The chef and TV personality has traveled the globe to explore new cultures and culinary traditions. Now, he’s tackling some of the world’s stickiest issues, from the uncertain future of restaurants and ideological divides to climate change and immigration. And he’s doing it all through the lens of food.

Andrew Zimmern has a lot on his mind. For the past 15-plus years, the chef and TV personality has ventured into new countries, culinary traditions, and cultural connections through programs like “Bizarre Foods” and “Delicious Destinations.” But more recently, Zimmern’s focus has shifted as he dives into meatier topics.

The change has also manifested in his appearance. During the pandemic, he traded in those signature round glasses for rectangular specs and also began sporting a beard. Still, Zimmern remains driven by a trademark curiosity that has guided his adventures across continents and earned him four James Beard Awards and an Emmy. In addition to this work, he’s also a published author, restaurant and hospitality group founder, consultant, and most recently, a world food ambassador.

“I seem to always be going at a higher speed limit than most. It is something that I’m just used to,” he says. “There’s such a thing as being too busy, but I am really someone who’s more comfortable with doing more than doing less.”

And perhaps because of that higher speed, Zimmern has amassed a wealth of knowledge. Even in casual conversation, he easily rattles off statistics related to inflation rates, restaurants’ share in the national GDP, and diet-related epidemics. But the chef isn’t content to just learn—he also wants to teach others.

Andrew Zimmern

The state of things

That desire has been at the forefront since the earliest days of his television career, when Zimmern guided viewers to faraway places they might never visit in person. His hope was that through these virtual journeys, audiences would broaden their own world view.

“I started ‘Bizarre Foods’ because I felt 20 years ago that the world was changing, and we had some incredible social justice issues that needed to be acknowledged. I thought it would help to do a show like ‘Bizarre Foods,’ where people in Japan could see how people in Norway ate, and people in Norway could see how people in Argentina ate,” he says. “And I thought that would help promote patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world that seemed to be running short on it. That was my feeling 20 years ago, and it’s been even more confirmed now.”

Although Zimmern doesn’t outright say conditions have deteriorated over the last two decades, he does name a number of pain points that have worsened, from minimum wage and gender equity to food deserts and healthcare strain. These are all topics that have recently become more prominent in the public discourse, but Zimmern insists there’s a crucial one that’s still overlooked.

“I’ve long said that the biggest issue unaddressed in the restaurant world … the one that’s never talked about, is why aren’t we able to charge on a plate in a restaurant what it costs to put the food onto the plate?” he says, adding that fine-dining, Michelin-starred restaurants are the exception. Guests expect to pay top-dollar for meals at such establishments. Concepts on the more casual side don’t have that luxury.

“Look at restaurants in the middle. If you own a neighborhood café and you’ve charged $14.95 for the chicken plate for the last six years, your costs have gone up 300–400 percent over those six years,” he says. “But try raising that chicken dish to $21.95—which is probably more where it resides, if you want to pay your employees a living wage and offer them the perks and benefits that they would get at any other business—and your customers will practically mutiny.”

As so many operators intimately understand, two crucial forces are driving these reactions. First are the artificially low prices some restaurants—mostly fast-food chains—have peddled for decades. On this matter, Zimmern is especially blunt, calling into question processing methods, such as preserving meats through ammonia hydroxide. These practices scare consumers, he says, but only when they’re paying attention (case in point: the occasional outcry over the pink slime in beef, followed by several years of general apathy).

Instead, the more lasting impact is a skewed understanding of what food—real food—costs, he says. When consumers can order a meal for $5, it can be hard to convince them to pay double or even triple the cost for better quality.

The second and perhaps more insidious dynamic is the growing number of people who are priced out of healthy food, whether at restaurants or in grocery stores.

“There’s a tremendous problem with who can afford to eat what. So if we’re telling people to eat healthy and to eat fruit and to eat fish, well, that’s more expensive. But can we afford not to, and I think the answer is we can’t afford not to; we have to change as a society,” Zimmern says. “If I’m eating healthier, I’m less of a drain on the healthcare system, on the criminal justice system, on the economic development system, on the insurance system, because I’m not using them as often.”

Multiple studies support this assessment. Most recently, a report funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found poor eating habits result in $50 billion in healthcare costs associated with conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. And that number doesn’t take into account other costs, such as lost wages due to illness.

Madeleine Hill

Lucky Cricket served lighter fare like the Green Buddha (pictured) and more indulgent dishes like crispy duck bao.

Redefining the restaurant

For the past two decades, Zimmern’s career has been anchored primarily in the entertainment and media spheres, not restaurants. Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the struggles restaurant owners, chefs, and employees face, especially as of late. In a sense, he’s been right there beside them.

Lucky Cricket, Zimmern’s casual Chinese restaurant, was forced to shutter in the early days of COVID, and it’s a closure that has since become permanent. Featuring regional cuisines from the likes of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Hong Kong, Lucky Cricket marked the chef’s first foray back into full-service dining since the start of his TV career. He viewed the concept as a mainstream inroad to more authentic Chinese food, with the potential to expand to 200 locations across Middle America.

