For his return to the Austin Food and Wine Festival, globe-trotting chef Andrew Zimmern will lead hundreds of grilling festival-goers in head-to-tail demonstrations with Tim Love, "giving people a nice primer about grilling parts of the animal they're maybe not used to working with." For the host of Bizarre Foods, it's the perfect chance to show off decades of supreme food geekery.
In this interview with Eater Austin, Zimmern discusses "bizarre" foods' move into the mainstream, his schmoozing plans for the festival and the hordes of delicious cicadas that are about to get their moment in the social media spotlight.
What are you going to be doing at the festival this year?
What am I going to do at Austin Food and Wine Fest? Well, there's going to be a whole bunch of stuff! I think I'm judging the taco event; I'm teaching a grilling class called "Head to Tail with Tim Love," where we're actually going to be grilling with hundreds and hundreds of people, all with their own grills. It should be a blast: Tim is doing things with the head, I'm doing things with the tail, and along the way we're just giving people a nice primer about grilling parts of the animal they're maybe not used to working with. I'm also doing a demo on game birds: ducks, pheasant, and dove. If I remember correctly, it should be a blast. Last year I did ox heart and goat, and it was one of the most fun demos I did all year. I'm really excited about this year, too.
So your demos are targeted at the more extreme foodies at the festival?
We did hearts last year, too, and actually, I think 10 years ago that would have been called extreme, but not nowadays. I couldn't disagree more with the premise of your question. [Laughs]. It really is a different day in America. Even five years ago in interviews, I was very upset about the idea that seemingly awful or otherwise secondary cuts [of meat]—colorfully referred to as the "fifth quarter of the animal"—even oxtails and cow tongues, people would go wow, that's crazy. But now, people are crazier about it than are thinking it's crazy. I think all these things have become mainstream.
I'll give you an example: 30 years ago, you could go into a mainline supermarket, and next to the chicken pieces would be cut up backs and necks for soup, but there would also be chicken feet. Then suddenly, there were no cut up backs and wingtips, be-cause chickens were no longer being processed at the supermarket. About a year and a half ago, I put some pictures up on my website of the local big box supermarket, and there were chicken backs again, and even chicken feet! I asked the supermarket, are you processing birds again? And they were like, "no, we just have such a huge demand for them." It skipped a generation, but people are now once again making soup and stock from scratch. While there aren't ox hearts sold at the supermarket today—I'm not sure we'll get quite there—people have a real interest in how to do this thing. The people who are attending the type of food and wine event that is in Austin are not typical folks. I think they would be insulted at being lumped in with the chicken breast and mozzarella crowd. After paying a lot of money for this ticket, if somebody get up there and showed them how to make another grilled chicken breast with a salad, I'd want my money back.
And certainly Bizarre Foods has been part of creating that demographic, those people who don't want another grilled chicken breast.
I think with a show like mine, we push it and go 90 miles per hour. We don't necessarily think that someone else will want to go 90 miles an hour, but maybe they can get in a fast car and push it to 75. Some of the stuff we present is the absolute fringe, and some of it is found among the everyday experience that people can access. But the point for me with a lot of my content is to have people accept and open their minds foods being used all around the country and even the world, I think they'll try heading down to the local Kroger to see what all the fuss is about.
Do you find that food television has raised Austin's national profile? We feel like every time we turn on the Food Network or the Travel Channel, someone's going to Austin.
There is a very large copycat environment going on. We shot our Austin show and it aired like two years ago, but I didn't think I was first to the party at all. Austin is one of the best food towns in the world: tremendous, tremendous food culture down there. Which is also why I'm presenting the kind of content that I'm presenting; if you go to a leafy green suburb in Minnesota, which is where I live, everybody is just ordering club steaks, and that's about as adventurous as it gets. Down in Texas, there's more of a hunting culture, and people are certainly in love with the cow. For things like oxtails, I think Texas is a great place to be. With demos, you have to understand your audience. I think Austin is a fantastic environment for people to go to on food vacations.
Speaking of food vacations: food porn! Instagram! Vine! People are documenting their food constantly; how do you think that's affected our relationship to what we eat?
