“I can sit here and talk to you about food trends coming from some other place that will be the next hot thing, but it's not gonna matter when you can't grow corn in Iowa.”
Andrew Zimmern doesn't have the luxury of succumbing to jet lag. It might take him 40 hours to get to a gig, but he’ll be camera-ready when he gets there, no questions asked. “People say, ‘How the fuck can you do that?’” Zimmern says. “I'm like, well, it's really easy. I'm in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. If you can't get it up for that, something is wrong with you.”
The four-time James Beard Award-winning TV host, chef, writer, and teacher relies on his enthusiasm, not stimulants, to get him out of bed when he’s on the road. “I force myself onto the clock in whatever place I land in,” says Zimmern, whose Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods returned for its 13th season this summer. “At the most I have an uncomfortable half-day or day before my body resets. I'm committed to the higher calling.” For him, that higher calling is the opportunity to tell otherwise unheard stories from far corners of the globe. “The show has to go on,” he says. “There are wrongs to right. I very much believe this isn't a job to me; this is a mission,” he says. I had the chance to talked to the celebrity host and frequent flyer about breakfast, those best restaurants lists, and the future of food.
Extra Crispy: So where in the world are you?
Andrew Zimmern: I'm in Memphis, Tennessee. We're doing an episode of The Zimmern List here.
I’m sure you've been many times before, but is there anything new that’s catching your eye?
I think the same could be true of so many cities around the country: The food, the restaurant renaissance here is just spectacular to see. I come to Memphis for the dirty South classics. If it's not fried or barbecued or shoved in a bun, you're missing out.
There are so many incredible restaurants. It’s certainly not new, but I had dinner last night at Hog & Hominy, Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman's restaurant, and the cooking was nothing short of brilliant. The dishes that I ate last night, if they were at a restaurant in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, they would have Michelin stars. I'm just stunned at the delicacy, the smart cooking, the thoughtfulness. It absolutely kept my mind blown.
I’m getting hungry. On the note of Michelin stars, how do you feel about Michelin ratings and San Pellegrino's list? Do you feel like those sorts of accolades and lists are important and helpful, or are they outdated?
Lists are really great for people whose names are on them and they’re really shitty for people who are off them. You brought up arguably the two biggest lists in fine dining, and I'm not sure that fine dining is something that more than a small handful of people around the world pay attention to. I streamed the San Pellegrino 50 on my phone in the back of a car, on a trip, and purposely scheduled my trip so I could see who is ranked where. I know a lot of the chefs. I think the vast majority of people don't care—that's number one. On one hand, I don't understand what all the haranguing is about, on the other hand, I'm really understanding what all the haranguing about.
First, you look at the vast majority of restaurants in the San Pellegrino 100 for example, or the vast number of restaurants that have received Michelin stars, and they ignore such a large volume of the world’s culinary scene, it’s shocking to me. South Asia, Africa, and even with as much South American representation as there is, so much is ignored. I'm really stunned by it. As someone who has had the opportunity to eat in well over half of the San Pellegrino 100 and someone who regularly eats at Michelin-star restaurants—and I do it because I love to see what the best chefs in the world do with ingredients and food—it’s just the tip of the spear of what food is and can be.
Second, it becomes an issue of, if you’re going to start talking about the world's best, I think you have to start making the effort to expand your reach, because leaving off thousands and thousands from consideration that I can tell you personally are equal or better than a lot of those is confusing for people. What's extremely hurtful is the way ethnicity, ethnocentrism, and sexism plays out in those spaces. You don't have to look very closely at any of it to see that it’s an old white boys’ club.
Now, I know that that's a very familiar rant these days, and I am the problem in the world. I’m an old white person who makes a good living. And even I get offended and confused because I can't understand for the life of me why these institutions continue to perpetuate the problem.
What do you think has to happen?
The organizations need to get together with their board of directors and say, “What do we wanna be?” Because every year they're going to continue to be less and less relevant. I do not believe Michelin stars are relevant anymore at all. You have a cell phone. Who looks at a Michelin? I'm the Michelin Guy customer. I have money, I travel all over the world, and I really mean this as undouchey as possible, I can afford to eat in those places. I have Michelin guides, all of them. When they were published I used to get them sent to my office all the time and I used to jump at my assistant’s desk when I saw them because it would help me plan things and figure out trips. Now I use my phone and social media and friends. You can access food writers, chefs, line cooks, and local publications in three minutes on Twitter to vet the five best eating experiences in any city or town in the world.
