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Andrew Zimmern on Fame and Paying for Reservations

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: chef Andrew Zimmern
[Photo: Eater]

So what's up?
You're looking at it. Tired. In my usual Friday morning in Aspen sort of mode.

Did you get to talk to your wife yesterday?
I did, finally. Here's the great thing: I went around to at least a hundred people and everyone I was talking was on their phone trying to check for service. I finally found one person who actually had two bars, and I said, "Can I borrow your phone?" And he let me, and I called my wife, and she picks up the phone saying, "Why the fuck are you calling on a California number?" And I explained it to her, and then she went, "Aw, that's so sweet." So I scored huge points, and it all worked itself out.

But as a parent, unless I find out that my kid is okay, I really can't relax that night. So then I could relax, and everything was good. And then I did my surrogate father thing with José [Andrés]'s kids. I just adore them, they're awesome, and I hung out with them a lot of the night. So it was great. It ended up being a great night. Ate too much iberico...

With caviar!
I ate a lot of it with the caviar, but you don't want to be too much of a hoser because, here's the deal: I live in  constant, mortal dread of seeing the tweet or the Instagram like, "There's Andrew Zimmern eating, no one could get the José Andrés taco because Andrew Zimmern sat there eating them all night." I live in constant dread, and I'm too nice a guy.

But I did, the side where they were dishing out the caviar, the guy was slicing ham on the other side and no one was grabbing the ham off the plate, so I just stood there and noshed for about ten minutes. No one put that up on social media, so I was blessed. Did you have fun last night?

Yeah, it was great.
Yeah, it was great, it was fantastic. I went to bed early, because I had an early morning this morning...

I did not, I did the 4 a.m. sun salute at the top of the mountain, and a yogalates class, and then downhill biking. The 5K in the morning isn't enough exercise or machismo for me, so I went for something a little more hardcore.

Did that really happen?
No, I didn't do the - what, are you kidding me?! I slept and had coffee. Here's the deal: I love that idea, and I love that there are these sort of fantastic get-togethers associated with the festival. When I come to these things, it's always a chance to catch up on a little sleep or see friends, that's my primary thing. Also, I don't look as good as Marcus does in shorts. Let's just be honest.

With your travels lately, what chefs do you think deserve more media attention?
Oh my gosh. You know, it's not from my travels. There's a lot of nuance to my answer, so I'll try to make it as clear as I can. 25 years ago, there were a group of chefs that deserved our love and applause. There were a whole group of home cooks, all around the world — they may have written a book, they may have been doing cookie recipes for a local newspaper or whatever — that deserved our love and applause. Then there were a whole bunch of undiscovered food pathways that just existed on their own in a vacuum, with no one knowing that this was going on. Sort of like the people that I discover on my show.

I was just in Mexico and we were with a goat farmer whose wife collects wildflowers and botanicals in the hills of Hidalgo, then they make traditional, pre-colonial tamales out of them, and they're as good as anything you'll ever eat. And now there's magazines, and websites like you guys, or shows like mine, that will search these people out. So more people are getting attention now for great food than at any other time in the history of our civilization. Because we're all trying to beat each other to the punch and discover the next David Chang or the next Blackberry Farm or the next 22-year-old prodigy in Hong Kong that's a fourth-generation dumpling maker. We're all looking for the food with the great story.

But at the same time, we're overlooking a massive amount of supremely talented professional culinarians that are not part of what I call "the food scene." And I think those people deserve our love and applause, too. We need to figure out a way to make our food world over the next 15 years a little less cliquey, because our survival... We're selling entertainment, and we're selling culture, and we're selling seats in restaurants that are attached to monetary value. And that's real estate, it's one foot square.

And unless we figure out a way to bring sort of everyone underneath the same tent, I have concerns that some of the good part of what we're trying to create here — aligning food and culture in America a little more strongly — is going to run the risk of disappearing. It will become the tool of elitism. It will be considered by most people as not being as egalitarian as food really is. Because the most democratic, kindest, charitable, and show-up-everywhere people I know — the best people in the world — are in the food business. Without doubt. They are just the greatest human beings. So I always get really nervous that we're running the risk of marginalizing some folks.

Now, I get asked all the time in interviews, "Who's a specific chef that doesn't get as much attention?" And I end up saying the same kind of names and it's not so much that there aren't more folks like Jordan Kahn in Los Angeles, but he's just so emblematic to me of someone who's doing unique food, is as great a chef in every sense of the word as anyone who's working in America today, but he's not part of the scene. Nor necessarily do some of those people want to be part of the scene.

But in terms of celebrating great culinarians, I worry that we're missing some of the great people in their prime. You know, Red Medicine in L.A. is always my example of a restaurant that should be booked four months out. Jordan's food is stunningly beautiful and highly flavored and, at the same point, as simple and complex as anyone whose food I've eaten in America.

