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Q&A with Bizarre Foods Star Andrew Zimmern

Zimmern treated Wild fans to guest chef takeover menu at Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Club Thursday

by Devin Lowe /

For the whole of his life, Andrew Zimmern has been making culinary waves. Born and raised in New York City, Zimmern moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s for treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, and once he was sober, his career took off. What started at Un Deux Trois in the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis evolved into Zimmern creating his own TV show on the Travel Channel to explore unique foods around the world.

On Thursday, during the Wild's game against the Ottawa Senators, Zimmern came to the Xcel Energy Center Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Club to treat fans to a special culinary experience as part of Minnesota's Guest Chef Takeover program. He sat down with to talk food, family and his favorite moments in Minnesota sports. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Tell me about your culinary background and what sparked your desire to become a chef.

Andrew Zimmern: I knew that I wanted to be in the food business since my earliest memories. My mother and father were really into it. My mom was the only mother in the neighborhood in the '60s, maybe the only mom in all of Manhattan making pu pu platters. My earliest memories are gathering and foraging food with my parents on Long Island when I was a kid, and it wasn't because it was a trend or because we were impoverished or tribal. It was simply because you could take a chicken leg and tie it to a string and throw it into the pond behind the dunes of the ocean and slowly pull it, and 50 blue crabs would walk behind it. So of course you scooped them up and boiled them. We'd walk down to the jetty and pull mussels. We'd go down to the bay and we'd rake for clams. We had a garden. Everything revolved around food in our family; my dad was a big traveler. And I love food. I loved cooking with my parents. I loved doing the things that were about food. I watched food bring people together in my community, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.

W: What inspires your menus?

AZ: Early on in my career, before I did Bizarre Foods, it was always about the story. The weird palolo worm or the crazy looking fish or the beating frog heart, whatever it is that I put in my mouth is irrelevant to me. I care nothing about it. What I care about is the story; it's the person. The world is not made up of watches and cars and houses. The world is made up of people. And I am just so thrilled to be able to tell the stories of these people around the world. If in the end, everyone showed me their needlepoint instead of their crazy food, I'd probably have a less successful show, but it would fulfill me just as much. I do happen to be a food person and I do see culture through food. I think food is the ultimate cultural totem.

W: Talk a bit about the Guest Chef Takeover menu you've prepared.

AZ: Every single food here comes from one of my travels, and we've interpreted it for an American audience, but it still tells a story. The Tunisian red pepper sambal that's on the chicken, the pizza sandwiches that I saw , and there's a story behind every one of them.

W: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, your TV show on the Travel Channel, explores some of the wildest foods you've ever tried. What food out of all of them was the most bizarre?

AZ: One of them was a coral sea worm called palolo. Palolo only comes out of the coral, out of deep tropical waters. I'm talking about in Samoa in the island atoll of the deep South Pacific and the Cook Islands and Samoan Islands, out in the middle of the ocean where it's 5,000, 6,000 feet deep. You have to have a day with no wind and have it be perfectly still and very hot. Now, that's very rare in really deep ocean water. The coral senses that and it releases these worms that live in the little microscopic holes in the coral, and they float to the surface of the ocean, and it's almost like a blue foam or oil slick on top of the water. They die in the sun and then they float back down to the coral bed and actually feed the coral. So the palolo is both an inhabitant of the coral reef and its food system. The native tribespeople that live down there skim this oil slick of microscopic worms in huge clusters off the top of the ocean. They eat it plain or cook it very quickly on a hot rock and put it on bread. It tastes like a combination of iodine and a fish's rear end. I adore it. If you like anchovies times 10, you'll love it.

W: What is your all-time favorite dish?

AZ: It's my mother's roasted chicken or anybody's ocean-fresh bowl of mussels. Clams on the half-shell are right up there, a really good cherrystone clam ... those three elements along with pitch-perfect coffee ice cream are my death row meal.

W: Of all that you've accomplished in your career, what are you proudest of?

AZ: Probably getting sober, staying sober and being a father. I think that far eclipses anything anyone does with their career. I would hope the most accomplished people in the world would say the same thing. As part of my job, I get to influence the way kids work and think and talk and act, and I did that because I became a father. My last two or three books have been kids projects because I have a kid. Young people are our future. You can influence them in 30 seconds for the rest of their lives, and that's what I love about being a dad and it's what I love about my job. I didn't say, "I want to be rich," or have a big platform. I just wanted to do something good because for a large part of my life, I did bad things.

W: Do you have a favorite Minnesota sports memory? If so, what is it?

AZ: It was the NFC Championship game when the Vikings went into the Meadowlands [Sports Complex] to play the Giants in 2000. I'm a born-and-bred New York Giants fan; I had Giants sheets on my bed growing up. I move out here, and over the course of the last 25 years, I've done work with the Vikings; I now have food business at U.S. Bank Stadium. And so I root for the Vikings... unless they're playing the Giants. It's just too confusing for me. But when they went to play, I went with some of my friends from here and we met some friends from New York, and we all got tickets. We pull up to the Meadowlands as the game is starting and we park the car, and everybody goes to their seats, but I wait in line to get the food and the beers for everyone. I literally walk to our seats and it's 21-0. I think the Giants scored first on a kick return, then there was a pick-6 and they marched down the field and scored. Like four minutes into the game, it was 21-0. I just remember the letdown because while I loved the Giants and was born and raised a Giants fan, I wanted the Vikings to win that game so badly. I think we were 15-1 going into that game. We were unstoppable, and we just got run over. It was a crusher for me, but there was happiness in that because I realized that I really did love the Vikings and I was absorbing that pain of being a Vikings fan. But by the same token, it's very exciting what I see going on right now. I see a lot of opportunity in young teams. I like what the Wolves are doing, you can't help but like the direction the Wild are going in. I just think it's a very exciting time to be a Minnesota sports fan.

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