On the afternoon of Jan. 28, 1992, Andrew Zimmern walked into a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. He could have come from anywhere—from the building he’d been squatting in for most of the past year, from any of the subway stations where he lurked to lift purses and tourists’ jewelry, from any of the urban caves he went to dry out or come down.
What the then-30-year-old stepped into was a roomful of friends—“20 of my nearest and dearest,” he says now—who ushered him in, told him again how much they loved him, put a one-way ticket in his hand and sent him 1,200 miles west to Minnesota.
“It was not my first attempt at getting sober,” he says. “I was a terrible alcoholic. I was a heroin addict. I was an everything addict. And for a long time, my addiction dominated my life and devastated the people around me whom I loved the most.”
Not to spoil the ending, but the one-way ticket worked. Since that Tuesday afternoon almost 24 years ago, Zimmern says he’s been “continuously free from anything that affects me from the neck up.” He’s built a food, travel and business empire using three talents: his preternatural gift for cooking, his equally powerful gift for storytelling and an ability to let the lessons of his past guide the principles of his future. “It’s a sweet, spiritual irony,” he says during a calm moment in an airport terminal. He’s on the road, as usual, when we talk. When he’s not flying to exotic locales for his Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, he busies himself with a full-service production company, his stadium concessions concepts, writing, podcasting and serving as a board member for a handful of good-cause organizations.
“Everything I do in business is put through the prism of what I’ve learned in getting sober. There’s no decision, no moment of the day that isn’t dominated by my thinking about how I handle things differently now than I did prior to Jan. 28, 1992. I reinvented myself then. It’s my favorite part of me.”
It also led to his fourth talent: He’s gotten really, really good at eating bugs.
The gooey, grody and deeply exotic meals of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (and its offshoots) are a slick, wriggling device; of course, there’s a primal hands-over-the-eyes curiosity to watching Zimmern devour sea slugs harvested from ocean sludge, animal parts not commonly talked about in dinner conversation, or things that have not yet died.
But mostly, they’re Trojan horses. Well, Trojan bugs, probably. Trojan dung beetles. Trojan bamboo rats! Trojan bull testicles! Because Zimmern is a savvy-enough showman to know that you need to draw people into the tent, but a wise-enough businessman to know that novelty alone won’t keep them there. Put another way, there’s a lot more happening on Bizarre Foods—a Travel Channel staple since 2007—than bizarre foods.
“Somewhere around the second season, I realized there was a legacy here,” Zimmern says. He began to understand that what he was documenting wasn’t really food at all. It was the world and its people, the collection of humans sitting around whatever humans sit around to eat—tables, blankets, fires, boats, dirt—wrapping stories around meals and vice versa, stitching togetherness onto a fragmented and disconnected planet. He’s just filtering it through a universal prism.
“Let’s take three cultural constants: math, music and food. You take away the quadratic equation, people will survive. Take away their boom box, you maybe get into a fistfight. Take away their rice? There’s gonna be blood in the streets,” he says. “At this point, I honestly don’t care if I’m eating roast camel or something from the bottom of the ocean. All I care about it is: Who am I eating it with? What’s their story? How can I advance a feeling of rapport with these people and have viewers connect with them?”
That became his goal: not eating weird food, but telling stories. Luckily he was already pretty good at that.
“I was at a… ” Zimmern begins; it’s a common starting point for most of his stories. They tumble out of Zimmern, tales with exotic datelines: a hostel in Johannesburg, extremist-held towns in Syria, or unusual locales in Brazil, Kazakhstan and Nicaragua.
He’s had years of practice telling them. As a teen, he’d accompany his advertising-executive dad on business trips overseas, skipping from one exotic city to the next and birthing his wanderlust. He started his culinary training at 14. He attended New York’s prestigious Dalton School and graduated from Vassar College, studying history and art history and honing his powers of observation. From there he returned to New York City and helped launch and operate a dozen restaurants before all hell broke loose.
“I’m extremely ambitious,” Zimmern says by way of introducing the dark years of his addictions, “and for a while I had a monstrous ego and low self-esteem, which is a bad combination for anyone.” At his nadir, he was homeless for a year. The intervention at the coffee shop, he says, was not his first. But something clicked that time, something about the 20 friends in a room telling him they loved him, wishing him better than what he’d become, and not just because of the criminal element.
“I’m a deplorable, horrible, selfish person,” he says, and when I chuckle at what seems to be a bit of self-deprecation—one at great odds with Zimmern’s gregarious-to-a-fault TV persona—he stops me cold. “No, I’m serious. I am a user of people, and I am a taker of things. That’s, at my very nature, who I am. I’ve done a lot of work in the past 24 years to change that. I hope I don’t sound like a sophomoric, self-loving jerk, but I think the reason I have a reputation as one of the nicer, more easy-to-get-along-with people in the public eye is that I know the person who is deep inside me is the opposite of that.”
