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Andrew Zimmern Talks Food & Wine Fest: Haters, Barbecue Elitism and Austin's 'Great Eating Community'

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We're just a couple weeks away from the first-ever Austin Food & Wine Festival, which for its inaugural run is bringing in chefs both local and national and featuring a musical tie-in because, you know, it’s Austin and all.

One of the most recognizable faces at the festival will no doubt be bald Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, who'll offer two different presentations on street food during the fest. Eater Austin connected with Zimmern via phone while he was in Cabo San Lucas this week--tough job, right guys?-- to talk about what he's excited to eat when he comes to visit, what pisses him off about Austin barbecue purists and how festival haters are just gonna hate.

You've been to Austin before, yes?

I’ve been a bunch of times, actually. I was just there recently. I have an Austin episode of my show that comes out in July. It’s fantastic.

I just think Ned [Elliott, chef at Foreign & Domestic] and his wife, number one, they’re fantastic people. He’s a very talented young man. Very earnest. Takes his craft very seriously. And wants to present wholesome, delicious food with enough of an avant-garde style to make him something of a modernist but in a very simple, humble sort of way. The restaurant looks like exactly what he’s trying to do. He’s such a skilled young chef. Everything that I ate the day I was there with him was just absolutely fantastic. I love that kind of cooking. There’s an awful lot of it going on in Austin.

What stood out to you about the Austin food scene? Many times, new folks come here and think it's all brisket and tacos.

I was really impressed with the food in the city. Not with the level of quality, which pound for pound makes Austin one of the better eating cities in the country. I knew that I was going to find great quality there. I always have had, when I’ve swung through the city for a day. But what I was really, really impressed with was that it’s a really great eating community, as opposed to a dining community. It’s how brave the chefs can be. That’s really a reflection about the audience’s willingness to be experimented at. That, to me, when I see that in a city, that’s when you know something really, really special is going on. The same thing goes in San Francisco; the same thing goes on in New York. Same thing goes on in Tokyo. I love seeing it in smaller towns around the world. Austin has a great food scene.

I know everyone down there is probably sick of talking about the same places, but there are very well known emblems of not the taco, not the brisket sort of thing that’s going on the city. You mentioned Barley Swine and certainly his truck, Odd Duck, and hundreds of other trucks as well. God knows, you’ve got over a thousand of them. And they’re doing very inventive, very plucky kind of stuff. You can see that reflected when you look at the success that the guys have had at Uchi and Uchiko. That’s neither brisket nor tacos. That’s really far away from that.

Though to be fair, we do love our barbecue.

It’s a very exciting place to be. Plus you get to argue with people about barbecue. It’s just fucking ridiculous. I’ll tell you something, there are so many really great barbecue spots and it doesn’t bug me that people have a favorite place. What pisses me off is that people declare one to be so much better than the other. That just couldn’t be further from the truth. I must have had fourteen or fifteen different barbecue meals the last time that I was there and all of them were stunning in their own way. Frankly, one of them, maybe the best one, was in the place that everybody loves to poke fun at, which is Lamberts. It surprised the heck out of me. It’s like, my gosh, you serve a nice scotch with some barbecue or you do it with this controlled environment and they call you something other than a purist. There are some very nasty names for it. I had a coffee rubbed brisket when I was there that may have been the best piece of beef that I had the whole trip in Austin. It was just extraordinary.

Here’s the thing: if you say to someone, oh I really like Foreign & Domestic, then you say wow, then you’ll really love this and that other place. They’ll very kindly list twenty different restaurants that they just absolutely adore. If you say to someone yeah, I really liked the barbecue that I had at Franklin the other day, they’ll say oh my god! What? They’ll give a reason why it’s no good, but if you tell the same person in an alternate universe, I had a great meal around the corner at Lamberts they’ll say oh it’s terrible, you gotta go to Franklin.

What are you looking forward to eating when you come down for the festival?

Franklin was closed the whole week I was there, it was the main place I wanted to try on-camera and off, so I’m going to try getting up early one day and waiting on line for 17.5 hours and checking out what all the fuss is about.

Rene Ortiz’s place, La Condesa, is something that I’ve had a chance to cook and eat with him the last time I was in Austin, but it wasn’t at his restaurant. So I’m dying to go back there and have the restaurant experience. I think he’s one of the most talented chefs in the country. The food that he made for me, I took him down to Broken Arrow ranch and I shot a deer and handed him the meat and said, Go cook. He did some of the most extraordinary food. I just think he’s a genius. And very underestimated in terms of technique and skill set.

And now he's opening a Thai restaurant here.

I am fully aware! Also very far from tacos and brisket. But it’s interesting he’s doing that, because it speaks to exactly what I said about just how plucky chefs down there are. They really love playing against type. It’s such an eater’s community. Imagine the type of Thai food that he’s going to do. It’s perfect, right? It totally works.

