Twenty-five years ago, Andrew Zimmern was at rock bottom. "I was a homeless street junkie stealing purses off park benches to survive—and I wanted to die," Zimmern said.
The son of a Mad Men-era advertising executive, Zimmern is now arguably at the top of his game. He is the host of a hit show on Travel Channel. He's launched a production company, Intuitive Content, that specializes in branded content. And his outlook rivals that of any life coach. We caught up with Zimmern at the New York City Wine & Food Festival celebrating the 200th episode of Bizarre Foods, which airs tonight on Travel Channel.
Adweek: Congratulations on 200 episodes. How many more bizarre foods do you think you can find around the world?
Zimmern: The beautiful part of the show, and what reminds me why it's had so much staying power, is that it's an endlessly great idea. Anywhere that you go, you can find unusual foods that are new to someone. Our show airs in 68 countries. We have a limitless amount of resources to continue doing Bizarre Foods as long as the audience wants more of it. I love this show more about what it allows me to teach to people about patience, tolerance and understanding in a world that always wants to define itself by the things that we don't have in common.
And in your remarks to the crowd here, you talked about how you really believe food can bring people together. Where does that philosophy come from?
I don't think it's a coincidence that people who were great thought leaders on this subject are people who've had incredible tragedy in their lives. As human beings, we don't learn a lot when everything is going great. We tend to learn a lot when the you-know-what hits the fan. In my life, 25 years ago, I was a homeless street junkie stealing purses off park benches to survive—and I wanted to die, and I wanted my life to be over. The universe had different plans for me. And to have this platform and waste it, would be a shame.
What is it about chefs that make them successful TV hosts. There's you, there's Anthony Bourdain—Rachael Ray has her empire:
Rachael, Alton Brown, Tony Bourdain and a bunch others—the list is long. But there's about 15 to 20 folks who are really good communicators. And at the end of the day, if you're not a good storyteller and a good communicator, it doesn't matter whether you're a musician, a chef, a sculptor, a painter or a porn star. Either you're good at informing people or they're gonna change the channel. Our attention span has shrunk to that of an ant.
What's the most bizarre food you've ever eaten?
It's hard to beat the fermented, raw pork called dama mein that I had in Taiwan. The beautiful, beautiful taste of it is masked by the insane stench of month-old rotted pork. We're all conditioned in our country that rotted pork is bad for you, and it's gonna kill you. In fact, after two weeks, it does. But after 6 weeks, the bad bacteria is killed off by the good bacteria.
You hope. It is a little bit of Russian roulette with the food. The fascinating thing to me is just the eating of rotten pork as being something that was truly delicious.
Your new production company already has its first show, Meters Running, greenlit for Travel Channel. Tell us about it?
The audience is always asking me, "Hey, I don't want to eat scorpions, and I can't live with a tribe in South Africa. But when you're in Berlin, what do you like to do?" So I'm flying to Berlin next week, and I'm going to hop in the back of a cab, and I'm going to go do what I want to do. The premise essentially is I walk out of an airport, I don't get in the crew van, I meet them the next day, I hop in the back of a cab, and I always have places I want to go and things I want to do in that country.
And you're embracing branded content.
Oh, like crazy. We're doing a lot of stuff with Renaissance. I'm doing things with General Mills. I just did a thing with U.S. Cellular. I did five years of branded content with Toyota on MSN, and my production company that I launched, Intuitive Content, is specializing in this kind of thing. My dad was in the advertising business in the 1950s.
A Mad Man …
A Mad Man. He was one of the original guys at Grey Advertising. And one of the things that's amazing to me is the viewer nowadays is so much smarter, so much savvier, they don't need to be talked down to.
You're in Minnesota now, but you're Manhattan born and raised. When you come back, what's your favorite restaurant to go to?
Oh my God, so many. I'm a victim of going to the places I loved to go as a child. So, I go to Russ & Daughters for smoked fish just like my grandmother did. I buy my smoked fish from Niki. My grandmother bought from her grandfather. That's an incredible relationship to have. J.G. Melon for a burger. Flushing for some good Chinese food. I'm blessed to have a lot of great friends in restaurants, so I get to fall by their place and grab something to eat. But, usually the first thing is a cheap slice of New York City pizza and a hot dog at Papaya King.