Andrew Zimmern has eaten a lot of food, much of which most of us will never get a chance to try, but I sincerely believe he wishes we could taste it all. With a stated goal of “promoting cultural acceptance, tolerance, and understanding through food,” Andrew’s body of work has a common theme: getting people interested and excited about eating and cooking the foods they didn’t grow up with. He’s not a food snob, but he is serious about it, and I was lucky enough to talk to him about the coffee, condiments, and ice cream he takes so seriously.
Are there any foods left that you still want to try?
Millions and millions. It’s mostly versions of things in other countries and cultures. All of the most enjoyable and mind-boggling foods that I’ve ever eaten were the ones that I didn’t know existed until I got to the last stop on the subway.
I was in Suriname — not very many people go to Suriname — I was hundreds of miles down the Marowijne River. And I’m in the middle of their rain forest walking on ground that no human being’s ever walked on before with tribal people. And we’re off in some crazy direction, we’re a full 12-hour hike out into the forest — very, very difficult ground. You really are at the end of the earth, in a way. And they hunted a lot of different animals there that we ate that night around the campfire. But there’s a species of turtle that you didn’t know existed. They translated it into “chicken,” but it looked like a Dr. Seuss bird. You could look it up, taxonomically, based on the pictures that we took. It’s delicious, right? You just don’t know until you get out there.
Let’s talk about your usual day in regards to food. Do you eat breakfast?
I’m a cup of coffee person, and then I try to eat 90 minutes after I’ve gotten up. I have to force myself. I’m not really hungry until lunch. I can do coffee until lunch. But the problem is, if I don’t eat in the morning, then I overeat at lunch and dinner and I have energy issues.
How do you take your coffee?
Just drip coffee?
No. I’m a complete and total food geek. I have the really expensive espresso machine, and I have the pour over thing. And I buy all these ridiculous and rare coffees that I love to drink — low acidity, big, chocolatey, nutty flavours. I get different types of peaberry from different parts of the world. I’m really into the coffees of Rwanda. I love some Jamaican and Mexican coffees — a lot of it has to do with the roaster. I’m pretty persnickety about it. I mean, I don’t do drugs or alcohol anymore. I’m 29 years sober, so I take my coffee really seriously.
When you do force yourself to eat breakfast, what are you usually forcing yourself to eat?
I make a piece of toast, I do two fried eggs. I fry them hard and fast and the butter goes brown, the edges get crispy and I slide it on top of the piece of toast, so the browned butter goes right into the toast, and then when I cut into it, the yolks get soaked up by the toast. I love eggs. I’ll scramble them. I don’t do a lot of take-out, but I do a lot of food ordering. I have a standing order at Russ and Daughters in New York City. At least every other day I have a bagel with smoked fish and cream cheese or whitefish salad or something on it. So the eggs are once or twice a week, the bagel is two or three times a week, and the other thing — two times a week, especially on weekends — is leftover food from dinner.
The American breakfast is toxic for people. It’s all that sugar, and carbohydrates. It’s French toast and maple syrup, and cereal with sugar — I mean, it’s just fucking awful for people. It’s almost like child abuse to feed your kid the “American Breakfast.” And after travelling the world so much — the Japanese breakfast, for instance, where you have some pickles, and a little bit of rice, and a little bowl of broth of some kind, and a little piece of leftover broiled fish is just such a healthy, delicious, yummy breakfast. So I oftentimes will eat the leftover broiled fish, some little vegetables, and just make a little miniature dinner for myself, for breakfast — a couple of bites of each, and it’s perfect.
And what do you usually do for lunch?
I take my food pretty seriously, I don’t like to waste meals, but I’m not a food snob. I keep Feltman’s hotdogs here at the office. We have a big kitchen studio that we’re always doing all of my food videos in and we produce a lot of food content in, so I usually go in and make something for myself.
How often do you cook your own recipes and do you have any favourites?
It’s funny you say that because the way it works is I’ll make something improvisational at home, and then I’ll take a videotape of it, or a picture of it, and I’ll bring it in and give it to the people in my office that handle that kind of stuff. And they’ll say to me, “Where’s the recipe? We don’t have this on the website.” And then I write out the recipe. Then they’ll test it and then it goes up on the website, or we’ll do it as part of AZ Cooks. There’s a pasta that I make for my family, that was my father’s and his partner’s favourite pasta dish to make, which is just a very simple pasta with broccoli. You take a massive amount of leftover broccoli — like four cups, five cups — and you chop it really fine and cook it in butter and stock for another 10, 15 minutes until it literally becomes a green, thick sauce. And then you toss it with handfuls — like two, two and a half cups of grated Parmesan cheese, and add a little pasta water to fill it out to the point that it’s saucy and cheesy around the pasta, then you serve it.
It was a very typical dinner in my family’s house growing up, throughout my whole life. I’ve never written a recipe down, so I made it the other day and I videotaped it, and wrote the recipe down. We’re going to put that out on my social. It’s not so much that I cook my old recipes, it’s just that I cook things that then become my recipes.
But it works both ways. There are times — because I don’t make a dish as often as I like — where it’s like yesterday we posted about my shrimp étouffée for Mardi Gras, and I love shrimp étouffée. I have this recipe that’s a mash-up of one that I learned in New Orleans 12, 14 years ago when I was doing a story on étouffée. It’s a combination of Poppy Tooker’s recipe and Leah Chase’s recipe. I just made it work for myself and we posted about it. But I look on my website to remember “What were the ratios again?” and “How was I dealing with my tomato product?” I could have guessed at it pretty well, but it’s a very precise recipe. I do look at my old recipes because they’re the they’re all the foods I like to eat.
