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Andrew Zimmern on AZ Canteen, Pharmashilling, and Why Pittsburgh Is Hot

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Continuing Eater Lounge coverage from the Limelight Hotel at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Right now: Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern.


How's Aspen so far? Awesome. It really is one of those food festivals that I think is head and shoulders above all the others for one simple reason: If you subscribe to Darwin's theory of islands, when you're all cut off and alone, magical things can happen. I love South Beach, Austin, New York, etc. For someone like me, you come in, you cook, you hang, they're great. But coming up here in the mountains you bump into your friends constantly, it's very compact. As a working attendee, it makes it extra special. At some of the other ones you do your thing, you go to a couple of cool parties, but you miss seeing your buddies all the time. There's friends here that I'll see more this weekend than I will the rest of the year combined because of our crazy schedules.

So it's really, really lovely. And 80 degrees, one cloud in the sky, very small that I'm seeing, this is heaven. Hot coffee, hanging with you guys. Yeah, it's awesome. Jose's party last night — I look forward to that party, it's one of my favorite places to be. Every year it seems there's a different sporting event on the TV, hockey or basketball playoffs, so it's just a blast to watch that, eat food, sit around and BS with your friends. It's a great kickoff to the weekend. Plus I like to eat those insane Fermin Iberico ribs. You touch them and you can watch the fat run down your hand and everyone gets so sloppy. Everyone seems to have pork fat chapstick over their faces, we all look like a drunk Joan Rivers — it's all over your face. Everyone smells like roasted pork fat. It's good.

What's going on with you lately? You're shooting? I'm in the middle of — we just started what feels like season 8,000. I say that in a good way. We sort of seamlessly, it's been 8 years now we just keep picking up the cameras and going again. I have a two month hiatus from shooting each year, we just shot Pittsburgh and New Jersey. I leave in two weeks to shoot Virginia and Toronto, then we have 16 other locations laid out between now and February. It's just so much fun, I just was looking at the worksheets for our stories for Virginia. If I said to you 'Bizarre Foods: Virginia' you'd be like 'what?' I kid you not, it's probably the most interesting group of six stories that we've had in 150 episodes. From top to bottom, there are guys hunting invasive species; they're like these giant snails that are as big as softballs. All the way to stories about how we feed our military at their 20 bases. It's just the most fascinating place. And probably because it's historically you can go back and it's for white Anglo Saxon America, that's the genesis. It's just a fascinating culture. It's just a lot of fun. Our research and pre-production do such a great job, I'm very blessed.

How about other cities? Pittsburgh: You talk about an island in the Darwinian sense. Here's a major American city stuck at the end of a series of river valleys, cut off from the rest of country. It is a Eastern European immigrant city — working class, blue collar — that has reinvented itself over the last 10-20 years with this craftsman approach to life that reminds me of cities like Austin, Portland, OR and Portland, ME. I hate to be one of those people who's like 'Pittsburgh is the next big thing,' but I get around more than most people and I'm telling you, Pittsburgh is like the next big thing. The geography lends itself, it's incredibly lush farmland, and inexpensive city with incredible history. They're renovating 100 year old railroad terminals into city markets. They had chefs who left the city because there was no scene and went to LA, they have the talent to be anywhere in America, and they have come back and can afford to open their own places and do what they want. It's very, very exciting. As a student of these things, there's just enough Fortune 500, sports teams, to feed that group. The art community and food community are kind of leading but there's money following them.

I think people who are in eastern Pennsylvania and it's like: Who can afford a $5 million house on the beach? Why not get a beautiful house on the river? I saw places that are just breathtaking. It's also got the Appalachians running through, so it's got stunning geography. The food scene is cool. Lots of good stuff going on. There are these old bars in these old 'hoods ... It's like today's special is goulash, tomorrow's is stuffed cabbage, huge portions. There's like three grandmas and a grandpa making this from scratch, the best stuffed cabbage I've ever had and I grew up on that. The show's keeping me busy. We have a lot of other really cool projects that we're working on, so it's an exciting time. Really busy summer, so busy I'm actually not looking forward to it because I won't have as much time to do nothing as I'd like!

Other projects? We have a bunch of book projects that are gonna come up. I'm almost done. I've been in this business 30 years, and 10 doing TV, and I've never done a cookbook and that's been on purpose. The reason being that I sort of wanted my first book — in this phase I'm not in a restaurant or cooking at home a lot — so I wanted to be able to get enough stuff under my belt to sort of create a look at America and the way we look at food through my eyes. Not with some of the content I do on the show, but some of the things I bump into as I go around in terms of how ethnicity defines America. I've seen the Mongol presence in Denver, Hungarian in New Brunswick NJ, and I've lived, slept, and eaten with these people. American cuisine is the cuisine of immigrants. It always has been.

So that's gonna go off to see if publishers are interested in it. We have a kids book that's a whole integration of kids products we're bringing out into the market. The last book was designed for young people and everyone read it, which is great. I'm working on a top secret project that's like a kids adventures series so that's as much as I'll say about it. Mixes old and new media, there'll be books, websites, the whole nine yards. And that's really fun. My truck is expanding and that's probably the thing I'm happiest about because I get to get my hands messy with food. AZ Canteen started as a truck, now it's got B&M into Target Field, and is going to expand into stadiums and fields in next six months and that's really fun. All of a sudden we're like 'What are the new menu items?' and it's energizing to work with young cooks on our truck. We're doing our own pastrami, our own hot dogs, it's a lot of fun. Our goat burger, I'm so grateful, has turned into one of the hot food items of the summer and it's delicious.

More airport stuff? What I want to do is the AZ Canteen in those airports. So I'm working with my partners now to expand that. It's the perfect kind of thing, our truck menu was designed to be in stadiums ... it's great grab and go food but its so radically different. I think airport people would like to pay $8 for a green papaya salad with crispy pork belly and a fried egg on top. The food on our truck, I'm so proud of my team, we've worked hard to make it really tasty. So there's a lot of exciting stuff going on as we sort of try to get our tentacles into everything.

So is goat the next big thing? I think it has been for a while, goat is like soccer in America. We say we love it, but we don't really understand it 100 percent. The best of the world understands soccer, understands goat. Part of the problem has been access to quality meat goats. We have some of the best dairy goats in the world here in the US, the meat goat farmers have created some incredible re-expansion and crossbreeds and there's guys like Niman who are pushing goat. All of a sudden the demand increased beyond what was available. I think it will start to settle down. I'm very excited and bullish on goat in coming years in America. Everyone associates goat with stringy old goat they had with curry on some island, and says 'No, I don't want to do that.'

One last thing? Whats the most ridiculous thing you've been asked to sell? Great question. About a year and half ago, I guess I got big enough to attract some pharmaceutical companies and they all came at us with a whole slew of the most horrific weight loss things in the whole world. I was like, 'You know something, I don't want to eat some sort of herbal concoction in the hopes of losing weight.' It's just so tawdry. Sadly, as someone who's always struggled with weight, it's only diet and exercise that works. So we've had that kind of thing. I've been approached by a lot of state organizations about putting my name on critters. State agencies in the Gulf are trying to get rid of nutria, so they are having trouble with selling a giant waterborne rat to the public, but if they put someone's face on it ... But that's not why I tell the stories I tell. I tell them to talk about the culture and be entertaining. Not because I want to sell rodent.

· All Andrew Zimmern Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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