Andrew Zimmern is a man many Americans will associate with one thing: the hit TV program "Bizarre Foods." This is for good reason, given that the program ran for 12 seasons over 13 years and was immensely popular. By combining the shock factor associated with certain foods and an important message about the commonalities between cultures, Zimmern produced a TV program of rare quality.
As a fixture of American food media, it was surprising when "Bizarre Foods" was suddenly pulled from its primetime spot in 2018 and subsequently canceled. Questions about why the show was canceled, and Zimmern's professional future abounded.
With the help of hindsight, these questions are readily answerable. What's more, time has given us a clear picture of how Zimmern's career built up to "Bizarre Foods" and developed after the program was canceled. Much like his personal life, Zimmern's professional career has been anything but straightforward. For the most part, it's all the better for it.
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Zimmern Was Young When He Started Working In Hospitality
Andrew Zimmern's love for food started from a young age. As a boy, Zimmern's father used to take him to open house parties hosted by James Beard. These events were known for their lavish dishes and their LGBTQ+ friendly atmosphere. Watching his father finally relax at these parties provided Zimmern with an early example of how important food and eating could be to a person's well-being.
Filled with an appreciation for food, Zimmern soon got a job in the kitchen. He was 14 years old when he started working for his godparent's restaurant during summer vacation. Zimmern instantly took to it, as he explained in an interview with Diced: "I fell in love with everything that happened in the restaurant. I fell in love with the camaraderie. I fell in love with the nightly theater of it."
After finishing his time at The Dalton School, Zimmern went on to major in history at Vassar. After graduating, it was straight back to the kitchen. Zimmern got a job at an Italian restaurant called La Colonna and would continue to work in kitchens until he began facing substance abuse.
He Was An Alcoholic And Drug Addict
Just as his love for food started young, so did Andrew Zimmern's addiction to drugs and alcohol. As he recalled in an interview, Zimmern was addicted to alcohol, cannabis, and pills from the 10th grade. By the time he was in junior year, Zimmern had also started taking cocaine. These addictions followed Zimmern to college, where he also dealt drugs, a practice he had started during his time at The Dalton School. Eventually, Zimmern started taking heroin.
Initially, these addictions did not prevent Zimmern from working. After college, he developed a reputation as a quality chef who could be relied on to produce good food under pressure. As a result, he worked in some respected kitchens alongside notable chefs, including Thomas Keller. This was not to last; Zimmern's addictions became so bad that his life began to unravel.
"You start to lose jobs," he described to CNN. "I lost an apartment. l became homeless for 11 months and squatted in a building on Sullivan Street in lower Manhattan." After trying to drink himself to death, Zimmern finally sought help and traveled to Minnesota. Here, he checked himself into the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and began treatment for his addictions.
If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
He Gained Respect As Chef Of Café Un Deux Trois
Once Andrew Zimmern's treatment was completed in 1992, he lived in a halfway house and got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Minneapolis called Café Un Deux Trois. A piece of good fortune gave him a chance to demonstrate his culinary skills. "One day, one of the line cooks called in sick, and I went to the owner and the chef and I said 'I can do that guy's station.' And they laughed," Zimmern explained in a conversation with CNN. "Eventually, they couldn't find anyone to replace him so they didn't have a choice."
Zimmern dazzled owner Michael Morse with his cooking abilities and earned the title of executive chef in just seven weeks. The chef-owner duo worked well together, and both Zimmern's French-Chinese dishes and Morse's divisive hosting resulted in Café Un Deux Trois gaining significant media attention.
He worked at Café Un Deux Trois for six years in total. During this time, Zimmern received respect from his peers and a foothold in the food media world. The latter came through his work as a TV chef on local cable and a contributor to Minneapolis-based media brands, springboards that he'd use to launch his national media career.
Bizarre Foods Was Zimmern's Big Break
Although some successful chefs fall into food media by accident, in Andrew Zimmern's case, it was very much a conscious decision. Zimmern sensed food media was there for the taking and decided to go for it. "I decided to trust my gut," Zimmern described to MinnPost. "I see steps ahead. I see food trends two years out. And I saw a media side of food where the doors were still open, but I wasn't sure how long that would last."
Zimmern developed a five-year plan to get a TV show and, in the meantime, took any media-related job he could, including many that were unpaid. After several failed pitches to the Food Network, Zimmern eventually secured a six-episode deal for his show "Bizarre Foods" with the Travel Channel.
