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Life Lessons and Truth-Telling From Andrew Zimmern

The chef and TV host on media, partnerships, entrepreneurship, and growth.

Galdones Photography/FOOD & WINE

At this year's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Eater got to spend some quality time with chef and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern. In addition to giving a lesson in selfies, Zimmern opened up about the sometimes-complicated dance today's chefs have to navigate with press outlets like Eater. "It's a complex world to navigate," says Zimmern of the current food-meets-press landscape. "I think those of us who have gone down several roads a little longer than others have an obligation, if you get a platform, to use it for good." To Zimmern, that means saying yes to interviews and growing the part of his restaurant business that touches all different types of people: AZ Canteen, his stadium concessions brand. In the interview below, Zimmern also reveals more details on his new television production company Intuitive Content. Read on for more:

Tell me about your media strategy.
I think a lot of chefs are afraid of media outlets, and especially web outlets, because they're afraid there's some Borat situation going on. The people who are afraid of talking to press are people who have something to hide. There are a lot of people who do what I do who are actually acting. They're not really experts at what they do on TV — they're simply a hired host. Those people, I respect them as human beings and I honor what they do, but I can't do that.

"The people who are afraid of talking to press have something to hide."

I like to talk to media. The reason is not because I'm a whore looking to promote myself. It's that I have a platform and I have an agenda. I want to talk about big ideas. I want to change the way we look at food. I want to change the cultural landscape and how it relates to food in America. I want to solve problems that we have here in our country. I want to promote the right things that I think people who read Eater should be thinking about. There's great restaurants to promote in secondary and tertiary cities all around this country... I don't want to sit back when this whole thing is over and say, "Wow, I was dishonest," or "I was all about promoting me." Fuck that.

I want to promote the person behind me. I want to introduce young chefs to Jacques Pépin and say, "Here's your chance to ask a actual living legend how to live life." I did that 20 years ago with Jacques and he taught me how to be a husband and a dad before he started giving me cooking advice, because he's navigated that world. That's what this industry and what food people are all about. It's important to talk, and to talk honestly amongst ourselves. I feel sorry for people that are scared to do that.

Photo: Galdones Photography/FOOD & WINE

Photo: Galdones Photography/FOOD & WINE

What advice would you give to a young chef who is afraid to put themselves out there?
Shut up and tell the truth; start talking when you actually have something to say. I teach entrepreneurship at Babson College at the Lewis Institute. One of the things that I tell everybody [is to] you project yourself outward. I use it in my personal life and work life, as well. You have to remember three things. Is it true? Does it need to be said? If it's true and if it needs to be said, is it up to you to say it? When you start to answer "yes" to those three things and you have your own point of view and your own expertise to talk about, talk about it.

"Is it true? Does it need to be said? If it's true and if it needs to be said, is it up to you to say it?"

You're obviously on the road a lot. Do you have any tips on how to make sure your restaurants are up to par when you're not breathing down people's necks in person?
It's the system and the style of restaurant you create for yourself. If you create a fine-dining restaurant, or something that resembles one, that hangs on your individual talent, then you've created a system where you cannot leave. If you're a teacher and a mentor and you've created a restaurant like that, you teach, you mentor, and you find people from within your organizations who can then take over those things, so that then you can expand your footprint and open multiple locations and launch it out.

Maybe the greatest example, a single example of that in the last 40 years is Nobu Matsuhisa, who somehow has been able to duplicate the same restaurant flawlessly, 24 times around the world, whatever the number is. I'm in awe of how he does that. It's a mind-boggling sort of enterprise, but he devoted a significant portion of his life to teaching a cadre of chefs how to operate in his system to create his food. That's amazing.

I'd love to get back into the restaurant business, but I'm getting into the airport and stadium concessions business which, I will tell you, is a lousy business to go into. But I want to mass-market really good, fun food to people with international inspiration from my travels. I think it's a unique place for me to be in that space. That's what AZ Canteen is all about.

What's been the biggest learning curve in doing that?
The biggest thing that I learned is when you're building something, especially a project that requires partners — you have to make sure that there is a lot of overlapping desire and a lot of overlapping alignment with the people that you're doing work with. Some people make the mistake of getting into business with someone because they can provide a check. Sometimes, they hire an operations guy or a supervisor of culinary, who says he has overlapping desire with you and pretends that you have overlapping alignment, but you really don't. If you're going to be on a long path with someone, you better make sure that you both want to arrive at the same destination. All the other stuff is window dressing.

Screengrab: Intuitive Content website

Screengrab: Intuitive Content website

What else are you working on these days?
We have a couple of really cool things that are happening. AZ Canteen is expanding, which is great. We have a great partnership in sports stadiums with Aramark and we're now in two different stadiums with three different concepts. Over the course of next year, we're going to roll out a lot of those, which is really fun.

"I have a great sense of how to tell a story, but I have a better sense of the type of people that can be a great avatar for the audience on camera."

The second thing is that I launched a production company which is this top-secret project that we're only semi-announcing right now. This is a semi-announcement. It is out there. That's Intuitive Content.

It's got a website. It's got a couple of projects that we're working on right now. We're really excited about making TV a different way. I've been making TV for other people for a long, long time and that's great. Now, I want to make TV for myself. I think my unique ability as the head of a production company is... to me, TV's all about talent and story. I have a great sense of how to tell a story, but I have a better sense of the type of people that can be a great avatar for the audience on camera. That's the really exciting part. It's discovering other people or putting them in a position to run around the world and have discoveries that I believe the audience wants to have through their eyes and words and feet. It's pretty exciting stuff.

There are going to be some big announcements about that in the coming weeks. You have a sneak peek announcement. It's a semi-announcement. It's good. It's like a semi hard-on. You know you're going to have sex. It's just not going to happen for another four or five minutes. It's in 10 minutes, we're going to have sex. You can quote me on that.


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