Andrew Zimmern on Food Trucks, Out of Body Experiences, and ‘Snackable’ TV
After striking gold with a hit show, some TV hosts kick back and enjoy the ride — but Andrew Zimmern is not one of those people. Although he’s been seemingly omnipresent on the Travel Channel for the last decade, Zimmern is constantly busy spinning off new projects.
So far this year, the culinary expert has starred in a new restaurant recommendation show called The Zimmern List, as well as fresh episodes of Bizarre Foods and its spinoff Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations, which just got a 52-episode order from the Travel Channel. In two weeks, Zimmern’s first Food Network show, Big Food Truck Tip, will hit the air. And in between working on all of these series, Zimmern is also flexing his muscle as a producer of non-food shows through his five-year-old production company Intuitive Content.
Eater recently hopped on the phone with Zimmern to chat about his food TV rules, how he brings an idea to the small screen, and where he turns to when he needs creative inspiration.
When you’re putting together a new season of one of your shows, how does the process start? Does it begin with a list of places? Or themes?
It begins with trying to hash out what it is that hasn’t been done in the marketplace before, that we believe strongly enough in doing: Where can we, through food-travel-adventure-learning television, make a difference? Now, it’s a lot easier when I’m making Zimmern List, Big Food Truck Tip, or Driven By Food, because I produce all of those. With Bizarre Foods and Delicious Destinations, I created the show, I’m the executive producer, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, but another company provides the production services, and so that becomes very tricky in trying to enroll them.
Now, with Delicious Destinations, it was fascinating because the network came to me and said, “Okay, you do these shows where you’re off in the jungle and you’re here and you’re there, and, yes, sometimes you’re doing a city, but even then you’re doing experiences that other people can’t have. A family invites you in to do a matanza, where you’re butchering a whole hog on this farm. Normal people can’t do that, and we want to develop a snackable, half-hour recommender show.” So that’s how that show started.
I came back to them with some parameters — and this is usually how it works with everything. I said, “Okay, I met with my team, we hashed everything out. We can’t do a show where we recommend the best steak frites in Paris, because no one can tell you the answer to that question. So you’re damned if you do, or you’re damned if you don’t.” And I said, “The thin line that we straddle in Delicious Destinations, is when you go to Paris, here are the things that you need to eat while you’re there.”
We go to a place, but we don’t hit you over the head with what that place is. We happened to go to Bistrot Paul Bert. I think they do a phenomenal steak frites — because we’re not going to go to a place that does a crappy one, right? But we don’t care whether you do it anywhere else. The important thing is that if you go to Paris for the first time, and you don’t eat steak frites in a bistro, you’re not doing Paris right.
You mentioned the word “snackable.” I feel like If I go over to a relative’s house, they might have one of your shows on, and it’s entertainment. But I know that you really dig in, as well. Like take the recent Las Vegas episode of Delicious Destinations. You went to a buffet, but you also went off-Strip, and you go to the Italian restaurant that’s been there for four generations…
Oh my god, how great was that?
I didn’t even know that it existed, and I read Eater Vegas fairly frequently. It seems like there’s a certain texture or variety of places that you want to throw into the mix. Is that usually the case?
Yeah, you have to. We look at all the other shows in the genre, and we make a real, concerted effort to decide, how are we’re going to be different? And, what is our best tactic for all the things we do well? Like, for example, making sure that two or three of our selections are “hidden finds.”
Some people just put on entertainment television as wallpaper, and I love that. There are some people who have a hard life, they come home from work, and they just disappear into TV — and I want to help those people. If they like food and travel, this show is a great show. A lot of my shows are great shows to disappear into.
Then there’s some people who are watching them who actually write down the stuff or go on the Travel Channel website, and they say, “Oh my god, that Italian red sauce place, that’s perfect, we love that.” And some people are into the Asian place that I’m going to discover up at the mall. So we really do try to provide a mix of things for people, and it’s proven to be very successful.
The new show is all about food trucks, a world that you’ve covered in the past on Driven By Food. Why did you double down? What stories are you excited about telling now?