The initial season of "Bizarre Foods" was predominantly focused on entertainment; Zimmern would eat live ants, pig eyes, and chitlins with only minor attempts to educate the audience. The reviews were good, and many noted Zimmern's respectful nature towards all he encountered. Despite the othering nature of the program's title, "Bizarre Foods" became known as a celebration of different food cultures, not a ridiculing of them.
The Show Quickly Evolved
Andrew Zimmern did not come up with "Bizarre Foods" just as a way to try dishes some deem strange. On the contrary, his overriding goal was to improve human's understanding of one another. "I thought it would help to do a show like 'Bizarre Foods,' where people in Japan could see how people in Norway ate, and people in Norway could see how people in Argentina ate," Zimmern said in an interview with FSR Magazine. "And I thought that would help promote patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world that seemed to be running short on it."
As previously mentioned, the early episodes of "Bizarre Foods" focused on entertainment, sometimes to the detriment of Zimmern's vision. In the seasons that followed, however, Zimmern got closer and closer to realizing his vision, and the show evolved into one that focused on travel and cultural issues as much as it did food. This was not by chance; Zimmern and his time were conscious that he could easily become typecast as the guy who eats shocking foods and worked hard to avoid it. As a result, changes were made to "Bizarre Foods."
In a 2018 interview, Zimmern highlighted these changes, claiming he hadn't eaten a bug on the show for five years and that he would change the name of the show -- due to the negative connotations of the word bizarre -- if he could. Zimmern also made personal efforts, abandoning phrases like 'ethnic eats' and 'hole-in-the-wall' with the goal of making "Bizarre Foods" more inclusive and respectful.
Zimmern Won Numerous Awards For Bizarre Foods
"Bizarre Foods" was immensely successful before and after any changes were made. In 2013, Andrew Zimmern's business manager John Larson, estimated that every episode of "Bizarre Foods" was repeated between 20 and 30 times. Each repeat gained an average audience of 75,000 viewers. The show would go on to become the longest-running series in Travel Channel History.
Zimmern's program quickly became one of the most popular shows among those in the food media world. In 2009, just two years after "Bizarre Foods" premiered, the program won the Television Program: Food category at the CableFax Awards.
In the following years, Zimmern and "Bizarre Foods" were repeatedly recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Zimmern's first win at the prestigious awards was for the TV Program on Location category in 2012. He won three other James Beard Awards for his work on "Bizarre Foods": TV Food Personality in 2010 and Outstanding Personality/Host in 2013 and 2017.
Bizarre Foods Birthed Some Spin-Off Programs
As with many popular TV programs, "Bizarre Foods" birthed several spin-off programs. Some of these proved more successful than others. When Andrew Zimmern and his team were still trying to find their niche, they launched "Bizarre Worlds with Andrew Zimmern," a program that saw Zimmern traveling to different places in the world to learn more about the local culture's rituals and practices. The program only ran for one season and was not favorably reviewed. Mike Hale of The New York Times lambasted it for being condescending and superficial.
More popular spin-offs included "Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations," a program that highlighted famous destinations and their local cuisines. For example, in Season 1, Episode 2, Zimmern explored Paris, enjoying iconic dishes like croque monsieur and macarons. "Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations" ran for nine seasons in total.
Another well-received spin-off was "Bizarre Foods America." Zimmern highlighted the idea behind the show in an interview with HuffPost. "I've spent a lifetime on the road sort of telling stories," Zimmern said. "And every time I would sit in interviews I would always talk about the opportunities here in America for telling some of those same kind of stories." Over five seasons, that's exactly what Zimmern did, highlighting culinary practices both old and new in locations such as Pittsburgh and the Ozark Mountains.
Zimmern Made Offensive Comments While Opening A Restaurant
In November 2018, Andrew Zimmern opened his first restaurant since his TV career took off called Lucky Cricket. The eatery was focused on Chinese cuisine, although it also featured a tiki bar. The day after Lucky Cricket opened, Fast Company released a long interview with Zimmern on YouTube. During this interview, Zimmern said: "I think I'm saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horses--t restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest." He also discredited P. F. Chang's and suggested that he would have to be the one to introduce the Midwest to "real' versions of Chinese food.
Unsurprisingly, these offensive comments did not go down well. Numerous members of the Midwest's culinary community and the food media world expressed their disapproval, including Washington Post contributor Ruth Tam and Eater's restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan. Zimmern later apologized for his remarks.
In the weeks and months that followed, Lucky Cricket struggled. It closed for a remodel just eight months after opening. After reopening, Lucky Cricket only lasted another eight months before the Coronavirus pandemic forced it to close once again. The restaurant did not survive the pandemic.