Rehab, he says, helped him find both versions of himself. He spent five weeks at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., and then took up residence at a halfway house nearby. “I moved away from a life focused solely on me—what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, how I wanted it done—to an attitude of, if I wanted to be happy, successful and satisfied in life, I might want to remember that all those dark shadows around me are actually other people, and I might do well to learn how to get along with them.”
And with that rebooted worldview—and under much humbler circumstances—he got back to work. First up was washing dishes and clearing tables at Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis; it took him only seven weeks before he was named executive chef. After six years at the restaurant, he volunteered for unpaid internships at a Minneapolis magazine, radio station and TV station. After four months, all three were paying him. Most important, Zimmern noticed that he was gaining self-esteem by doing productive, estimable acts, drifting toward positives he hadn’t previously known. It wasn’t an overnight-choirboy thing, of course. “Do I break out in a horrible case of me-me-me needs at least once a day? You bet I do. But I worked very hard at being a better person.”
Around that time he also became the in-house chef on a handful of early HGTV shows, gaining more on-camera experience while nurturing his own ideas. One in particular kept nagging at him, one that was about food, but not really. “Food with a story is good, but food that people hadn’t heard about was better. And the best stories are found at the fringe.” The Food Network passed on his pitch, but Zimmern realized he was envisioning as much a travelogue as a food show, so he tried Travel Channel, which was beginning to scratch out a market that included shows by Anthony Bourdain and Samantha Brown. With some 200 episodes completed, shot in over 150 countries, “the rest, as they say, is history.”
To some degree, it seems a little nuts, sending a chatty, playful bald dude with several imposing cameras into the wilderness in the pursuit of “adventure learning.” But the numbers don’t lie. “It’s one of our longest-running, most successful shows on the air now,” says Ross Babbit, senior vice president of programming and development at Travel Channel. “The food is just the starting point. He truly celebrates everything he’s experiencing. That’s who he is. That’s not scripted. That’s Andrew in his full passion.”
It’s an amazing transformation from a mugger to a person whose genuine spirit, humility and empathy for other people is now held up as an example. Zimmern says members of the military have told him they’ve screened episodes of Bizarre Foods to glean hints on how to approach locals. “[A general] said that sometimes his men or women pull up to a tiny, humble town, and somebody will run out and shove a pot into their face, something that might smell off-putting or look strange. If their first reaction is to recoil, they’ve already lost the village before they get out of the jeep.” But, he says, if they’re able to try some of the principles he strives for in his show (and indeed, his greater life), different relationships can be forged.
Zimmern practices what he preaches. Once he was shooting a show in a fish market staffed by Pakistanis. The circumstances were ugly—terrible treatment, grueling jobs, pennies a day. He looked over and spied a group of workers playing cricket in a half-empty parking lot, a pickup lunchtime game. So he ran over to join them. Because, as Zimmern sees it through the filter of his years of travel, wanderlust and second chances, those guys aren’t really all that different from him or you or me. They’re just playing ball at lunch. There’s not a lot more things universally human than wanting to play ball at lunch on a summer afternoon. “I wanted to talk to them. I wanted people who watch TV to see that Pakistanis and Americans, especially at this point in our history, have these shared experiences. These simple examples of people living their lives can be very, very impactful.”
Back to that story, or one of them, anyway, that began, “I was at a… ”
This is a quiet one he tells about his time with the Himba, indigenous Namibian herders. He and his crew spent three or four days with them, shooting for television; feasting, of course; and ingratiating themselves with the locals so successfully that Zimmern, on his last day, was offered the chieftain’s 14-year-old daughter as a bride. (He declined.)
On their final night in Namibia, while Zimmern and his crew were hanging around and probably canceling wedding plans, he detected movement in the distance, 400 or 500 yards away from the celebration and fire. As you might imagine, unexpected movement on the African savanna can be cause for alarm. But in this case, the movement was a newer kind of predator: It was a jeep, one with a photographer poking out of the top and focusing on the Himba village through a massive telephoto lens, something available only to professionals or an affluent tourist class. The jeep stopped, and the photographer snapped, click-click-click. Away they drove.
The chieftain shook his head and lowered his eyes. “What bothers you?” Zimmern asked. “And he said, ‘All they do is drive up, take pictures, and they leave. Are we doing something so awful that they’re not interested in talking to us, allowing us to offer the hospitality of our fire? To feed them a meal?’ And I started crying, actually crying. Here’s a tribal chieftain who wants to welcome people, people who are off in the distance, taking what they need and walking away, not even interested in knocking on the door.
“I knock on the door. I share a meal. I try to make myself useful. And great things happen.”