Flip side of the coin — and it's what I consider my mission to be — is people are so afraid to go to an outer borough in Manhattan and go to a Chinese food court. I think that's kinda criminal. I send friends out to the Flushing food court to the dumpling ladies and I say to them: Just don't skip the sea bass dumplings if they have them. It's an oceanic pillow that just floats down your throat. It's the greatest dumpling that's being made in America, and people are afraid to go out there. I think we have cultural bias and practice some ethnocentrism when it comes to ethnic food in America.

We will, as Americans, inhale another culture on a fork before we try their music or their art or even, god forbid, hang out with the actual people. I've taken a lot of shit for saying in several places, for example, that we love Mexican food but, for many Americans, the jury is still out on Mexicans. That's criminal. But it's the way things operate in America. So I'd love to see us, and it's the purpose of my show, to get people a little more turned-on to the food and the culture of a country. Maybe they'll be a little more accepting about the music, the spirituality system, the language, and ultimately the people. At the end of the day, it's all about the people.

I want to take a step back to something you were saying earlier. You were talking about losing the egalitarianism of the food community, and how tables have monetary value. What are your thoughts are on this new crop of reservation apps where you can pay for your table ahead of time?
Yeah, I don't like it. It's the hospitality business. What we need to be rewarding is loyalty. And remembering that when people come in the door, they need to be made special. If I have a quid pro quo deal with you because you paid thirty bucks extra for your reservation, then sadly I'm going to pay more attention to you than others. And also, your expectations are going to be different than others. Say what you want, but when you go to a hotel and you're paying $150 more for the room than the place down the road, you expect the pillows to be nicer, the bottles of water to be free. You expect a certain level of service, and the next thing you know, you're going to be complaining because your sea bass isn't crispy enough over the little puddle of fennel jus. I think it skews the value equation that we've come to expect with restaurants.

I grew up in a time when we didn't have the internet, and we didn't have smartphones and things like that. So the only way that young chefs could see what another chef was doing was to poke in the back door, show up at the restaurant, or press your nose into the glass, as Thomas Keller famously says, and read the menu. And when you finally saved up enough money to go into a fancy restaurant, or waited in line at the best pizza place in Brooklyn, or whatever it was, you got to share that environment with everybody. Bus drivers and cab drivers, local merchants, and oh my god, look over there, it's Madonna. Look, it's the King of Spain! I mean, that's the beautiful part of restaurants, is that we can all be in these environments and share them. And I hate to start changing that equation, because I think it will damage a lot of the great work that we've been doing over the last 25 years to celebrate food and culture.

It seems to me the next step after that sort of valuing reservations and tables on different nights of the week — which works in the theater community, works in the airlines — but who fucking likes the curtain being drawn in first class and the announcement coming over the loudspeaker that the bathroom in the first cabin is for first-class passengers, and everyone else could please use the aft bathroom? You begin to start to have an us-versus-them mentality that I think is absolutely, 100% antithetical to the notion of hospitality.

It's interesting, because the idea that variable pricing is also reflected in the ticketing system that Nick Kokonas built for Alinea...
See, I think that's a little different. The ticketing system, look, there's five or six websites that just opened up in the last three months. Scurve? Or is that the bed I just bought at IKEA? I have a hard time, all the new reservations websites sound like IKEA bedroom sets. It's the Skurg or the Hundl, I don't know which, but they all have... Is it Reserve?

Reserve is coming, there's Resy...
Resy, yeah. But here's the thing: What they're doing is trying to get you to pay more or sell a premium experience that you could otherwise, like, wait on the phone and get the busy signal. And yes it's true, the hot restaurants in America are tougher to get into. There's no doubt about it. You can call and get a reservation at, um, I'm trying to think of a place that's been open for ten years that's still good and rockin' in New York and I'm blanking on one. But you know, insert name of restaurant here. Versus like a Friday night ticket at an Estela. Somewhere that's hot, that everyone's going to check out when they come to New York, or Toro, that's really really hot. I think attaching premium dollars to those is different from pre-selling the ticket.

One of the reasons that Nick started pre-selling the tickets at Next in the way that he did is that there was no way, as a businessperson, to create the concept without being able to bankroll some dollars ahead of time. So he basically pre-sold for the next year and was able to use that money. He's always a step ahead now so that they can subsidize the massive costs to change the liquor program, the plates and dishes, all that kind of stuff, and offer a unique experience to everybody.

But I do generically rally against anything that pushes aside the notion that anyone can come to the restaurant at any time. And I do know, at Next, you've gotta be a little faster on the draw than somebody, but you can get in. You can go. I think price point pushes a lot of people away. I talk to a lot of friends, because I eat at Next regularly when I'm in Chicago, and it's one of my favorite places, I love the experience. And I've worked, in an ad hoc way, with them on a couple of the concepts that they've done, especially the modern Chinese one. I tell people all the time, "Oh, you've gotta go," and the first thing I hear from people is nothing about the ticketing system or anything other than, "It's expensive, I can't afford to eat in restaurants like that." But the ones that do want to have that experience.

I think that's the magic of restaurants. I sat there the other night eating modern Chinese with a family that literally had waited months. And at the time, I don't even think they knew what it was going to be — they got the seat before they announced modern Chinese. And I just thought, what an amazing moment in American restaurant culture, where someone, just based on reputation, can pre-sell a table that far in advance where you don't even know what the food's gonna be that night. They went from steakhouse to vegan, or vegan to steakhouse to modern Chinese. Can you imagine that sort of confidence in a restaurant? It's absolutely incredible.