Bizarre Foods Was Canceled Shortly After
Andrew Zimmern's comments could not have come at a worse time. Just prior to his restaurant opening, the Travel Channel had made the bold move to switch "Bizarre Foods" from prime time to the much less attractive Saturday morning slot. This move coincided with the Travel Channel's decision to move away from food-related programs to focus on shows about paranormal activity. Zimmern's shows, including "Bizarre Foods," were summarily canceled.
The fact this announcement came so close to Zimmern's offensive comments and subsequent backlash led several media outlets to conflate the two. Zimmern has been clear, however, that the rescheduling of "Bizarre Foods" was planned months in advance. This comment was reinforced by a representative of Travel Channel to The Daily Mail: "The shows, along with other food content on Travel, will no longer air on prime time, but on Saturday mornings in rotation. This decision came before Andrew's comments were made."
Zimmern Has Since Starred In Several TV Programs
Although "Bizarre Foods" and its spin-offs were canceled by Travel Channel in favor of programs about ghosts and monsters, this did not spell the end of Andrew Zimmern's TV career. Instead, he found a home on other channels including MSNBC. This channel, after much discussion, agreed to produce a new show "What's Eating America" which aired in 2020.
In contrast to "Bizarre Foods," "What's Eating America" examined issues facing the United States with the help of food. For example, Season 1, Episode 4 looked at why so many Americans are excluded from voting by having Zimmern eat with activists and convicted felons. In this sense, "What's Eating America" fulfilled Zimmern's original vision for "Bizarre Foods." Namely, it was a TV program that used food as an entryway to explore socio-cultural issues. Unfortunately for Zimmern, MSNBC did not act on its option to produce more than the initial batch of episodes. Consequently, "What's Eating America" only ran for a single season of five episodes.
Recent food-centric shows have been more successful. "Family Dinner," a program that sees Zimmern visit American families using food to come together, has run for three seasons on the Magnolia Network. Another program that has proved popular is "Andrew Zimmern's Wild Game Kitchen." As the name suggests, this program sees Zimmern cooking wild game outdoors over a live fire. "Andrew Zimmern's Wild Game Kitchen" has also reached the three-season mark and is available on The Outdoor Channel.
His Career Flourished After Bizarre Foods
While many people assumed Andrew Zimmern would be canceled after his offensive comments went viral and "Bizarre Foods" was canceled, his career has actually flourished. This is true for Zimmern's off-screen career as well as his on-screen one. For example, in December 2021, he was named a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. World Food Programme.
Commercially, Zimmern has also inked some big deals. He recently collaborated with Walmart to release an exclusive line of frozen meals for the grocery store chain. The range, known as By Andrew Zimmern, is inspired by his show "Family Dinners" and includes products like Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese as well as Turkey Dinner.
Zimmern has also collaborated with Badia Spices to release five all-purpose spice blends. In an interview with Market Watch, Zimmern revealed that he was immensely happy with all the finished products, but was especially proud of the curry spice blend.
To cap it all off, Zimmern has also got back to his award-winning ways. One of his TV programs "The Zimmern List" won an Emmy as TV's best travel and adventure program.
Zimmern Is Invested In Direct-To-Consumer Media
Andrew Zimmern's career has spanned many forms of media from TV, magazine writing, and radio show hosting. He has recently added to this list, adopting the highly popular direct-to-consumer model that is defining 21st-century food media. One of the ways Zimmern has achieved this is by launching a successful newsletter on Substack "Andrew Zimmern's Spilt Milk." In this newsletter, Zimmern shares recipes, answers subscribers' queries, and offers comments on current affairs. He has previously likened his Substack to a drivetime radio show and it echoes this older format through its informality and flexibility.
It's not just food writing that is increasingly packaged in a direct-to-consumer model but video too. Zimmern has responded to this and his YouTube account allows him to succinctly share videos directly with his fans. The account even includes episodes of "Paving the Way to Zero Hunger," a series chronicling efforts made by the U.N.'s World Food Programme. With 153,000 subscribers, Zimmern's YouTube presence is not small. It does, however, publish content significantly less frequently than the Substack.
The other way Zimmern directly interacts with his fans is by sharing content on social media. His presence on X, formerly known as Twitter is especially impressive. His account boasts 1.2 million followers. Zimmern's Instagram account is not far behind with 1.1 million followers. Both feature an array of content including snippets from his shows, recipes, and more personal reflections.
Read the original article on Daily Meal.