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Andrew Zimmern: Food Junkie

Before he started snacking on wildebeest eyeballs for a living, Andrew Zimmern was a homeless, purse-snatching addict. In an exclusive interview, the award-winning chef reveals how he bounced back from the brink.

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By Will Godfrey

05/08/11

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Andrew Zimmern’s riding a pretty good wave right now, taking the chance to “float,” as he puts it. The sixth season of his popular, critically acclaimed and often eye-watering show, Bizarre Foods, has recently aired on the Travel Channel. Season Seven hits our screens on May 24th, beginning with a New York City episode that its host and consulting producer unhesitatingly calls “my favorite one we’ve ever made.”

Formerly Executive Chef of Minneapolis’s much-lauded Cafe Un Deux Trois, as well as a host of high-end New York establishments, Zimmern won two nominations in this month’s James Beard Foundation Awards—known as the Oscars of food and voted for by 600 culinary professionals—having already picked up Outstanding TV Food Personality last year. Then there’s the web series, the books and the domestic life he shares with his wife and son in Minnesota.

But the 49-year-old, New York-reared foodie still takes the time to reflect on what might not have been. Before he achieved his near-20 years of sobriety, alcohol and drugs wrecked his life to the point where he saw death as the only way out. He told his truly bizarre tale to The Fix.

What were you using when you were younger and how did it start?

I’m really a New York City garbage-head at heart. I found marijuana and alcohol in the first couple of years of high school. By the time I was done with high school I was a daily pill addict, a daily cocaine addict. By the time I was a freshman in college, I’d experimented with—and fallen in love with—heroin. The other stuff didn’t go away—it was always just swapping out one thing for another. I found that smoking or snorting heroin and cocaine would keep me on an even keel throughout the day, then I’d drink a bottle of vodka at night and pass out somewhere. Then it was easier to get up in the morning with a hangover by scoring some blow. I came to realize in my 20s that something was horribly wrong—I blamed it on the hard drugs. And it was easier to kick hard drugs with an alcohol and marijuana maintenance program. By the time I went just to pot and booze, I was totally unemployable. I was so hopeless; I was just waiting to die.

Would it be fair to suggest that the same experimental attitude we see on Bizarre Foods was in evidence in your early attitude to drugs?

Yes. I think that I’m addicted to bright, shiny things. I’m fascinated by new things. I’m an experience junkie; I want to try everything I see. All those things got me in a lot of trouble when left unharnessed, but when focused the right way are the core elements that make up all of my successes today.

Is the restaurant business one that fosters addictions more than most?

Certainly. I mean, all you have to do is look at all the healthy, well-minded people in the restaurant business to realize that it has nothing to do with the work itself. But if you’re predisposed—genetically, behaviorally, whatever—if you're addicted to the word “more” and you go into the restaurant business, it has a unique way of toying with your ego and setting daily challenges.

You were homeless throughout 1991, living in a disused building in downtown Manhattan. How did that come about?

I had no income, no job and no place to show up, in that none of my friends wanted me. I was kicked out of my one-room apartment for non-payment of rent. I then got a series of sleep-on-the-couch deals from people I knew from local bars—not even friends, just drinking acquaintances. It was horrible neighborhoods, horribly scary stuff and I didn’t have the stomach for it. So it was easier for me to just curl up somewhere. Once you do it and get through a night, it’s like: “Oh, okay, now I’ll just improve that situation.” Your alcoholic mind tells you that living like that is acceptable. My brain tells me things that aren’t true, even today. If I act on that, I get myself in trouble; back then, it’s all I was listening to. Eventually, I was drinking with a bottle gang one night in the alley outside a nightclub, and they said “Oh, we’re all staying in this building.” It was on Sullivan Street, which these days is quite a swanky neighborhood. We went over and they’d pirated electricity, they had water coming out of a pipe in the sink and that’s all we had.

Is it true that you would sometimes eat rats during this period?

No, not at all! But I think I know where you may have gotten that from. No, it wasn’t until Bizarre Foods that I started doing that! But living in this building, one of the problems we had in the warm weather months was cockroaches and rodents. Every day you’d do your hustle or whatever to get enough money for booze and you’d buy a bottle of Comet cleanser. And I’d sprinkle it in a circle around my little pile of clothes that I slept on, so that roaches and rodents didn’t crawl over that line and hassle me when I passed out at the end of the night. It’s a pretty horrific way to live.

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