Andrew Zimmern: Food Junkie

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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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.

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.

It sounds as if your current job has its compensations, but do you ever miss being more hands-on in the kitchen?

Oh sure, all the time. But then I just make another grilled cheese for my kid and it’s all good. A career like this is definitely one of those be-careful-what-you-ask-for-you-might-just-get-it things. I’m insanely blessed, insanely grateful and every day I want to be back doing my toilet-cleaning job that I had 800 lifetimes ago, where I woke up, went to work, cashed my paycheck and went to sleep…

But maybe not that much…

Yeah, maybe not that much.

If you look at where you are today, then look back to when you were at your lowest ebb, how does it make you feel?

Oh my God! Every day I think about it. It’s the most grateful feeling in the world. I was talking just now, coincidentally, with a friend who’s known me pretty much since I came to Minnesota. And he said, “You must just get shivers up your spine when you think about where you were 19 years and seven months ago.” And I do. Every single day.

Everybody asks me: “What’s the secret of success in television?” because everyone thinks it’s such a good job. And everyone in recovery also asks: “What’s the secret of success in recovery?” And for both, the answer is the same. You just chop wood, carry water. It really is that simple.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. He is a Brooklyn-based writer from London, where he co-founded an award-winning prison publication named Voice of the Ville. He previously wrote about how to smuggle drugs into prison for The Fix.

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