Last night, Andrew Zimmern's America-centric Bizarre Foods season's Austin episdoe aired on the Travel Channel, and balls were eaten. Love Balls. Pigeons were eaten. (Love pigeons?) Literally bloody Bloody Marys were imbibed at Contigo. Soft-core porn was viewed—blame Pig Vicious. Broken Arrow Ranch deer were shot and eaten in short, René Ortiz-crafted-taco order. So you know, just another 42 minutes or so in the life of Andrew Zimmern.
Eater Austin caught up with Zimmern by phone this afternoon to debrief on the episode (check out clips from the show here) to find out how the Bizarre Foods team squeezes days of eating and drinking into one television program, why Americans love talking about themselves, and whether that bloody Bloody Mary actually tasted, as Zimmern described, like an old Band-Aid.
So what did you think of how the episode turned out? Do you watch it before the final air date?
It was a great episode. I love making them; I love the whole process, but until they sort of go out into the ethersphere it’s hard to judge it. I help curate the show all the way through and I’m in on edit at every phase. I write a lot of the show. It’s a definitely a labor of love.
How do you fit days and days of material in to such a short timespan?
It’s extremely difficult. We have some fantastic people that work on this program and besides me, the other big creative force on the program is my senior producer. Dave [Rodrick] is a great, great storyteller as well. We basically, along with a team of researchers and associate producers, have the show in our head and then we go shoot it. And about half of what we planned on doing usually fits. And you have to sort of punt with the other half.
The stuff you count on being a homerun that you know is just going to be great TV, is often the stuff that falls a little flat. And the moments you never imagined being as good as they will be are just unbelievable. It always comes down to the characters. The people. Even with a good story, if someone on camera with me is something other than vibrant, funny, engaged, it really has the potential to fall flat.
The nice thing about Austin, I thought in watching as a viewer, was how many of the people were just absolutely fantastic to work with on camera. With radically different personality types. Jesse Griffiths [of Dai Due] is a great example. Someone who is soft spoken and committed and earnest, and the exact opposite in a certain sense of some of the louder bigger personalities that were in show.
When you lay out the program, you’re dealing with a lot of different issues. You’re telling seven or eight or nine different stories within the context of the 42 minutes. You’re trying to keep it all relevant to a central theme or group of central themes. Most importantly, you’re trying to deal with a medium where relatively no one, shockingly, a small percentage really sit down and watch the whole show.
I watch hour long shows, I watch entire food and travel programs like mine, but ours is one of the higher rated shows on TV within its genre for length of viewership in terms of total time that a viewer spends in front of the TV, but very few watch the whole thing. We have to make sure that the pacing of the show is such that it rewards people that check in and out at different times. TiVo it, 15 min there. We also need to make sure that we have something that has some story arcs in it that we can tease out. We’ve learned to lead and finish with strong stuff. It’s a matter of keeping the pacing as high as we can.
We have to admit, the Austin episode had a lot of concentrated animal butchering sequences that made it harder to stick with than your average food television show.
It was pretty crazy. I thought about that when we were creating the show. Not from an overkill standpoint—no pun intended—but week in and week out we’re always showing a lot of very similar things. What I loved about this episode was, we’ve done 20 different deer hunting stories, but the system they have at Broken Arrow is so different. We’ve done a lot of different stories about food enterprises like Dai Due, but the cook-all-week, sell-all-weekend that Jesse and his team have is so unique. I thought it really played very, very well.
Even tuned in Austin food types who dine out frequently may not realize what "local food" means when it comes to the farms and ranches you visited in the episode. People don't realize what they do at Dai Due all week long.
It’s nice for everyone to see it all. Jesse’s book is great. They got some guy to write the foreword to that book who is so brilliant; I went out and bought 20 copies based on the foreword. [Ed. note: Haha guys, Andrew Zimmern wrote the foreword.]
How does doing an American season of Bizarre Foods compare to your overseas episodes, where people are really expecting to be shocked and wowed?
