?
AZ: “I think walnuts, spam, oatmeal — those are the things that freak me out. I just can’t eat them.”
FBDC: The First Lady has been pushing to reform the nutrition requirements for school lunches for years, but she’s encountering resistance because kids don’t seem to like some of the food that meet the new requirements. Taking aside what the requirements are and how they could be met, after sampling the world’s cuisine, is there some way that you think American palettes should change, that maybe we should be instilling in kids?
AZ: “Here’s the problem. Changing the food systems in America requires a 25 year social justice movement, sufficient to change all of those defective parts and replace them with new ones. There are so many moving pieces, I think it is a 25 year long process that thankfully we are in the middle of right now — much in the same way that it was uncomfortable for a lot of people to start wearing seat-belts.
My father used to shove the seat-belts in between the folds in the back and in the seats of the bench in the family wagon to pretend they are not there. My son reminds me, if I don’t put my seatbelt on the moment I get in the car, I hear this voice in the back reminding me to. When I was in high school 35-40 years ago, smoking was cool. Marlboro man was on TV. The heroes of my life were people that had cigarettes dangling out of their mouths. With my son’s friends, there’s not a single kid I meet who thinks smoking is cool. Social change movements have end points.
There is going to be discomfort. Part of government’s role is to make some hard choices, especially when it comes to protecting the citizenry in the aspect of public health. I am not a fan of big government, but one of the primary reasons we have a federal government is when it comes to public health and wellness. We cannot be 50 states united with 50 different policies. We cannot think that children in Mississippi are any less deserving of social justice programs and hunger solution programs than kids in states like Colorado or New York or Massachusetts or any where else.
What we’re left with is a situation that has not been fully appreciated for the disaster it has become. I’m a little bit offended that the last three presidents have not deemed it important enough to place a policy czar in charge of our food systems in America. We have a captain-less ship. My opinion when it comes to that: my child for many years did not like the fact that our meals were made up of healthy foods, and several choices when it came to vegetables and salads and gains and all the rest, that animal protein was not the center plate of every meal. Now, he’s irritated at other homes and they’re given fried chicken nuggets and baked potatoes. And he’s only 10… Was he thrilled with it when he was 4-5 years old? No. When he was 6 years old and said ‘I get dessert at the cafeteria at school,’ it’s like, ‘well at home, dessert is not something that comes at the end of every meal.’ We have problems in this country with consuming sugar. I’ll give you an example, we have misrepresented dessert to several generations of American children. We have allowed the people who create products with sugary sweets to co-opt our schools, and put soda machines in the hallways and to put chocolate milk in our lunchrooms. And the reason we need a captain for this captain-less ship: taking those things away is going to require disciplinary changes at many different levels about how we operate.
We have to recreate a whole food system, and I believe very, very strongly in what the First Lady is trying to do. I understand that she also recognizes that we are in the middle of the social change movement. She is also trying to get something accomplished, and not everything accomplished this year. I am thrilled that we finally have a First Lady who is engaged on this issue. Thrilled beyond my wildest dreams, but I do think we need another level of curiousness about this. 20% of kids in America are suffering from food insecurity. Juvenile diabetes has never been a bigger problem in our country. Our kids have never been fatter. We have a lot of serious problems with this, and we’re learning every year, thanks to great science, what the culprits are. But we aren’t address them.
I would love to see the next president of the United States ask Mrs. Obama to become our new food czar. I’m not sure what we would call that position, but I think we need to have a presidential appointee — cabinet level. Right now, agencies like the FDA and some of the other watchdog agencies that are supposed to be dealing with problems across the board with it have no authority to do so. I think we need change the way in which we make food policy in this country.
I think it needs to come top down. I think we need to have a NASA-type solution to this thing. We created a space agency — charged it with an exploration and scientific research mission. We have agencies in Washington right now that are charged with protecting other aspects of the public health and well-being, where not even a fraction of our citizenry is effected as it is by the potential benefit and to the group that would benefit most for a public remaking of our food system. We have so many people in need and at risk in America from the health and wellness side of the equation, to the people who are sick with juvenile diabetes, obesity. We have so many more people effected by this that the cost is astronomical to the stress it puts on our health care.
The lack of interest in so many of our children in school can be directly tied to how they are being fed and when they are being fed. I really think that we are ignoring a very large crisis in our country. We need a centralized, systematic remaking of our food system in America. Just look at where the public dollar intersects with people and food. Jails and prisons, senior centers, schools from nursery all the way to graduate level university, I could go on and on. These are the people that need the benefit of good food, and they are not getting it. In fact, they are getting sh*ttiest end of the stick.
At the same time, by the way, we are wasting 40% of our food in America — as it is going in the trashcan. And we have America’s farmers and businesses that are looking for places for their product to be. I think a central agency to connect those dots we be of tremendous value in this country.”
FBDC: You were recently spotted filming in Croatia for the new season of Bizarre Foods (and by spotted I mean, Insta-stalked). Were there any highlights to your Dalmatian trip, either food or location-wise?
AZ: “Croatia is an undiscovered gem. I think that everything people want a Mediterranean riviera- style, Gold Coast vacation is not available on the Mediterranean or the Gold Coast. It was 75 years ago, but the Adriatic coast of Croatia is available now.
They are the warmest, most welcoming people. The food heritage there is remarkable. It’s every bit as Italian as Italy, in the best sense of the word. There is so much to be said for when the Italian food of the riviera meets with the mountain food of Eastern Europe, and Croatia represents that mashup. The people are warm. They want to celebrate their country moving forward, not look back at the conflict that tore them apart for so many decades. It’s physically stunning and beautiful. It’s easy to get around. I think it’s one of the most remarkable places on planet earth.”
FBDC: Why do you feel as if Croatia remains undiscovered?
AZ: “You have to remember, just look at the political turmoil and social history of that part of the world. I think a lot of Americans get nervous. I have American friends that ask me, is it safe to go to Mexico? It’s the most ludicrous thing in the whole world. Of course it’s safe to go to Mexico.
The best news and the worst news for Croatia is that next year, I mean it is a part of the EU now, but it formally enters the next stage in its status in 2016. You’re gonna see a lot more travel there, and a lot more development.”
Check Andrew’s Top 5 for DC on Bizzare Foods America, courtesy of the Travel Channel: