Since 2006, Andrew Zimmern has crisscrossed the globe as the creator and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods. But it wasn’t just in a search for the best grilled scorpion or where you can find monkey brains served right in the skull. The show, entering its seventh season, stems from Zimmern’s desire to understand cultures of every stripe via the food they eat. “If it looks good, eat it!” is the slogan of his show, and the New York native has eaten just about everything, from squirrel in the Appalachians to cow’s blood in Tanzania. Lately, Zimmern has been in the news for other reasons: his passionate defense of the remarks his Travel Channel colleague Anthony Bourdain made about Food Network star Paula Deen, and the revelation that before he went to culinary school and rose to become the executive chef at Cafe Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis, Zimmern was a junkie who was homeless for a year. He talked about that, his desire to eat weird foods, and why he attached his name to a line of fermented sodas with The A.V. Club around the time of the Bourdain/Deen dust-up. The new season premieres tonight, Jan. 23, and the first episode puts the spotlight on Minnesota.
The A.V. Club: What made you decide to start endorsing products?
Andrew Zimmern: When my Travel Channel show started, we were very lucky in that it gained a lot of traction and momentum really quickly. And at that point, we sort of wanted to, I don’t know, cement my career before we started twisting and bending and shaping and tweaking by adding endorsements or other kinds of layers to things that we’re doing. It’s one of the reasons that we waited five years; we’re just getting started on the first Andrew Zimmern cookbook right now, because I wanted to make sure it was the right thing at the right time. Same thing with product endorsement. And I don’t know, something happened over the last year. My roots became a little more firmly planted within my space. I don’t want to use a lot of marketing hype or marketing spin verbiage, but that metaphor really I think kind of describes it. So then we became more open to listening to people and doing things, not just in a supported way, but in a real spokesperson kind of way.
I’ve been sober for 20 years, and one of the things that I happen to love are beverages that taste better with food and make some foods taste better because you’re drinking them. A lightbulb went off in my head, oh, two, three years ago when I started tasting really good, high-quality Kombucha. Are you familiar with that stuff? Kombucha is a living probiotic drink, and it has what’s essentially like a vinegar mother in it. So it’s a fermented beverage, but it doesn’t have alcohol in it. The Woodstock generation was into Kombucha forever, and it was the sort of thing you only saw in health-food stores. Now, it’s in every mainline supermarket in America. It’s fantastically good for you. It’s a live culture, and it’s a wonderful, great, great sort of drink. I started playing around with that a lot. Someone sent me a four-pack of CASCAL because they knew how much I loved different beverages, and they said, “This drink’s like nothing else that’s on the market.” And I tried it. I was drinking it for a year and raving about it, and tweeting about it, and telling all my friends, and then the CASCAL people contacted me. I was a consumer and a fan of theirs long before they were aware of me.
AVC: Do you ever envision the endorsement wheel being Andrew Zimmern line of pots and pans and cookware, and things like that?
AZ: Well, short term, who knows? Longer term, yes, but I would expand that category. Let me explain the answer this way: For 20 years, everybody knew me as a chef and not as an eater. Now there’s a whole generation of people where I’m much more widely known as an eater, thanks to Bizarre Foods, than the 20 years that I spent slogging away seven days a week, 17 hours a day, in restaurant kitchens, for my whole career. Some nights I sit there and I’m like, “Well of course it makes sense for me to do some product stuff.” But I think I need to spend the next year or two reminding people that I’m a chef first and foremost—always have been, always will be. There are a lot of people who just aren’t aware of it. Now there are a lot of things that we’ve done over the last year to remind people of that. I think it was the March issue of Food & Wine magazine, there was my recipe on the cover. Things like that go a long way towards reminding people that hey, I do other things other than just host Bizarre Foods. So as we feed that part of my career, I think for sure anything like that is possible. I will say, I’m not a traditional person. Just like you mentioned the fact that I’m endorsing something like CASCAL, the fermented soda, so too, the things that really intrigue me and get me going are some of the more interesting and unique cooking devices that I see around the world, that I think are really interesting.
AVC: What’s a good example?
AZ: Well, you know, if you want to make real jerk chicken or real jerk pork, you’ve gotta roast the wood over pimentón, and the pimentón needs to be over live hardwood charcoal. The meat is separated from the intense heat of the live fire by the wood that smolders on the bottom, but doesn’t burn on the top. So your wood actually roasts over it, as opposed to grilling over it. So in a sense, it is traditional barbecue that way. But it also gets live fire-roasted texture and quality to it. So if there was a way to figure out a way to bring that kind of honesty to the home cook with some kind of grill, I would do that in half a heartbeat.
AVC: And do it in a way that you could tell them how to do it simply.
AZ: Well of course! Of course, of course. There are portable grills that I have seen out in the world that are designed in such a way to be portable, but they don’t use ash, they don’t use a bin, they don’t have to be on wheels. There are some really cool things I’ve seen in the world. There’s earthen cookware that’s been glazed that I’ve seen in markets in Ecuador that I’m like, “My gosh, someone should be selling this at Target.” To a very large degree, I think there are people like myself who are out there, who are the tip of the spear, are seeing things way before the rest of the country gets to see them. And so I’m always on the lookout for those kind of things. So do I rule it out? No. Is it part of my 90-day game plan? No.
AVC: So you have no problem trying to disseminate these kind of cooking methods and tools out through a mass marketer like a Target?
AZ: Well, no. And as a matter of fact, you brought up a really great point. Corporate America isn’t going away. I consider myself apart from the world of mass marketing, to a certain degree. I see myself as more of an iconoclast. But over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve seen all the things that I believe in become much more appealing to the masses. There’s a reason why that late night steamed vegetable basket sells so well. You know, 15 years ago, it was a late night fry basket. Certain elements of our food life have become social movements. These days, kids are talking about food in a way that they weren’t a generation ago. So I sit in a lot of rooms, you know, in a symposium in Asheville, North Carolina, with 200 other people who are really committed to talking and exploring through our food life. Everybody’s talking about these great ideas, and I look around the room and everybody is already converted. We all believe it already. The people who are missing in that room are corporate America. You know, Target Corporation does fantastic things. They’re able to do a lot because of their bandwidth in the world. The Coca-Colas of the world are not going away. The Tyson Chickens of the world are not going away. So people like me who are very committed to changing our food world for the better, and our lives, and changing the way our world works—and I consider myself a globalist in that sense—I want to make sure there’s a seat for those people at my table. I want to be on the inside with them, teaching them about social responsibility with food and caretaking of our planet. So do a lot of other people, and most of those big companies are listening harder and harder every single year.
AVC: How has that globalist view changed for you, since you started doing the show?
AZ: Oh my gosh, a thousand-fold. I’ve always believed that contempt prior to investigation is a dangerous human frailty. But when you get a chance spend 30 weeks on the road every year, traveling to some pretty amazing places, seeing some parts of the world that other people are never going to see, you can’t help but be changed by it. It’s a humbling feeling. It’s probably the most transformative power that travel has in our lives, is its ability to challenge us and put us into situations that reshape the way we think by forcing us to take a different action and make a different decision for ourselves.
AVC: Is this the type of thing that you think someone could capture if they were doing their standard two or three weeks of vacation a year?
AVC: How would you think that people would be able to do that?
AZ: Well, there’s a couple different ways. Next time you’re going to the Maya Riviera for a family two-week vacation, instead of spending a half day on either end traveling, and 13 days in between on the beach at the resort drinking margaritas and ordering hamburgers from the pool attendant, why not go into the town three miles inland and explore how people really live in that part of Mexico? There’s a really easy one. One of the more popular new travel trends over the course of the last couple years is philanthropic travel. It used to be the purview of church groups and medical groups to go somewhere and proselytize or go somewhere and perform surgeries and volunteers would go, and people came back absolutely changed by doing that. Nowadays, why not go to France for a week with your family and then spend three days volunteering with Médecins Sans Frontières or building a home in another country? Or teaching in a school? I think it’s a fantastic thing to do.
AVC: Just to spend time amongst the people that are there, basically.
AZ: You hit the nail on the head. The key element here is that, and Bizarre Foods, this is what we’re all about, is that you watch our program and it’s not about eating strange foods. It’s about showing you the people all around the world may look different, smell different, sound different, be different in every single way, but at the end of the day, we all have the exact same things in common as far as our human existence is concerned. I was in the hills of Belize a couple years ago, and people were speaking a dead language, the Mayan K’iche’ language. You can intone from Westernized people kind of what they’re saying, but I’m here with a bunch of stone-faced descendants of the Maya, speaking a dead language, and I was making jokes with my crew about the shape of this flower that looked like human genitalia and being very juvenile, and the two guys were doing it with each other at the same time. We both realized what we were doing. There was no pointing. I mean, we started howling with laughter, and then they were talking at me, and I knew exactly what they were saying, and I was responding to them and they knew exactly what I was saying, even though we weren’t sharing the same language.
On that same trip, when I’m visiting with a family and they have $20 worth of possessions, two of which are pigs, and they kill one for our meal, and they cook food for us, which will happen to anybody who gets out of the bus and creeps off the tourist highway and puts themselves in a position to meet real human beings in a real place... Folks around the world are very, very friendly, and when someone invites you into their home and gives you the last of their worldly possessions to either eat or to drink... Same thing happened to me in Madagascar. I was offered a cup of coffee by a fisherman’s family, and that’s the only thing they possessed that they could give me other than fish. And it was horrible coffee—the coffee had been sitting in a little tin for what must have been two years, waiting for a guest. This was in a very humid, hot part of the country on the ocean. So you can imagine what this was like. I mean, it tasted more of rust than of anything else. But I drank that whole cup of coffee down. That kind of stuff changes you, and travel puts you in that opportunity to experience that.
AVC: Is this the type of stuff that you and your crew stumble on when you’re in these areas, or have the producers spotted the location beforehand?
AZ: Both. We used to stumble upon things more than we do. As the show has become bigger and, therefore more expensive to make, and there’s more advertising sold against it, and it becomes a bigger part of the network plan, we can’t risk going somewhere and not coming back with a certain number of stories to fill up our hour. So we know when we go to, whether it’s Detroit or Djibouti, we know that we’re going to go there, and here’s six stories we’re doing. But our producers, and some of our scouting people and fixers on the ground, are already working, drumming up other stuff, because how much pre-production can you do on Botswana? I mean, you get there, and half the stuff you were planning on doing, it was available yesterday, but now it isn’t. It’s amazing. The wind shifted, the bones got rolled, and the tribe that we were going to spend time with walked in the other direction. So the good news is, in Botswana, like Tokyo or a lot of other places, there’s great stories that are easy find. Sometimes the stories are harder to find, but we spend a lot of time parsing on the ground. “Okay, let’s not do this because what’s in front of us is even more interesting.” I mean, we’re a TV crew. If a unicorn walks in front of us, I’m gonna eat him.
AVC: The old reliable, it seems, for both you and Bourdain, is to just walk through the local market wherever you are.
AZ: That is something that No Reservations and Bizarre Foods have in common. We have decided very early on that there were a couple silos of stories that would be repeated everywhere in our episodes. A family meal is first and foremost to me, most important. Street food and market scenes being numbers two and three. A process story being number four—let’s see something made. This is not saying that it just happens. We try to make sure that we can gather up some of those types of stories.
AVC: Did you have the travel bug before you started doing the show?
AZ: Oh yeah! No, this is the real me. That’s what I was saying before is that, I know that when Tony is having fun with people sitting in a restaurant or at a market, or I’m in wherever I am doing the same kind of thing, and the crew powers off their equipment, they have to drag us out of there, because that’s where we’d rather be. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I was traveling this way for years before a film crew started going with me. Now I was doing it less of the time than I am now, and I didn’t have some of the access and the buzz around it, but yeah, this is what I did. I had parents who said “Let’s get off the main drag and see what this place is really about.”
AVC: So even when they were doing your family vacations, you would eat unusual foods?
AZ: Oh gosh, yeah! We would be on family ski vacations and my father would pile the family into a car and we’d drive five hours just to go to some crazy place to have dinner. When he took me to Spain for the first time, and I was seven years old, he took me to Valle de los Caidos and we ate roasted fetal lamb, underneath a Roman aqueduct in a tiny little country restaurant, because that’s what the old Spaniards used to do.
AVC: So you ate fetal lamb at seven. Where did you get this love of all sorts of food, whether it can be considered unusual or not?
AZ: I get it from my dad. I’m also a New Yorker, so growing up, you were exposed to a lot of things. But you know, my dad was very adventurous. He was a “when in Rome” kind of guy. I also came up in the last generation that didn’t have chicken fingers. You know what I mean? It just wasn’t available. So when I was growing up, it was like, “We’re in France. You’re going to eat the French food that’s in this restaurant, or there’s not going to be anything to eat.” But I loved it. And I want to do what my dad was doing.
AVC: Now when you go travel somewhere and the cameras aren’t there, are you the person who’s gonna try the bull penis that’s on the menu in Hong Kong?
AZ: Oh, of course! I mean, here’s the deal. We were just on a family vacation to Boston. And you know, my wife and son and I, we do the same thing. We fall into a little taqueria, go to a place that’s got a great tongue sandwich, I mean, I love that kind of food. I find it more interesting than grilled, bland chicken breast on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. I never eat that. I’d much rather have real food cooked by real people. My son is six-and-a-half, and when he was three, I think was the first time he was in Mexico, and we went to the street behind the street behind the street, and we had tacos de cabeza, you know, the meat pulled from the head. Because on the street behind the street, that’s all they have. If you eat in the hotel, you’ve got dry aged sirloin served in fajitas. I mean, nobody does that. That’s not Mexican food. That’s American hotel food. But go to the street behind the street behind the street, and my son was drinking [El] Trompo, the soup, for breakfast, and we would have tacos de cabeza for lunch, and at night you go to the local little seafood restaurant in the town where you are, not at the hotel, and whatever the fish they’ve dragged up out of the ocean that day is thrown on the plancha. So my son’s pretty adventurous that way.
AVC: Is our disgust over these kinds of foods just a huge culture bias in America where we just never ate that kind of stuff, at least over the last 100 years?
AZ: Yeah, well we ate them two generations ago. A lot of those foods were born out of necessity. You would never throw it away. In our country, we got fat, dumb, and happy, and we started throwing those things away, or they became lesser cuts that were still used, but sold into ethnic markets, neighborhoods, restaurants. Or there were pockets of enthusiasm for them in certain places, the way chitlins have always been popular in the South. Goat has always been consumed in Texas, by everybody—rich, poor. I mean, they’re on the border with Mexico. Cabrito is a big deal.
AVC: Like squirrel is up in the Appalachians, right?
AZ: Yeah, so there’s places for this. What’s fascinating to me is that, at the same time that shows like mine and Tony’s became popular, and the world of the gastropub became popular, [where they] tooted “snout to tail” eating, so too did the idea that people would venture out in some of these ethnic neighborhoods and “Oh, I’ll have tongue at the Mexican carniceria.” Well hey, wake up, there’s been tongue at the New York deli. It just hasn’t been as popular as the corned beef or pastrami. But once people start to develop a taste for it, and they see it in magazines, and they see it on TV, all of a sudden, I would bet if you went and talked to the folks at Carnegie Deli, they would tell you that they sell twice as much tongue now as they did 10 years ago. I think it’s because of the TV shows, and the magazines, and the books, and the “snout to tail” eating, all these different things that have happened.
AVC: Besides the travel element of the shows, how do you see what you and Bourdain are doing compared to you see on the Food Network?
AZ: The Food Network looked like the Cooking Channel for many, many years, and then the popularity of some competition shows and stuff sort of supplanted the cooking shows. Now the Food Network has kind of bifurcated itself. I always think of it as Food Network One and Two. One is a lot of shows about food, and Two, which is called the Cooking Channel, is the one about a lot of One’s cooking. I’m more fascinated with the cooking, but I’m addicted to some of the competition shows. I just think there are some that are much better than others. I’m a huge Iron Chef junkie. Both the old one, Iron Chef America, Next Iron Chef, I love it. So I love all that kind of stuff. I love Top Chef on Bravo too. I just love that. As long as I care about the characters, if the show can make me care about the people, I’m sold. On Travel Channel, I think the shows that have been most successful there have been the ones that are hook and sinker about characters and stories.
AVC: The Travel Channel shows seem to have a better sense of place than a lot of shows. Bourdain’s show is very lushly filmed, and your show features a lot of B-roll about where you are. Man Vs. Food even shows B-roll about where they are and the way the food culture is.
AZ: Yeah! I mean, you know, I think Tony and I, our playpen is a little bigger than Adam [Richman]’s. So I think that helps a little bit, but you’re right, even Adam’s show shows you sort of what’s going on in the city and what happens there. Personally, I think food is great. Food with a story is even better. Food with a story people didn’t know, featuring the types of folks you’d like to get to know better is best of all. And I think that’s why my show and Tony’s show do so well.
AVC: Bourdain recently got into trouble for remarks he made about Paula Deen. Do you think it’s gotten to a point where people just want to rile Bourdain up and just ask him questions about chefs they know he hates, so they can squeeze quotes out of him?
AZ: Of course.
AVC: You don’t really voice those type of opinions much.
AZ: Well I do when it matters. I mean, I responded, I dove into that Paula Deen thing because I thought when Frank Bruni wrote his editorial, that did it for me. I just hadn’t seen anyone speaking sense about it, and I felt that I had a more sensible point of view. So I blogged about it, and it got picked up in a lot of places. I wasn’t piling on. I was just like, “Wait a second, everyone’s missing the forest for the trees here.” Do I think that the type of material that Sandra Lee covers is dangerous? Yes, I do. I don’t understand why it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes on TV during certain family viewing hours and not advertise cigarettes on TV, but you know, we can talk about all kinds of other things that are unhealthy for us on TV.
AVC: You mean like what Paula Deen is doing or what Sandra Lee is doing?
AZ: Yeah, like opening up cans. Look, on a philosophical level and on a cultural level, I think it’s dangerous to shut the doors to the kitchen and try to get through it as quickly as possible. I know people are time poor. I know people are cash-poor. I know that eating well has become a class issue in this country. But we need to be inclusive, educational, and problem-solve for people, and not cover things up by dumping a can into a bowl, stirring it up, and cooking pizza hot dish casserole-style.
AVC: There are people in the landscape and on The Food Network who aren’t doing what they were doing—Rachael Ray does at least a little bit more homemade stuff.
AZ: I love Rachael Ray. I mean, here’s the deal. You raised a really good point. Rachael Ray, every 20 recipes, she’ll do something where she opens a can, and she looks at people and says, “Hey, if you don’t have the hours or the day ahead of time to soak your beans overnight in the fridge, here’s a canned product that works great.” I have recipes that use Heinz ketchup in them, or canned tomato sauce in them. When it’s the right time and place, yes, there are foods that we keep in our cupboard to use for convenience, because sometimes the car breaks down, daddy had to pick up the dry cleaning, and the son comes home early from school because he’s sick. I keep Campbell’s soup because you never know when you need to open a can of soup. Do we have it all the time? No. Do we even have it regularly? No. But is it there to be used for certain things? Absolutely it is.
A lot of people accuse [Rachael] of not being a chef. Who gives a shit? She’s extremely talented at what she does. She’s a great communicator, and she has some fantastic recipes and ideas. I don’t begrudge that at all. Hey look, it’s not my cup of tea, but you know, whatever, chili cheesy Mexicali burgers is something that a ton of people can get a lot of stuff out of. There’s nothing wrong with that. What I have a problem with is the one step up from cooking out of a box and out of a can that Sandra Lee espouses or sort of the saccharine fakeness of some of the other hosts out there. Like I said about the Paula Deen issue—and I love so much of what Paula Deen does, so again, balance and everything—but as I wrote in my piece in response to the whole Bruni-Deen-Bourdain kerfuffle, it’s not that Sandra Lee and Paula are always telling you to eat this stuff all the time. It’s that they’re not telling you that you shouldn’t. That’s the key to it. I find it fascinating that in the last week, after all that stuff blew up, everything I see from the Deen brothers, her sons, and her, all of her stuff is, “Try my new blankity-blank recipe with the lighter version that’s 20 percent less calories.” I mean, it’s unbelievable how they’ve responded. That says it all to me.
AVC: You mentioned right at the top being 20 years sober. Lately you’ve been pretty open about your past as an addict.
AZ: I’ve always been. Here’s the thing, and I don’t know any sort of polite, kind way to say this: I don’t want to have it come off sounding crass, but over the course of the last five years, my show, my personality, my stuff has become more popular. So I get a lot of questions that sort of lead like that, where it’s “Well, you know, haven’t heard a lot of this before.” Well, I was always saying it. It’s just there was a smaller audience, or less people were listening. I mean, part of this is just a natural symptom of me becoming more popular.
AVC: Now that you’re wider known and it’s out, has it gotten you a different reaction that it would’ve if you had done an interview about that six or seven years ago?
AZ: Absolutely. I would say the number of emails, phone calls, letters, that we get here at my office, Facebook, Twitter, it’s astronomical the number of people who have said, “Thank you so much, I have a son in treatment and knowing that there is sobriety on the other end of this disease has given me hope for another day.” There’s not a public event that I do that somebody doesn’t come up to me and say, “Thank you so much, I’m two years clean, and you were my hero and then I found out you were sober, and I realized I can do it too.” I mean, there is a value to being open and honest about your own human frailty. I think it’s a responsibility of people in the public eye. If you’re in the public eye, you’re in the public eye. Why not share some of the less attractive parts of yourself in the hopes that it might inspire some other people?
AVC: It’s never been tough for you to share that?
AZ: Never, no. It’s my greatest asset. For me, it’s saying “I remember” and cling to every single day, and if it can be helpful to someone else, I’m anxious to share it.
AVC: Is there also a bit of a shock value to it because the happy-go-lucky, always smiling host of Bizarre Foods...
AZ: No. People set it up that way.
AVC: So the reactions you’re getting don’t run along the lines of “Hey, I never would have pegged you as being that guy”?
AZ: Oh well, I do get it. But I think that happens to anybody who’s 20 years sober. If you tell people what you were like when you were drinking and drugging, it’s a horror show. Now, I pay taxes, I have a family, I own a home. I mean, we clean up pretty well. If you live, you’re going to be the flipside of it. And I think people who are long-time sober get this reaction all the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a public person. People all the time say, “Oh my gosh, you don’t look it.” That’s because people think that alcoholism and drug addiction is somebody at the Salvation Army, a homeless person on the street, a kid being pushed into the back of a police car. That’s not the case.
AVC: Do you think the story was played up a little bit this time around because of the fact that you’re more in the spotlight?
