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Globe-Trotting Food Hosts Embark on New Travels
March 23, 2014  | By Monique Nazareth
 

With spring finally here after what seemed like an endless winter, you might be dreaming of getting away.  Like many people, my favorite things include food and travel.  And frankly, nobody does them better than Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain.  These two chef/journalists open up new worlds filled with culinary masterpieces and eccentricities, across an ocean or practically next door.  And the new seasons for both of their shows are starting up...

Zimmern hosts the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods.  Its new season begins Monday, March 24 (9 p.m. ET), with a trip to and through the Alaskan wilderness, where he samples such delicacies as moose jaw (pictured). Take the series' title seriously, as Zimmern travels around the world eating delicacies that would horrify most of us!  However, he does much more than that.

“I think people who think that this show is about me putting strange foods in my mouth miss the larger truth,” says Zimmern.  “Our show is about acceptance, tolerance and understanding. It’s about broadening our food choices to save our damaged food system from our own malaise. It’s about interpreting culture through food and learning from others how to live rightsized.  I think food entrepreneurs will save our planet and I believe in supporting them, too.”

Through those efforts, Zimmern might turn your head, too.  Finding out the where food comes from and how it’s raised might make you think twice about what you eat.    

Bourdain, on the other hand, uses food to open the door on politics and history with CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.  Though similar to his previous show, No Reservations, which ran on the Travel Channel and still airs in reruns, there are some notable differences.

“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to see places like Myanmar, Libya and the Congo… The move over to CNN has been a game changer,” says Bourdain’s longtime producer, Tom Vitale.   “[The show has] even higher production values, more interesting locations…. and it has a better theme song.”

CNN approached Bourdain to host his own show on their network.  He could offer them a steady audience, and they could offer him CNN’s global resources to travel to even more places than before.  It was a win-win approach.  CNN Worldwide’s managing editor, Mark Whitaker, explained it to the New York Times: “We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.”

So far, everyone involved seems happy with the arrangement.  The third season of Parts Unknown starts on Sunday, April 13, at 9 p.m. ET.  And, thanks in part to its success, CNN is expanding its original unscripted series to include Chicagoland, which premiered earlier this month.   

Bourdain made a name for himself with the first of several books, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures from the Culinary Underbelly. His book was later the basis for a short-lived TV program on Fox, also called Kitchen Confidential, that starred Bradley Cooper in the lead role, based on Bourdain. 

That name and reputation allowed Bourdain to create a formula and something new in a television show revolving around food by combining it with travel and great conversation. That formula met with great success and opened the door for someone like Zimmern to create a food travel show in his own style.

With these two great chefs, eaters and travelers gaining popularity, it’s no surprise that Bourdain and Zimmern’s paths have crossed over the years, even before they were stars.  Both were born in New York City five years apart, Bourdain being older.  Both attended Vassar College: Zimmern graduated, while Bourdain dropped out.  Both also worked in some of New York’s finest restaurants, managing them and as executive chefs.  Both branched out into a form of food journalism before being offered opportunities on television.   

Yet with all these similarities, the two have very different styles. The Internet is full of opinions on Bourdain vs. Zimmern.  The two of them have nothing but respect and admiration for the other and what they do.  Zimmern has called Bourdain “one of the truly original voices of our time” and Bourdain will tell you Zimmern is “a very nice guy.”

Zimmern comes across as an amiable and enthusiastic guy on his show.  That’s in part what makes him so appealing.  He’s excited when eating a fresh raw organ cut from an animal, even pausing to describe the exact flavors.  

Bourdain has ribbed his friend on this.  At the 2012 Capital Food Fight, a DC benefit event, Bourdain asked Zimmern if he’d rather have a Cinnabon or a lamb testicle.  Zimmern answered: “Lamb testicles, every day of the week, because at least I know where they’re from.”

If you want to know where this curious and adventurous palate comes from, you have to look at Zimmern’s past.  He was reportedly born into privilege and grew up on New York’s Upper East Side. 

“People might be surprised to learn that Andrew spent most of his childhood traveling with his father and exploring food traditions,” says Bizarre Foods producer Colleen Needles Steward  “so he’d be sampling exotic foods even with or without the show.”