I also want to be cognizant that the restaurant business is a pennies industry. So if the five of us all chipped in our life savings of twenty grand and were trying to open a little calzone and hummus shop in Cincinnati, I'd want every advantage that I could. And if some of that was being listed on some of the reservations services... I mean, look at how valuable OpenTable has been to the restaurant industry. That's a technical invention that helped the hospitality concept. The idea there was, we value your time, you don't want to wait on the phone, why wouldn't we just allow you to pick and choose what's available? And years later, it gets sold for nearly $3 billion. It's an amazing statement about how hospitality.

I do want every advantage to be given to people, but I think we also have to remember it's the hospitality business, and the moment you lose sight of that, I believe you lose customers. So the reservation systems, the ticket-sellers, all those different things — if they honor the essence of hospitality is all about, it will always resonate with consumers. If you don't, it creates the us-versus-them mentality that I think is really dangerous.

What's the craziest opportunity you've ever said no to?
I say no to things all the time, but usually not because they're crazy. That's a great question. Probably the Miami show four years ago, when I invented a drag character named Pandora Lexington. First of all, the fun was inventing the name. I thought Pandora Lexington was, you know, sort of sultry and bad, naughty. But I went to this place called Lips, which is this really famous drag queen bar in Ft. Lauderdale. They're famous for their gospel brunch, and singing, and dancing, and some heavy-duty drag talent.

And I did the whole drag thing, which took hours to get ready. It really is quite a crazy process. And I had long, beautiful blond hair, and I really got into my character. There was something really fun about it, almost like Halloween for me, or a masked ball. You dress up as something else, and you get to play around with aspects of your personality that it's not safe to do when you just are you. So it went out on all of these LGBT websites and all that, and I have gay parents, I have two dads, and so I've been very public about that in recent years.

And the whole thing sort of erupted in this crescendo where I was asked to participate... People had seen my body-painting, like I take off my clothes a lot on my show, and I'd done the nude body-painting festival in Seeboden, Austria. And so I got asked to participate in a nude body-painting festival that's basically just an excuse for thousands of people to take a lot of ecstasy and hump each other in the desert. That event shall go unnamed. But I was asked to come there and essentially be the Grand Marshal of the event.

After long talks with my wife, we thought that might be just a little too much for me and I might not want to do it. But it was a great opportunity, and I'll tell you something, what's very funny is that I think there's a way to actually pull it off. Because I really do believe that the more we accept all aspects of culture, sometimes just by showing up, you can elevate a segment of society that doesn't feel like they're a "part of." And I'm really big on making everyone be a "part of." I'm a playing field leveler, at the end of the day. I also should say that I'm notorious for saying yes to everything, so I'm sort of a bad person to ask that question to. But it's a great question! Are you asking that of everyone?

Yeah, that's our question of the festival. And people are talking Vegas, and Abu Dhabi, just crazy...
Oh, well, that's business shit. It is kind of crazy. About three years ago, there were about a hundred porn stars on Twitter that were doing this "Food Guys You'd Like to Bang" thing. Were you aware of this?

I don't know...
Do you remember, like three, four years ago, this book came out called Bracketology? And it was all about the NCAA 64-team brackets, and they started applying it to like, hamburgers, and I think you guys did some of that on your website at one point. Everyone was doing it. Let's bracket up chefs, or lo mein dishes in New York, and vote it down and face them off, and pick the best pizza, the best lo mein, the cutest chef, sharpest knife, whatever it is.

So on Twitter, a bunch of adult film actresses did a whole thing on food guys you'd like to bang. Well, they called it something else, but that's the family version of it. And at the end it came down to Heston Blumenthal, myself, Bourdain, and... someone else that I'm missing. But out of hundreds of guys! I was super, super flattered. I was traveling, but my office sent me an email and said, "You need to check out the hashtag #DoMe" or whatever it was. So I went on and I saw, so I hit reply-all to a couple of these people and said, "Thank you so much, I am so flattered, as an old married guy, to be thought of that way." I mean, what a delightful thing to wake up to. I'm a nice guy! So I just said thank you.

And it was like stepping into the deep end of the pool with no handrails, because the next thing I knew it's like, adult actresses sending me emails and crazy things all the time. Like Jenna Jameson reached out and said come have dinner with me. Do I really need to be doing that? Where do you draw the line? But those opportunities have come my way.

Celebrity is a really twisted thing. A lot of people feel because they see you in the little box that comes into their bedroom, that they have a special relationship with you even though you have no fucking clue who they are. And I love my fans, but the invitations like, "Come to my house for dinner" are very nice when it's a friend of a friend, but complete strangers? It gets really strange, and weird. And then they get angry that you weren't gracious enough to come to their house. It's like oh my god, really? I love you, but we're not going to go away on family vacation with you, strange person.

· All Andrew Zimmern Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Limelight Hotel

355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611