The chef, food TV host and industry thought leader joined us on Instagram Live in May.
Andrew Zimmern courtesy of Travel Channel
Andrew Zimmern’s food memories stretch back to his childhood in Manhattan, from savoring lobster with bare hands while the crustacean rested on his chest to enjoying a pupu platter at home. At 14, he took on his first professional job in a restaurant kitchen in Long Island’s busy summer town, East Hampton, where he also gardened, clammed and fished with his family. There, his lifelong love for the restaurant industry that he now champions began.
“It was just one of those things,” Andrew said. “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. I fell in love with the satisfaction of watching.” He remembers a stolen moment when he peeked out from his station to watch a plate of shellfish that he prepared cross the dining room and land on a guest’s table. “You’d watch someone put something in their mouth and smile,” he recalled. “There was just something immediate and satisfying about that.”
That moment was more than four decades ago, and he has “never stopped” since, working in kitchens in New York, Paris, Venice and Hong Kong throughout his 20s.
“The love of travel, the obsession with seeking out what was really meaningful to a culture. The things that we have in common versus the things that differentiate us, all of that was really set in motion back then,” Andrew said. When he (finally) graduated from college with what he describes as a “monstrously developing drug and alcohol addiction,” he started working at a popular Italian restaurant, La Colonna. One fortuitous night when another cook did not show for his shift, Andrew became the master of the risotto station.
“I just remember those first orders coming in and my first risotto going out and the chef coming over and putting his finger on the edge of the plate, tipping down just to see if it ran a little, which it’s supposed to. And it did,” he reminisced.
Andrew went on to open his own restaurants and infiltrate nearly every avenue of food. He’s an author and columnist, owns a production company called Intuitive Content and has been sober for 30 years. Widely known for hosting Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” Andrew most recently hosted MSNBC’s “What’s Eating America.”
“We have a horrific problem in America,” Andrew told students. “Our food system has been stuffed into many cans and those cans have been kicked down the road for generations.”
In the series’ first episode, Andrew travels to Salinas, California, to visit the source of the food served at a Washington, D.C. event. “In California, 40% of our nation’s produce is grown just in the Salinas Valley,” he explained. “What’s fascinating to me (and we documented it on ‘What’s Eating America’): The workers are doing work that no one else will show up to do.” As a result, farmers hire people from other countries.
“Seasonal guest worker visas are something that the crab industry relies on in Maryland, the chicken industry in Arkansas, the beef cutters in Tennessee, the turkey farmers in Minnesota, and most profoundly in big ag[riculture] and in small ag,” Andrew explained. “The people who make our food deserve every right and privilege like any other American, and we have to have a pathway to citizenship for these people, and we have to take care of them better,” he said.
Before COVID-19 hit, Andrew was focused on bringing awareness to food system issues that he believes the pandemic will impact. “I’m really hoping that one of the things that comes out of this pandemic is people realizing how fragile and brittle our food systems are," he said. “Instead of just talking about it and paying lip service to these ideas of sustainability, not just biological and ecological sustainability, but economical sustainability for the businesses, like farming, we actually do something about it.”
In addition to using his celebrity to help positively impact the agricultural industry, he is currently using his voice to reduce the impact that COVID-19 has had on the restaurant industry.
“Ninety-three cents for every dollar that goes into a restaurant goes out the back door,” Andrew said. “We pay the most taxes of any business. That helps in our municipalities to put books on desks in schools and to keep our roads paved.” According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), which Andrew co-founded, independent restaurants are a $1 trillion business that employs 11 million people and indirectly employs an additional 5 million people. “We’re the No. 1 employer of single moms, the No. 1 employer of returning citizens (people coming out of jail and institutions), the No. 1 employer of immigrants, part-time workers, all the rest of that. It’s a very special industry.”
Joining Andrew on the IRC’s leadership team are notable chefs and restauranteurs from across the nation: José Andrés, Kevin Boehm, Sean Brock, Andrew Carmellini, Ashley Christensen, Amanda Cohen, Tom Colicchio, Nina Compton, Rosa Garcia, Suzanne Goin, Will Guidara, Camilla Marcus, Kwame Onwuachi, Patrick Phelan, Naomi Pomeroy, Steven Satterfield, Nancy Silverton and Jill Tyler. These and hundreds of other chefs around the country have banded together to lobby Congress to establish a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund.
“It’s very, very crucial that we help restaurants get open, but we need to have them stay open,” Andrew said. “We need the federal backstopping that, quite frankly, other industries are given, yet they employ less people, they are less impactful to the economy, and they don’t have the special place in our culture that restaurants do.” Andrew urged those that want to get involved with the IRC to go to saverestaurants.com and sign the petition to help advocate for the industry.
Despite the enormity of the issue at hand, Andrew is optimistic for the future. “Our industry is made up of the best human beings on planet Earth. No one is better at pivoting and figuring out the impossible than food people. No one,” he said, optimistic about the future. “I can’t wait to see what students now figure out four or five years from now. That’s going to literally set the trend for the next 50. I want everyone to know that we are stronger when we are standing together, always.”
Finally, Andrew offered advice for ICE students and graduates starting out in the industry at this challenging time in history:
“Can’t stop, won’t stop. I’m in love with food people. You have to remember after every disaster, who rushes in after the police and fire department? Who rushed in at 9/11 and Katrina? It was chefs. While we’re getting our asses kicked with closures and inability to pay rent, what are we doing? We’re cooking for frontline workers and doing community resource kitchen work. I believe in food people and I believe in the power of food people to change the world. So you’re in the right place.”