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In Good (Yet Strange) Taste: A Chat with Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern’s story is like a concoction of strange flavors that should clash but balances into something tasty and original. The chef, TV show host, writer, and James Beard Award winner started his culinary training at the age of 14, when most of us were still trading Snack Packs for Dunkaroos. Since then, he’s been nearly everywhere and eaten just about everything. He’s worked for many of New York’s top restaurants, he’s lectured in leading culinary schools, and he’s faced the demons of addiction. He’s eaten lots of testicle-based soup, too.

Since Zimmern started chewing his way around the planet in 2006, he has filled a much-needed spot in the celebrity chef world: His views on food are just as insightful as they are accesible, and his show is just as entertaining as it is socially conscious. The Gold Coast Digest caught Andrew for a few words on his favorite meal, the good and bad sides of American cuisine, and the way other cultures react to our food. Check out Andrew as he investigates the strangest food in America on his new season of Bizarre Foods America (Mondays at 9 P.M. on the Travel Channel).

HD: What was the most transformative experience involving food you have had?

AZ: Living with the tribes all over the world, from Namibia to Thailand, from the Amazon to Alaska. The world’s first peoples have taught me the important values in life.

HD: We’re constantly thinking about what nationality of cuisine we’re eating. Other than things like hamburgers and steak and fries, what would you say is “American cuisine”?

AZ: Those aren’t American at all. Pumpkin is American, and so is pemmican. Those are the foods of our first peoples. Everything else is derivative. There is pre-colonial and post-colonial food, and I love them all. Anyone who talks about American cuisine and relates it to European technique driven cuisine using American ingredients is really just spinning the truth.

HD: You eat a lot of things that seem strange to us here in America. What do we eat regularly that grosses out other cultures?

AZ: Peanut butter is not eaten in Argentina. Cheese is deemed ‘gross’ in many African cultures. But I think a lot of what we eat grosses out everyone including ourselves. Think commodity feedlot farms!

HD: There is a constant debate raging about food – what to eat, what to avoid, the current obesity rate. What role, if any, do shows about food have when it comes to weighing in on these issues?

AZ: A huge one. I think we have a supreme responsibility to be thoughtful leaders in every respect on these issues.

HD: What is your favorite simple, non-bizarre food?

AZ: My wife’s roast chicken.

HD: How much is cut from what we see on Bizarre Foods? Does your body ever protest some of the strange things you put into it?

AZ:  We don’t cut anything. I think everyone is disappointed I tolerate food so well.

HD: How does your exposure to such diverse foods affect your palate and your flavoring decisions as a chef?

AZ:  I am very proud of the library of flavors and techniques I have in my DNA now. Having that as my platform means I am more adventurous and experimental, for sure.

HD: We’re always hearing about American eating habits. Where does the discussion about eating healthier start?

AZ:  It has to be a zero tolerance social change movement, like seat belts and smoking. And that starts with education, and that starts with engaging everyone on this issue, from fortune 500 companies to CSAs.

HD: You’re pretty open about your past as an addict. Does food ever become an escape for you, and if so, is it a healthy escape, an indulgence, or both?

AZ:  It’s both, and as a recovering addict and alcoholic, anything that makes me feel good is something I overindulge in…even food.

HD: What percentage of the strange foods you eat do you truly enjoy?

AZ:  Almost all. And if people tried them, they would like them too.