I agree with you, and I think it's an understatement. I don't know how familiar you are with the cicada brood that's coming up, but there hasn't been a new brood in years, so that's going to start exploding out of the ground at any day now. I was talking with some friends about it, and I said that this was going to be the single most significant cicada brood in the history of mankind. The person I was talking to said, oh, what do you mean? Well, there's a 13-year brood, a 17-year brood, and I think an 11-year brood, but this is the first one in the age of social media. Can you imagine what it's going to be like when the skies darken over Neighborhood X in 10 days? Everybody is going to find it, Tweet it, Instagram it, Facebook it. The amount of footage that we're going to have is going to be staggering. People are going to be able to walk up to holes in the ground in Central Park, hold their little camera there, hit "go" on their video player, and cap-ture the cicada coming out of the ground, in stunning color and high-def. My point is that every-thing is being celebrated, regionalized, fetishized, loved up, and also, by the way, torn down, in the age of social media, which is something that we've never experienced before.
It feels like social media and local, niche food blogs have really increased people's awareness of their own regional cuisine.
That's fair. With the digital age that we live in, there are more people subscribing to some goof-ball who knows nothing about food but has developed a following on social media, in the middle of Ohio, while writing about barbeque. He could have more followers than all of the big names in food combined. Fairly or unfairly, this is the age we live in. It's one of the reasons why people visit sites like Eater: because they aggregate so much great information. But you guys wouldn't be half as successful as you are if you didn't have the ability to surf, search, and pull so much incredible information. You guys don't send someone out to take a picture in every single situation—a lot of that stuff comes to you because everybody has a camera, everybody is a food critic. You could create a cookbook tomorrow; all you have to do is throw some recipes up onto a 50 cent website.
Social media has been very democratizing, but maybe that's not always a good thing.
Everyone wants to digest information differently, and I think the social media, techno-digital age we live in has been a boon overall for us. Yes, it has its negative moments—I think Yelp is an abomination, which does way more harm than good—but people do want a crowd-source. We should just be crowd-sourcing expertise. I do not know the best restaurant to go to in Cleveland, Ohio, but all I have to do is go online and look where people like Jonathan Sawyer and Michael Symon are cooking and eating in Cleveland. I could be busy for days and days and days the next time I go there. I just like the idea of crowd-sourcing expertise.
Who are you most excited about seeing at the festival? Do you get time to hang out or are you "on" the whole time?
Well, I do get to spend some time with my colleagues, that's for sure. It's a big food festival, but it's not too big. I don't intend to humble-brag, but since you asked the question, I do get very busy at these things, and I'm lucky and blessed and grateful that I'm one of those guys who everybody wants to talk to. I spend most of my time doing my show and living my life here in Minneapolis, so it's a great opportunity to get out there and give everyone who wants 15 minutes with me on the couch that 15 minutes on the couch. I do like talking to my peers and finding out what they're doing, but much of my work is investigating things out on my own. I'm also such a research freak, I'm living and breathing my stuff, 26 hours a day, 366 days a year. I have a lot of really close friends that I'll see that weekend in Austin, and they will all come up to me and we'll spend a half hour together in a corner at some cocktail party, where they'll be like, "Hey, I saw you in Germany" or "I saw you in Africa: have you seen how to deal with this ingredient?"
My greatest resource is my experience. I'm 51 years old. I've spend a lot of time cooking all over the world, and I've visited 115 countries. My resource is my experience, and at these festivals, I'm mostly talking to people about what they've seen and what they do. It's that kind of fun stuff. Last time I was around I was asked about opening a ramen restaurant, and did I have any contacts in Japan who might be able to help. The great thing about the food community is that it's all open sourcing. Nobody invented a recipe for Caesar salad; yet almost everyone has it on their menu. So it's the ultimate team sport in a sense: everybody helps everyone out.
What's your advice for festival first-timers?
Go to everything. I tell people all the time: they buy a ticket to something, and it's like, oh, I went and saw my favorite chef, and then I went and drank a bunch of cocktails somewhere. Wow, you missed a lot of stuff. There are so many cool events. I think the other thing you need to do is just get your favorite 20 people and follow them on Twitter, because the best part of any food festival is where everyone winds up at one in the morning – not where they are at five in the afternoon. The after-parties are pretty epic.
—Emma Kat Richardson
· Austin Food & Wine Festival [Official]
· All Andrew Zimmern Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Austin Food & Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]