Andrew Zimmern: Food Junkie - Page 2

By Will Godfrey 05/08/11

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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You did some pretty desperate things to get by while you were homeless, such as stealing purses from restaurants. What was your technique? Would you just grab it and run?

I was such a schmuck. Yeah, it was grab and run. I’d been in the restaurant business, so I knew there were these cafes on Madison Avenue where swanky ladies would sling their purses over the backs of their chairs. I’d walk up and down and I’d see one breaking the cardinal rule, which is: never put your bag behind you! I’d snatch it and run. I did Madison Avenue or Columbus Avenue, because you were one block away from Central Park. So you could always run straight to the park, vault the wall and make your way to a subway stop off of 59th Street, to go downtown and sell the contents of the purse. On a good day, 20 minutes after you’d swiped it you’d have sold the contents to someone who knew what to do with it.

Did it go any further? Did you ever commit any violent crimes?

No, I was too much of a chicken. Petty thievery was as far as it went.

What finally prompted you to change your lifestyle? Do you remember hitting bottom at one particular point?

Oh yes, absolutely. I acquired a small sum of cash, went to a flophouse hotel and got a room. My plan was just to drink myself to death. I left the hotel twice in a couple of weeks, for half an hour, just to crawl out and crawl back in. There was one of those volume liquor discounters around the corner, where I bought plastic bottles of Popov vodka. I’ll never forget it. After a couple weeks my plan wasn’t happening: I was still alive. I woke up one morning and for the first time in 20 years I didn’t have that ace bandage of tension wrapping around my chest and that morning compulsion to drink was not there. I did something completely opposite to my behavior for the previous 10 years, at least, when I picked up the phone and said, “Help me.” A friend of mine came and picked me up from that flophouse. I quickly got my will back; I mean, I was hustling him by the time we got back to his apartment. But at least I was out of that hotel. Three days later I had an intervention that ended up starting this sobriety.

You checked into Hazelden in 1992. How did you find that?

I got a one-way ticket and a bed waiting for me, courtesy of my friends. The first week was a blur. But I always tell people that looking back, at that point I was ready. I would have sobered up in a liquor store at that point, I guess. I took the advice—the same advice I’d been given for 20 years, but always rejected—that said, “Why don’t you try to live on these simple spiritual principles that seem to have worked for other people with alcoholism?” Today I don’t ascribe it to magic, but back then it absolutely floored me. Miraculously, all of a sudden I was two weeks clean. And I hadn’t been two weeks clean since I was 12 years old. You know those annoying people in treatment centers that are just so happy to be sober? That was me. It was working.

Sometimes on Bizarre Foods, you appear to be drinking alcohol: for example in the Tokyo episode, when you’re apparently drinking a Martini from a syringe in a weird asylum-themed restaurant. What’s going on there?

I’ve never touched alcohol on the show. There have been five or six times when I’ve had booze in front of me. The Tokyo show you’re referencing, everyone there was drinking; mine was a non-alcoholic drink. In other situations people have been drinking wine and there’s a glass of wine in front of me; I don’t drink it. We try—because I don’t like to give mixed messages—to get the glass out of there. Sometimes, in the television business, a scene is playing and we’re not going to stop it because of other content reasons. One famous example was the pilot episode; we were drinking lizard sake—of course I can’t drink sake—so we put one of these dried lizards in a glass and filled it with water and let it sit there for a couple of hours. It was just so stinky and so gross and at one point I hold it up for the promo shot for after the commercial breaks; it looks like I’m drinking it. It was just…ugh. But no, I’ve been sober for nearly 20 years.

Is there any way that the buzz of sampling such outlandish foods compares to the buzz that drugs and alcohol once gave you?

It doesn’t compare at all. There’s no thrill in eating for me. I think that’s a different kind of addiction and luckily I’m not there yet. What is thrilling to me is jumping off Table Mountain in South Africa attached to a rope, or jumping into a hole in the ground that’s 40 feet deep, but only the width of a human body, in the Puerto Rico episode in the rainforest there. What is addictive is spending a week with the Zhun/Twasi in the Aha hills of Botswana, the people of the Kalahari—the real ones, not the Disneyland version! Those are rushes. So is walking down the street in Chengdu, China, and having somebody come up to tell me they heard me talking about my recovery on a talkshow three years earlier, saying that they’re three years sober, and thanking me for being one of the voices of reason in their life. Those are incredible moments.

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