While he's often described as the "guy who'll eat the testicles off any living thing," Bizarre Foods America host Andrew Zimmern more accurately is a "culinary anthropologist"—a man who explores the culture of a place through its food and people. He was in Cleveland doing just that when I sat down with him and had the following chat.
On your show, you do a really good job of describing what food tastes like. So many other hosts simply roll their eyes and declare something, "Delicious!"
As a chef for most of my career, my job was to find interesting foods and then expose my cooks and comrades in arms to my passion. You have to sell your team on why this ingredient is so cool. Sometimes that ingredient needs a story or a description; you need to develop a language.
Food is great. Food with a story is better. Food with a story that nobody's heard is best of all. But even that pales in comparison to a food story that someone hasn't heard that I can make relatable to something they understand. It becomes very powerful.
Why doesn't everybody on TV do that?
Most food shows on cable suck. And most hosts on cable shows are awful. For most of them, it's not their passion—they auditioned for the show. I think the reason that guys like Bourdain and Alton Brown — and I'll add myself to that list — are really good is because we're the same personality before the camera rolls, while the camera's rolling and when the camera stops rolling.
Are you cautious about shining a light on a place knowing full well that it will immediately become a tourist destination?
Our show is not a "recommender" show. It's a show about exploring culture through food and trying to define a place. Sometimes we shine lights on places that people will never have an opportunity to visit. That said, the nicest part of my job is walking into a mom-and-pop grocery that serves the best ham sandwich in rural West Virginia that nobody knows about and find out months later that they do so much business that they don't have to worry about sending their kids to college.
It feels like every chef these days is doing some creative food startup. Why now?
Never in our time have we produced so many culinarians, whether they're trained in restaurants or in schools. We've legitimized the career and said it's okay to be a chef. But there are only so many spots on the line in good restaurants, so these people are looking at alternative businesses. That's why so many 25-year-olds are foraging and selling product to restaurants, starting food trucks, or making sausages and selling them at their local market.
Everybody on the planet seems to be shopping at farmers markets. Is access to good food improving?
People are on TV talking about farm-to-table experiences to an audience that includes for a large part a segment of America that has no access to anything like that. We've had this incredible conversation over the last few years about heritage pork. When I start to see heritage pork in supermarkets for a price that the average American can afford, we will have done our job. For much of mainstream America, eating well is class issue, and that's not right. It's a social change movement that's needed to put good food in the hands of all Americans.
But on the other hand you have these obsessive food fetishists.
There is a segment of the population now that are food freaks, that are really geeked-out about food and will wait on line for a fucking cronut. They're motivated by the trophy hunting. They're talking about it as if they just got Lady Gaga to give them a blowjob. That doesn't excite me.
Do all great cities have a great public market?
Yes, I think so. But today, in cities that don't have one there are people like you and I sitting down and saying, "We don't have a market, but we need one." I was up in Sitka, Alaska, and they have a public farm market every weekend from May to September. It's an incredible thing that they're gathering and doing that.
Why do you make a point of visiting the market in every city that has one?
You learn more about what goes on in a city by looking at its markets than you do by looking at its museums. I'm pro-museum, but I'm just more pro-market in terms of looking at the culture of today. When I go into a market like the West Side Market, not only do you get a sense of what people are eating, but you get a sense of why, because you get to talk to people. You can read the history of a people in a good bowl of soup.
Are we in danger of losing our heritage foods to assimilation? Or worse, being stuck only with the modern chef versions.
No, because we have ignited a fire in the belly of too many culinarians, writers, culture geeks, restaurateurs, chefs and a new generation of young cooks who are learning how important it is. We came very close to losing all these places 30 years ago when nobody gave a shit. Now, people give a shit. If you tried to take away the West Side Market, or dilute it or cheapen it, there would be blood in the fucking streets of Cleveland, and you know that.
Matzo balls: Do you prefer sinkers or floaters?
My current matzo ball recipe is an in-betweener: It will float for a minute and then sink to the bottom.