What I find fascinating is, it goes back to the way in which we created this special season. I’d gone out and shot 80, 90 episodes in other countries. And we’d done some domestic Bizarre Foods. There were so many, I could have kept going for another 5 years outside the United States without blinking. But every time I came home or went to a food festival or hung out with a friend for the weekend, I realized there were so many stories in what I think is the greatest food place in the world, the U.S. When we started looking at a season that was just shot here, I quickly realized that the blood and guts of a season in America would be with surprising people with what’s going on in their own backyard that they don’t know about.
You can live, work, and even be in the food world in Austin and not see behind the scenes. You can be the best customer in the whole world but cooking with Ned [Elliott at Foreign & Domestic] or with Tyson [Cole at Uchi/Uchiko], that’s a very difficult thing to do. And to get their take on things and put it in context is a very difficult thing to do. And for people to understand, they can go to farmer's market every weekend, but until you go to Sebastian's [Bonneu's] farm, you don’t get a feel for what makes him tick and a feel for what makes the food scene in Austin special. To be able to take people behind the scenes, we’re able to channel something that is very special about America.
Americans, ever since time of de Tocqueville, have been obsessed with images of ourselves. We love ourselves; we can’t get enough of ourselves. We are all we ever think about, and yet we are so selfish and myopic, we very rarely ask the third or fourth question. We’re good at asking the first one or two.
For example, we like Sebastian's birds and rabbits when we buy them at the market but very few people take time to talk to him about his feed and why he cares for his birds this certain way. To watch him in his environment is that 'Wow, I didn’t know that went on here!' moment that makes this special.
How do you avoid doing that whole voyeurish, gawking kind of thing so much travel-related television puts on display?
When we fetishize strange qualities in other countries, we make a huge error. We practice a form of ethnocentrism that I find distasteful. I see it all the time on TV. I see it all the time on TV and they’re overseas and standing next to a person in a tribal situation and it’s easy to go for the laugh and make fun of them because what’s in front of you is so strange and odd. It’s easy to mock that up and fill time in a show.
Our show is about stories and exploring cultures. I believe the best ones are told from the fringes. I use that as a mechanism. It’s my vehicle; it’s not my message. The fascinating thing about being overseas is when I’m in a situation where I’m with the Himba tribe in Namibia, people expect strange things to pop out. When I’m in a swanky, upscale, of-the-moment restaurant and they make a Bloody Mary with real blood in it, that’s a nice surprise.
Speaking of that Bloody Mary: seriously, you said it tasted like a Band-Aid. Is that a good thing?
We’ve all licked our own cuts and put a wounded finger in our mouths, there is something oddly comforting and familiar about that food. I don’t care what anybody says. I will also say that seasoned the right way, blood is one of my favorite ingredients. All the things that are in a Bloody Mary really do work with it. I think the two things can often be true: I think it can be very much tasting like a Band-Aid and have some head scratching moments and have some very comforting moments.
How did you decide what restaurants to visit in this trip to Austin?
A lot of decisions are made for us. I’m sick and tired of getting angry emails from people saying you should have gone to Franklin Barbecue. We would have loved to, but it was closed the week we were there. He [Aaron Franklin] was actually away on vacation, and without him, even if we had his staff open it up, it would have been hollow.
There could have been a hundred great stories. We probably shot 15 or 18 food trucks, and were only able to put three or four in the show.
How'd you end up at Lamberts?
It’s the exact opposite of what people tell you to look for. You’re always telling you to look for an 80-year-old man on the side of the road with an old gasoline can and an axe and a tree stump, and while that is an unbelievably gorgeous experience when it comes to barbecue, and while several of my most favorite barbecue places in the country look like that, it doesn’t mean you can’t do great barbecue another way. I would put his brisket up against anyone’s. At the end of the day, it’s about results.
That's almost sacrilegious to say in a city like Austin that really prides itself on the home-grown aspect of barbecue.
There’s lots of people that like the barbecue there! I have to be honest with you, I’ve been to several of those places in Lockhart, some of them many times, and sometimes the product is not great. We get swept up with the romance of some of these places. It doesn’t mean when they’re spot on and you get the fresh primal piece of meat that comes out of the barbecue pit at the right time they're not great, but sometimes you get one that was just sitting around. The same thing can happen at Lambert’s too. But the fact of the matter is, it’s delicious.
People are always talking about Lamberts, the city place, how can it be as good? Go look at the side dishes and the quality of the product, and then you look at the side dishes at some other places where they’re using a lot of secondary, second quality ingredients. I’m not saying it to slam these places, I’m saying look, people tend to bring the wrong type of bias to restaurants of all types of shapes and sizes. The same reason I wouldn’t want people not to experience Kreuz’s and Smitty’s and Salt Lick, which we also didn’t have time to get to, all the other great classic places, I wouldn’t want them to miss out on Lamberts. They all represent quality of a different kind.
What memories of this Austin trip stand out for you?
Pig Vicious was my favorite place that I went almost all of last season. They threw food at me, which I love. And they had 70’s soft-core porn on the TV while I waited online. And were playing music from, I think I heard the Cramps? The Sex Pistols? The Dead Kennedys while I was online?
They played Naughty Night Nurses. I hadn’t seen that in 25 years. And you can print that.
How do you keep all of these food trucks and restaurants and chefs in your mental Rolodex? It's a tremendous amount of information to remember.
I’ve always been like that. It's my passion. It’s what I do. I was doing this before the cameras starting following me. When they cut the camera in my show, they have to drag me out of these places. It’s what I do.
For almost 15 years now, I've been on the other side of the stove have done what you’ve done, I’m an editor at Food & Wine and Delta Sky, and we curate our own website and I do the podcast and interview people. I’ve done drive-time radio and I’m frequently talking to people in the same way you’re conversing with me, but at a certain level, it’s almost a fatuous question because the folks, like 'Rick Bayless, why do you know so much about Mexican food?' That’s why he is who he is. It’s a chicken or the egg thing. It’s not always a good thing. I wish I remembered things my wife told me as much as I remember Rene Ortiz telling me about the bacon fat tortilla.
Did you eat or drink anything at Austin that you're taking back home to make in your own kitchen, that inspired you?
All the time. The experience that I had in Austin, the tartar that I had at Foreign & Domestic inspired me to do a tartar in my LA pop-up. The Blood in the Bloody Mary in Austin inspired me to create my recipe for my chocolate and pigs' blood dessert that I served in my LA pop-up. The bacon fat tortillas and the grilled venison tacos that René put together and some of the things I learned from him that day, I probably do once a month at home. And I just got a giant cowboy cauldron. Because of my experience in Austin, I got one.
Austin's a very communal-eating kind of place. We do love to sit around a fire and share.
At Contigo, this is what makes Austin so fucking amazing: at 5:30, 6:00 p.m., the entire patio was filled and every table was eating family style platters of roast chicken and there were kids at every single table. And when we left at 8:00 p.m., the crowd had changed completely, to a more adult crowd that was there. The people at the bar drinking all of a sudden were at the table and young professionals meeting and people on dates and there were no families, but both of those communities in Austin were getting what they wanted out of the same restaurant.
Some people say Austinites never grow up. Maybe that's why everybody is always out at the bar with their kids?
I think people who say that don’t appreciate that they’re jealous. The people in Austin, it’s not that they don’t grow up, it’s that they’re able to stay young because of what the city offers them. I’m 51 years old, I love going out and night and listening to music, I love doing the things I liked to do when I was 25. It’s tough to do that in a lot of cities. Austin, societally, is designed for it. Even if you’re a family with kids, the neighborhoods are set up in such a way, it feels like a small town. And when you have the help of your neighbors and your extended family, people find a way to do that.
I bet kids stay up on average a half hour later in Austin. It’s a wonderful environment.
When will you come back and see us next?
April, May. For the Food & Wine Festival.
You should come back in, say, August or September and really get some of our heat.
[laughs] No thanks, I think I’ll skip that.