Do you have any new favourite recipes or cookbooks that you’re excited about right now?
I get books in the mail and if I love the chef or I love the style of cooking, then I will cook out of that book for weeks — every other day I’ll make something out of the book. There’s a book that Hawa Hassan just came out with — it’s recipes from grandmothers from different coastal African countries called In Bibi’s Kitchen. I cooked a lot out of that. There’s another book that’s Indonesian food that Lara Lee wrote called Coconut and Sambal. There’s an old old book that I got a reprint of called The Carolina Rice Kitchen by Karen Hess that I’m cooking out of. Nik Sharma’s book, The Flavour Equation — I’ve been cooking out of that a lot.
Do you stock up on any instant or frozen foods?
Yes, Totino’s Pizza Rolls. I have all kinds of habits with them — it sounds really obsessive, but I will take very small amounts of marinara sauce and freeze them in little two- or three-ounce portions in ziplock bags so I can defrost them under running water and warm it in the microwave so I can dip. There’s never sauce in the pizza rolls, so I like to get the pizza rolls in sauce. I’m obsessive about ice cream. I order ice cream online from from Jeni’s, from Graeter’s, from Salt & Straw, from all the scoop shops I love. I love hot dogs lately. I’m a Feltman’s guy with the original Coney Island dog. Helados Mexico, the Mexican paleta company that’s now in most supermarkets, I love those.
I cook a lot of Chinese food and a lot of different Asian cuisines. That’s my favourite thing to cook at home. We have some really remarkable markets here in this part of the world and in the Twin Cities. I collect almost every instant ramen that I can find, because you never know when you’re going to find one you really like. The other day my kid looked up into the shelf and was like “What the hell is going on with you in the ramen thing?” I like a bowl of instant ramen. It’s just so simple. And you can doctor it up. You have some scallions, you grate a carrot, you throw in a little leftover roasted chicken and you make instant ramen — I just love it! I’m really into some of the Korean companies that are doing these instant noodle bowls.
What condiments do you keep around?
Oh, it’s absurd. I love to go shopping and I believe food waste is a crisis issue in our country. One of the problems with food waste is that people started buying oversize refrigerators and people were like “Well, now you can just shop once a week and load up the fridge!” and then you have a lot of food waste because things happen, meals get delayed, meals don’t happen. It’s a disaster. So in my house I have a European refrigerator that’s very small and narrow, and it disincentivizes me from shopping once a week. If I want to make pork chops tonight, I will go buy the pork chops and I’ll stop and get a veg or something to go with it. And then everything else I have at my house, like the potatoes, the onions and eight million condiments. I have 15 different kinds of soy sauce at my house. I have a hundred types of olive oil and vinegar. I have at least a dozen mustards.
What about ketchup?
I have two kinds of ketchup in my house, Heinz ketchup and Sir Kensington’s. I use them for different things. In the hot sauce department — I’ll just go “hot condiment” because I have a jar of Walker’s jerk paste. I’ll use that to season if I’m not doing a jerk blend on my own. That’s a really great product. I have 100 products like that. I have eight different types of Korean gochujang in my house. I have eight different types of Sichuan dou ban — the fermented chilli-bean paste. One of them is very precious to me. It’s 25 years old. It was given to me as a gift the last time I was in Chengdu by a chef friend of mine, and it’s in a clay pot and you know it’ll last forever, right? I have red tahina from the Muslim quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem from a tahini maker that toasts the sesame seeds to order, each day in a wood burning oven and then grinds them between stones. That family has been making tahini in that shop for a thousand years. These are the things that I collect and bring home.
I have all these shelves — it actually bleeds out into the secondary refrigerator, into the other rooms, because it’s all about what you have on hand. I have a mustard that my family keeps wanting me to throw out. I’m the only one that eats it. It’s a Russian mustard. The label is in Cyrillic. If you don’t read Russian, you can’t understand it. But it’s called “mother-in-law mustard” because it’s so strong. But this mustard has horseradish oil added to it, and it’s that wasabi explosion mustard. I only use it on liverwurst sandwiches. I tell everyone, I’m not going to throw it out. You can’t throw it out, because when I buy liverwurst and I want my liverwurst and onion sandwich, I have to have it on that bread, right?
I’m staring at a bottle of olive oil that I don’t have room for at home. It’s sitting on my desk. It’s remarkable because — again, I have no business relationship with any of these people — but it’s Palestinian extra virgin olive oil. It’s from a mill that’s on the West Bank and the flavour — I mean, I’ve just been sipping at it every day. I may never be able to take it home because I may be done with it. Someone sent it to me because they knew that I loved Palestinian food and food from the Levant, and that I was very supportive of different communities around the world. For people that don’t know a lot about the geopolitical, socioeconomic, and historical struggles of peoples living in what is collectively referred to as “the Middle East,” they make a lot of assumptions. There’s a lot of mythology that comes into play there because people are not up to speed on the actual issues, and I find that food is the great unifier. I want people to eat food. I want people to eat Palestinian food, because if you ate Palestinian food, you wouldn’t demonize Palestinian people. And I’m a religious Jew, you know, this is the struggle. The struggle is that we need more patience, tolerance, and understanding in the world. If we can do that by eating each other’s food, I bless it. That’s been my mantra.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.