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Andrew Zimmern on His Future in Public Service

Last weekend during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern told a reporter that he intends to pursue a career in politics once he leaves television. Yesterday, while on his way from a hotel to McCarren Airport in Las Vegas, Zimmern got on the phone to explain the comments and give some background on his passion for public service. In the following interview, the raconteur and Minnesota resident explains the importance of social change movements, how getting sober taught him how crucial it is to have an advocate for the underserved, and why he won't be just another celebrity politician.

Can you explain what you told the reporter?
The AP reporter asked me what I wanted to do when this phase of my career was over, and I immediately told him that I wanted to be in public service. It's something that I believe in very strongly. Anyone who is more than a casual fan of mine knows that I am committed to several causes and am very politically active. I serve on a lot of charitable boards — the areas of mental health parity, services for those that are underserved, and certainly children's rights are things that I believe in very, very strongly.

So I've always been doing everything that I could, and as my platform has gotten bigger, I feel a greater sense of responsibility. You'll notice that there aren't too many homeless junkie alcoholics out there in the TV world that say, "This is where I came from." But I believe that that has informed not only my sense of responsibility but my desire to give back. It's such a gift to be in the public eye and to tell stories from the road, but at some point, that will end.

Do you have any idea when you'll make the transition?
No. I don't see when that is. The show has never been more popular, and I have many years ahead of me in my active media life. But when this is all over, I without a doubt would like to serve. I live in Minnesota right now, and if one part of my world came to a screeching halt all of a sudden, I would pick up local politics.

For those that may not be familiar, let's go back and talk about where this interest stems from.
The short-form is that when you go through the type of experience I had as an addict, as an alcoholic, and certainly as a homeless person for some time, you realize how tenuous our grip sometimes is on things that we just take for granted sometimes. I can't tell you how many times I get into a taxicab in New York or Los Angeles, and I'm talking to somebody who is a recent immigrant who was a doctor or lawyer or engineer or professor in the country they just came from. They're starting over again in life, and I think the majority of people out there can relate to that.

For me, it's meant being more patient, kind, and tolerant with people. It's also put me in touch with whole categories of people that don't have an advocate. Right now I work with a group in New York called Services for the Underserved that helps veterans get back on their feet. I'm on the board of the National Youth Recovery Foundation, I work with Partnership for Drug-Free America — I'm involved in as much good works as my schedule will allow me because I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the new start that I've had in life. When I got sober twenty years ago, I had a few people that still believed in me and were willing to be my advocates. A lot of people aren't that fortunate.

Do you think there is still a lack of people working towards the efforts you're so passionate about?
As a matter of fact, in Minnesota I think we understand those issues very well. I think that Senator Al Franken and Senator Amy Klobuchar and certainly Governor Dayton and many others work tirelessly to help people in our state. I just think that in a day and age where we describe ourselves by our differences — politics has become a cloistered network of people kibitzing about differences — my travels, my globalist perspective has taught me that we have way more in common with people than we ever imagined.

Let me give you an example that speaks to that: I was in Detroit, a city that has lost half its population in twenty years, and I've seen what entrepeneurship in the food industry has brought to the Detroit revival. I've spent time in the coastal Carolinas and have seen what small business development has done to maintain the wetlands and reestablish the fisheries and secure jobs for the people that make their living off the water.

I'm a left-wing Lindsay Democrat, but I really do believe in the power of small business to change our landscape. From where I sit, social change is something that needs to be jump-started.

What does that mean?
Well, when I was ten years old, people never used seatbelts. Now, it's rare that people go without them. Now, cigarettes continue to be marginalized, and that used to not be the case. These require more than legislation and education — it needs both of those to inspire social change movements to alter people's attitudes. I think that's something small business and politics can do.

How do you avoid being seen as a celebrity politician?
I'll answer it very flatly. I'll ignore it because I'm not a politician... yet. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. Our Founding Fathers believed very strongly in the notion of citizen leadership. That's what representative government is all about, and I will tell you right now that I am someone that comes out of a similar mold to Senator Franken. Nobody calls him a celebrity politician anymore. I don't have senatorial aspirations and am someone who wants to start small. I'd be very happy serving on a local school board. I just know that I have a responsibility to give back.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the Republican primary?
Boy, I'll tell you something. I'm a registered Democrat, but looking at it from afar, the roundtable of faces that keeps being put in front of us because they refuse to acknowledge the Romney, it's a shame they didn't pick someone sooner. But I'm someone who's supported our current administration tirelessly and am happy for President Obama. I think it shows the importance of party unity, which is something the Republicans always poke fun at the Democrats for. Looks like they're having some trouble with it themselves.

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