Between his upbringing and education, Zimmern’s success in the food industry might have gone smoothly had it not been for a drug and alcohol addiction.  He has made no secret of the fact it nearly cost him everything, and left him homeless for a period of time.  He turned his life around after time at the Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota, a state he chose to make his home.

It was a struggle, but he’s said it was looking at the twelve-step program as a recipe that helped him recover.  In a 2011 interview with The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery, he addressed how it affects everything he does now: “I think that I’m addicted to bright, shiny things. I’m fascinated by new things. I’m an experience junkie; I want to try everything I see. All those things got me in a lot of trouble when left unharnessed, but when focused the right way are the core elements that make up all of my successes today.”

Zimmern returned to the restaurant business after getting out of Hazelden.  He worked his way up from busboy to Executive Chef at one of Minneapolis’ acclaimed bistros. He eventually became a food journalist, reviewing restaurants and writing a column for Mpls.St. Paul Magazine.  He went on to host radio shows in the Twin Cities, and did some TV work both locally and on HGTV as well as UPN.  The Travel Channel introduced Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern in November 2006.   Among his awards and achievements are two prestigious James Beard Awards, including one for “Outstanding Personality/Host.”

With that background, one might wonder how careful Zimmern is with his image.

“It’s a coin with two sides,”  Zimmern responds. “Part of me doesn't give a f*** what people think of me.  I live my life how I think it should be led, I try to be a stand-up guy and do the right thing….But, and it’s a big BUT, as a father and friend, employer and partner, husband and colleague, I am responsible for a lot of other people and I take that very seriously. Probably most importantly when I am traveling I represent a wide range of archetypes…I may be the first American male a villager in Syria may have met…and I really believe I should be a better guest in someone's home than be the funny, snotty, TV douchebag that you see elsewhere in other programs. I take being nice and being respectful very seriously.”

When it comes to image, Bourdain’s is that of the “bad boy chef.” David Carr of the New York Times described him as "macho but not overbearing, profane without being coarse, and tall and handsome." 

When asked his reaction to that, his long time producer Vitale responded,He certainly is tall…”

But seriously, Vitale said, when it comes to the brand, “Tony doesn’t talk in those terms.  He has a pretty unique position in that all he has to do is be himself.  It’s not an act.  Tony is far more heart than snark.  Often I think people don’t get that about him.”   

With what seems like the world at their fingertips, how do Bourdain and Zimmern decide where to go?

According to Zimmern’s producer, Needles Steward, “Our office is wallpapered with maps.  Lots and lots of maps.  We can’t get enough of them!” she says.  “We get referrals from food writers, fisheries, DNR (Department of Natural Resources), community, and church leaders. You’d be surprised by how many people want to talk about food!”

Vitale says Bourdain chooses the locations, and is involved in every step of the process.  And it’s not always the food that drives the location, particularly as Bourdain uses food to expand into discussions of politics, history and culture.

“In my experience, food tends to be a natural expression of personality and speaks volumes about the people preparing and consuming it,” Vitale reflects.  “Just ask someone what they ate for Thanksgiving growing up and it will tell you a ton about where they come from.  We find—especially in some of our tougher locations—people are really happy we’ve come to film a meal, and it’s a natural way to break down boundaries.”

 And back to that food.  The new season of Bizarre Foods America kicks off in Alaska, with native delicacies like moose head soup.  And yet, Zimmern admits there are certain foods he won’t eat -- and surprisingly, that list includes pretty common stuff.

“There are a half dozen foods I can't stand,” he admits. “Walnuts and oatmeal being atop the list. I think I am entitled to dislike something…but the irony of it all isn't lost on me.”

With all the travel and eating, there is one question that can be asked of Zimmern today, and it’s the same one Susan Stewart brought up in her 2007 review of the show in the New York Times.  While giving the show a very positive review, she pondered:  “My only concern is for [Zimmern’s] health. A professional eater whose vocation is organ meat had better make sure his life insurance is paid up.”

Though he says he “took exception to being called a professional eater,” Zimmern did respond to the concern about his health.   

“Well…I am 52 and healthy as an ox, but I am 30 pounds overweight and should exercise more,” he answered.  “I am actually on a health kick right now…so I am always concerned about stress and diet and exercise and travel and all that stuff. My life insurance is hefty, I try to eat salad on my days off, and thankfully I am doing a show about food and culture so I don't eat for size or volume. I eat for the same reasons we all do.”

 
 
 
 
 
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