So, Food Network came to us and said, “All of our research and everything has shown that we have a lot of people who want to see this world of food trucks, and food trucks aren’t going away. We have a great show with Tyler Florence in the Great Food Truck Race, and we want to create a companion show, not to air alongside it, but another food truck show and we want there to be stories. We want there to be that narrative, and we want there to be that sense of discovery. But it’s Food Network, so we still want some competition in there.” And we’re like, “Okay.” You’ve basically been given an assignment from a client.
When you only have half an hour, and the parameters that the network gave were “three trucks and we want you to give a prize.” How do you then give a prize to someone in a format like that, and not do the same thing that people have seen in dozens and dozens of other shows? A lot of those shows will say, “Okay, remember, we’re judging by food, creativity, and appearance” or whatever it is, so that the audience is clued in as to what what the decider is going to do. We don’t do that.
We take three food trucks, and I spend some time with them. I eat their food, I talk with them beforehand, I go on their truck afterwards, I find out a little bit about them, and my criteria for giving them the money is entirely based around two things. There’s the food, but I can’t have them competing, in a sense, against each other, because if I go to a city, and I do Greg Morabito’s Barbecue Truck, Amanda Kludt’s Vegan Salads & Smoothies, and Billy Bob’s Asian Noodle Truck, it’s apples to oranges to pears, right?
But what I can do — because, I dunno, I’ve been around the block a couple of times — is say, “Okay, Greg’s barbecue is going to be evaluated on the quality of his food in ratio to what his potential is, for his barbecue.” In other words, “Wow, he’s nailed his ribs and all this other stuff, but his sides could use some work.” I need to judge everybody based on what they’re capable of doing themselves, and then I select the winner.
I hope the audience likes it; they’re fun to do. It’s an incredible world of entrepreneurs; I teach entrepreneurship at Babson College, and I’m involved in a lot of that. It is an inexpensive way for young entrepreneurs who really want to seize the moment, get out there, and be responsible for their own success. It’s an incredible world of people who are all the most glass half-full folks I’ve ever met. Everyone believes that they can do it because you don’t have to operate a whole restaurant. If you’re like, “I make the best clam chowder in the world,” well, you need to figure out a couple styles of clam chowder, but if you want a clam chowder truck? Go for it.
Are there any influences, cinematic or television-wise, that you turn to when you’re feeling creatively tapped out? Or is there a new source that you draw inspiration from?
We’re trying to borrow from the people who I’ve learned from and inspired me. And that’s everyone from Ken Burns’s group, to what Lydia [Tenaglia] and Chris [Collins] have done at Zero Point Zero — I look to them as incredible leaders in our community. They’re friends of mine, and I did a pilot with them many years ago called Border Check, which was one of my favorite hours of TV I’ve ever made. We’ve remained friends over the years, and I watch everything they make, and I have the opportunity to pick up the phone and call them and say, “Wow, what were you thinking about with that?” Or when I see them, we talk about work.
You have… I don’t want to call them mentors, but I look at them that way, as leaders who have done things the right way. If you say to yourself, “I don’t know everything, I need to learn from other people,” I think that’s a really great place, stylistically, as a creative person, to take off from. You try to learn from everybody.
When you go out and meet with your fans, is there a moment from one of your shows that people ask you about? One thing that keeps sticking out?
I’ve been lucky enough to be on TV, on major cable, for 13 or 14 years now, so there’s more than one. Everybody always asks me about the show in Botswana, where I had an out-of-body experience with the shamans there. Because they can tell, they know that we shoot our show as “live.” We don’t rehearse, we don’t script anything. It’s just me having an experience. And so, they’re always asking me, “That couldn’t really have been true, was it?” And I say, “Yeah.” I mean, I’m a cynical Jewish New Yorker. When I went in there, I was like, you know, no fucking way. What they say is going to happen… is not possible.
We sat there — and a lot of people don’t pick up on it, but we were there for four or five or six hours in this ceremony — watching all this stuff and seeing some really amazing things, but nothing really happened… until it did. And in the show, I think I said, “I can remember really clearly, it was like electricity shot through my body, I was floating above me, about 10 feet above, I could see that this guy was looking at the pictures of my life in my head.” It was insane. And people are always asking me about that, because I think it strikes them as being really true. They’re watching something like, holy shit, is this really happening? I would say that’s the one that comes up the most.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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