AZ: For sure. And obviously, anyone is going to set it up that way. If I was writer, I’d probably try to set it up that way.
AVC: What is the biggest lesson that you learned in recovery that still sticks with you now and you still use every day?
AZ: The world doesn’t revolve around me.
AVC: How does that manifest itself usually?
AZ: You never know when the next person to shake your hand at an autograph session, or the next guy you bump into on line at the pizza parlor, that could be your best friend for the rest of your life. Or it could be the person that two years later pushes you out of the way of a speeding bus. I mean, you just don’t know. And when I felt the whole world revolved around me, I didn’t have time for other people. It was all about me, me, me, me, me. The minute I sobered up and learned that all those shadows out there are actually other human beings, and I started to actually listen to people and talk to them and be a one of many, instead of apart from, then miraculous things began happening in my life. I was getting so much more, I don’t know, pleasure, happiness, deeper relationships, better everything.
AVC: Do you still think of the low moments at those times, or have those faded out?
AZ: No, I mean, I try to keep it green every single day. I mean, I don’t ever want to forget totally where I came from. That’s another reason why I do so much volunteer work with the homeless community, the under-served. I serve on a lot of boards for national organizations when it comes to these kinds of issues, and it’s something that I do a lot of work at.
AVC: Has it helped you with the show?
AZ: Oh gosh, yes. It’s why we did the food rescue in the San Francisco show. I can’t tell you how many times I watch TV, and there’s some person that looks, smells, and sounds like me, and he’s not touching the children. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in little villages in South America, and we’re talking to people and they say that they’re surprised to see someone like me. I say, “What do you mean? Like a white person? Do you not get a lot of those folks around here?” And they always say the same thing, they say, “Well we do... they come in, they take pictures from their car, or they get out and they just take pictures of us, and then they’ll give someone money, thinking that that’s what we want, and then they’ll buy a couple of beads and they’ll go away. You actually get out of your car and you want to talk to us.” [That makes] all the difference in the world. If I didn’t have my experience in recovery, of learning how to get out of my own way and that I wasn’t the be all and end all of everything, I don’t think I would have that interest in my fellow man. I’m interested in my fellow man today because of that experience.
AVC: Do you think you’d be doing the show if you hadn’t had that recovery experience?
AZ: You know, I may be doing a dump-and-stir cooking show behind a cutting board. The most important thing in the world to me, and you see it in my show, I think, every episode, is that my favorite parts of the show are connecting with other human beings. The food is a vehicle for that.
AVC: So there are foods that you don’t like, but you’ll still sit down and try them?
AZ: Plenty! Oh, there’s lots of weird fruits and fermented foods and things like that that I’ve tried once and would never try again. I mean, the list is voluminous. I’m glad that I do, because I feel that the extensive library of foods I’ve tasted and the flavors I’ve been exposed to gives me an invaluable palate and great reference in my own head of how food works around the world.
AVC: In a lot of ways, it’s also a cultural thing too, because if you don’t try something, someone may think that’s an insult.
AZ: Oh, absolutely! Well there’s that, but most of the time, I try the food because it’s good. I mean, I learned a long time ago, just because it looks strange and sounds strange doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be fantastic. I was in a village in Nicaragua, and they had a simmering soup, and in it were some floating eggs. I said “Oh, that looks great, I’ll try some.” And they said “Oh, those are iguana eggs.” So I was curious. Reptile eggs are often times very tinny and flat tasting, but I wanted to try them. I put them in my mouth, and I realized when I put it in my mouth that it wasn’t a shell. The shell of an iguana egg is rubbery and soft, and it’s actually like a balloon, and you suck out the white and the yolk, and you’re left behind with this sort of unfilled balloon instead of a hard shell. It blew me away. But I realized then, we were talking about the food of the tribal peoples and the Amerindians that were all throughout that place and sort of the native foods that were around them. You can understand so much eating your way through a market, about a people, and you can taste the history in the food.