I could eat about 17 more chicken skin buns at East Side King, I can tell you that. I wound up there one night at like midnight after about 15 straight hours of eating and I only was able to eat like two or three different things there. I really need to go there and eat some other stuff that comes out of that truck.

I’m excited to see a lot of my friends and eat at the festival. It’s always a dirty little secret that there’s always some place that a friend of a friend wants to take me or a chef shows up that’s got something he’s looking up for people behind the curtain, and that’s always pretty special.

You're going to be presenting on street food, right? Austinites are going to love that.

The nice thing is that we’re talking about the audience in Austin really being willing to be experimented at. That’s a really good thing to have in terms of the cultural makeup of the city. That’s why the music scene is great. The food scene is great. Because there’s so much room under the tent for anyone, regardless of their style. It is a good place to do some of my street food demos. I try to vary it up a little bit. One of the advantages that I have with my day job traveling around the world several times a year and being exposed to so many cool ideas and cool techniques, so I’m going to get a chance to show that. One day I’m doing south American street food and one day I’m doing Asian. So it’s really fun to show people some cool techniques that they can take home to their own kitchens. And people can travel without leaving their living rooms.

Austin's a huge food truck city, so we're really into street food culture.

I would agree 100%. I don’t think it’s only because of the nature of the Austinite’s personalities, the food trucks flourished. I think there were some economic reasons for it and some geographic reasons for it. The city layout and licensing is such that five, six trucks can all get together and plop down in a vacant lot. It works for a whole variety of reasons. But none of it would work if the audience wasn’t predisposed to enjoy that kind of thing.

One of the complaints we've been getting is that Austin Food & Wine Festival won't be Austin-focused enough. Any words for the critics?

Wow! That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that but that’s something that happens at food festivals all around. Usually the grenade that’s lobbed over the fence is, "Why am I getting these sloppy, made-for-TV faces?" They see it as sort of crass commercialism. Especially in cities like Austin where this sort of avant-garde, Bohemian identity that I think is very, very critical to how people view themselves. People don’t like to be put on. You know what I mean? I would say the great thing about these food events is number one, it’s a mark as to how far the city has come that a lot of people will descend upon a place and celebrate the food and culture of a city. I think it’s great for Austin. So Austinites should be really happy about that.

The second thing is that I would tell folks not to practice contempt prior to investigation. There are lots of people who are chefs who are on television who are quote unquote “celebrities,” who can also cook their asses off. And have been doing it for a long time. Sadly, the game is ruined for those of us who I believe are in that category by the chefs who are well known who have celebrity who are made famous by television, books, internet, whatever, who actually can’t cook for shit. I have to also be one of those people, like many Austinites, who are like, I really couldn’t give a—you know--if someone is just a presenter or an entertainer, I’d rather throw my entertainment dollars somewhere else.

But there are a lot of television personalities coming, as well as out-of-towners like Tim Love.

I’ll just speak for myself. I’ve been cooking since I was thirteen years old. I’ve been cooking for thirty years and I’ve spent most of that time working with some of the best chefs in the country and learning everything that I could. I can carry my own jock strap at any food event. I think people who come out to see, at least what I’m going to do, are going to be really surprised by the level of sophistication of the food and the user-friendly factor as well. I think for other people, and you mentioned my friend Tim, Tim is one of the best chefs in the country. He’s a lot of fun to go see. And he does fantastic, fantastic food. If anyone is lobbing grenades in our direction, god bless ‘em. I think they should be worried about other things.

Amen.

You know, I don’t blame them! I see people on TV and I rush to judgment as well. I wrote an article—I have a lot of jobs—one of my jobs is one of the editors at Delta Sky magazine and also a contributing editor at Food & Wine, and I’m always in the position of hearing from folks first-hand about certain chefs they don’t think are very good. I wrote a great piece in Delta last year about some of the chefs on TV and how brilliantly they cook. When Michael Voltaggio won Top Chef there were a lot of people who didn’t really understand the difference between the people they had seen on TV competition shows prior to that year on Top Chef, and then some of the people who were on that season of Top Chef who were some of the best chefs in the country.

The comment that a lot of the people who show up at these things who are on TV don’t have the gravitas, yeah, I would have understood more of that argument a couple of years ago. But people have got to understand, we all know the people who aren’t cooking. It’s kind of obvious. At Food & Wine in Austin, I think the people who come in are going to be treated to some of the best, most innovative cooking that’s put on by great chefs. I would celebrate it. I think it’s says a lot of great things about the city.

· @AndrewZimmern [Twitter]
· All Austin Food And Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Austin Food And Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]

[Photo: Austin Food And Wine Festival/Official]

La Condesa

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