I would love to get the head of the World’s 50 Best in front of me for twenty minutes and point him the direction of how to make sponsored lists really relevant. And I know I just keep sounding like a bigger and bigger moron when I say things like this, but there are not many people who are well suited to critique how that list is done, and I happen to think that I'm one of them. The reason that I do and say that is because I'm actually traveling all over the world eating at these places. So there is no way anyone on Earth can tell me that Badjao Seafront Restaurant in the Philippines isn't one of the best hundred restaurants in the world. I'll put it up against any eating experience on planet Earth. I should come up with my own list that people should go to—oh wait, I do that.
Speaking of that, you have a new season of Bizarre Foods out. What was your mindset going into the new season?
I always go into it with a new attitude. I think we've come across a fun way to structure these trips by exploring the historical roots and personages. We did that last year. This year I wanted to raise it up a notch in the relevance to our current global climate, socially, anthropologically, culturally, civically. I think we achieved that, whether we were talking about American exceptionalism and the Pony Express, or talking about what it means to be free and independent in the other night's Scotland episode, and in upcoming episodes. We are in Spain on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to see the tomb of St. James. It was just chance to talk about spirituality and belief systems in the context of culture and eating along the way.
We were able to show in our Battle of the Bulge show not only the importance of America's fight to defend global freedom, but also our fallen standing in the world today. In our Underground Railroad show we get to talk about race in America, which I think is a discussion we need to be having. I think it is just because when people say, "Well, you just do a travel food show. Stick to food" that ignores the greater purpose of our reason for being on planet Earth, which is to love each other and make our global home a better place. That just seems to be global civics lesson 101, so trying to contribute to that conversation is my number one goal.
What are some of your favorite breakfasts around the world?
My favorite breakfasts in the world are in Japan and China. I’m not big on pancakes and waffles. American breakfasts are so unhealthy for you. The Denny's Grand Slam is the poster child for how you're not supposed to eat. I'm a lotus eater. I eat for pleasure, so some sort of muesli or acai bowl—some of those are absolutely god-awful. I've always eaten what I call dinner for breakfast, and when I first traveled to Asia in my twenties, my jaw was on the ground. I was like, Oh, God. Grilled fish, pickles, soup, congee? In China, braised cabbage and greens with some rice porridge and some wonderful things tossed in there is as wonderful a breakfast as I can possibly imagine. Japanese breakfast really is outstanding for me. Vegetables, pickles, a little rice, a little soup, a small piece of grilled fish—I hit the ground running. I feel great.
I will say that when I was in Scotland and I had a proper Scottish breakfast every morning. I forgot how much I loved grilled mushrooms and roasted tomatoes with good farm-fresh eggs and lots of buttered toast. I mean, is there anything better? I think breakfast around the world is a fascinating thing to look at—and I'm not trying to be the dorky stereotype of myself, but even when I'm in tribal situations and you're eating leftover stew from the night before warmed over the fire in some kind of pots, you feel like you're a part of food history because that's how people have been doing it for thousands of years. Even when I'm in Central Asia or certain African countries where they spoil their own milk and essentially make different types of yogurt, thicker or thinner—sometimes it's just soured thick milk—I have found a tremendous fondness for it.
How do you think food will change in the future? In the next thirty years, what do you think are going to be some of the bigger changes we'll see?
Sadly, I think we've been taking care of the wrong person, culturally, in America. We have spent so much time talking about diet and exercise and ways to live longer and healthier and happier for each individual, and I think that's very much an American cultural totem. What can I do for me? That's been something that, not just in our home life, we've been doing in other parts of our lives as well. The bigger question, and what we should have been dealing with for the last thirty years, and what we need to be dealing with for next thirty years, is how do take care of our global body?
I can sit here and talk to you about food trends coming from some other place that will be the next hot thing, but it's not gonna matter when you can't grow corn in Iowa. It's not gonna matter when there are no more cows. When there's an orange blight in Florida that is inevitably gonna happen and wipe out that crop. When the cabbages and bananas go away. All you have to do is look at the harvesting schedules of grapes around the world to see that crush dates are happening earlier and earlier and earlier.
Our global ecological health, when you start talking about thirty, forty years out, is going to impact our food lives more than any other trend, and unless we address our unhealthy planet, we're not going to have a choice when it comes to fish. We're not gonna have a choice when it comes to chicken and beef and lamb. We're not gonna have a choice when it comes to vegetables and fruits, and we're going to be taking half of our meals a week in a nutritional supplement that we dissolve in water.
I hope that we start thinking about our global body.
Yeah. I've laid my eyes on it. I see the corollary to that is that eating well in our country is a class issue. So you throw those two things together: People who can afford a $100 hamburger are going to have one, and everyone else isn't. I wish I had better news on that front, but between all the work that I do away from the camera, at conferences, on Capitol Hill, educating myself, talking to experts and leaders around the world, and laying my eyes on things around the world, the biggest trend in the next, let's call it, quarter- to half-century is going to be impacted by the carelessness with which we are taking care of our planet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.