Located in a Minneapolis suburban mall, Lucky Cricket was beset by a number of difficulties since it opened in November 2018. Comments Zimmern made about Americanized Chinese food and P.F. Chang’s in particular drew ire from members of the Asian-American community and beyond. Less than a year into its run, Lucky Cricket closed unexpectedly for more than a month, and when it reopened, the menu had become focused on more general, Pan-Asian cuisine. Eight months after that, COVID struck.

When asked if the experience soured his appetite to open more restaurants, Zimmern is adamant.

“Absolutely not. I just would pursue it a different way. I am pro-restaurant. I am pro-dining. I am happiest when I’m feeding people in the dining room and I see their faces and I see how they react to food that’s being served,” he says.

That said, he’s also ready to embrace the new wave of dine-in experiences.

To grow both his own restaurant portfolio and a consulting business, Zimmern launched Passport Hospitality in 2015, a few years after he’d debuted AZ Canteen. Inspired by his travels to food markets around the globe, the quick serve started as a food truck at the Minnesota State Fair before morphing into a concessions business at Target Field ballpark and eventually the U.S. Bank Stadium, both in the Twin Cities.

“Concessions is a licensing business. And that’s fine for people who have several other businesses, but I personally am pursuing smaller footprints, smaller menus, smaller employees—I’m pursuing that footprint,” he says. Concessions may not be his focus, but the experience of building smaller, quicker prototypes has informed his newer concepts.

Zimmern is currently engaged in two projects with restaurateur Robert Montwaid, best known for converting the historical Gansevoort Market in New York’s Meatpacking District into a food hall. The pair are now doing the same with the Dayton’s Building in downtown Minneapolis and Chattahoochee Food Works in Atlanta; the latter opened just over a year ago and is already home to more than two dozen vendors.

“A food hall is a great example of an amalgamation of smaller businesses, each one with a small footprint and a smaller menu. And the vast majority of them are bringing 20 percent plus to the bottom line. So it’s a more sustainable business and a more sustainable opportunity,” he says.

Indeed, the future viability of restaurants is a top concern for Zimmern. Unlike some industry analysts who have decried the end of fine dining, he considers it one of the more shored-up sectors.

“Fine dining, to a certain extent, seems a little bit bulletproof. I’ve never seen so many high-end sushi bars and Japanese restaurants open in America. I think it’s a great thing, but remember they’re 20 seats, $500 a person, and I think that’s very smart,” he says. “[For] ultra-luxury restaurants at the highest tier, I think smaller footprints are the way to go.”

He also believes that on the far opposite side of the dining spectrum, specialized, budget-friendly concepts are equally resilient; he adds that these business models are already common in many other countries.

But this potential dining future exacts a heavy toll. For as much as has shifted over the past few years, Zimmern says those changes are just the tip of the iceberg.

“When you say how the last couple of years transformed what restaurants look like in America—we haven’t even begun to see the net effect of what this is going to do to that system,” he says. “I think 20 years from now, our restaurant world is going to look a lot more like a handful of high-end restaurants at the top that will still have tablecloths and look kind of like the way fancy restaurants do now. And then everything below it is going to be 15-20-30-40-seat places that specialize in rotisserie chicken and salads and bowls.”

The latter, he adds, gives operators greater control over costs, thanks to less labor, smaller spaces, fewer SKUs, and niche menus.

As for the many restaurants that fall in between the two camps, Zimmern doesn’t see them having much of a future.

“I think it’s going to be too expensive for people to open mid-level restaurants the way we currently envision them,” he says. “Ultimately, it could be more sustainable, but it’s a sad and horrific thing for the hundreds of thousands of American food businesses that may not survive it. Culture shifts aren’t without pain associated with them.”


‘Food touches everything’

It’s tempting to peg Zimmern as a pessimist, or at the very least, a clear-eyed skeptic. After all, he paints a rather bleak picture of the restaurant landscape. From his perspective, tragedy and pain are often the only effective incentives in altering human behavior.

But there’s a frenetic energy underlying those dire predictions that suggests he’s still ready to fight the good fight. And for as much as his words may imply resignation, his actions tell a very different story.

As he has done for much of his career, Zimmern continues to seek opportunities where he can connect with individuals, better understand different people, and share that understanding with the masses. At present, he’s pursuing these goals on a variety of fronts, including two new television series.

Striking many familiar notes from past projects, “Family Dinner” is almost like a domestic version of “Bizarre Foods.” The show debuted on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network last year and has already completed two seasons. In each half-hour episode, Zimmern visits a different family to share a meal and learn how geography, regional culture, and family background influence their food experience.

The other series, “What’s Eating America,” marks a departure of sorts both in tone and subject matter but provides the perfect canvas for Zimmern to explore some of the thorniest issues plaguing the F&B sector and beyond.

“Our goal was to try to tell stories about civics and political issues through a different lens. If you see a story about immigration in a two-minute package on the nightly news where somebody behind a desk talks to a reporter at the border, that’s one way of telling that story,” he says. “What if we were to do an hour-long docuseries where one of those hours—and in fact, we devoted two to immigration—could highlight the issues of immigration through food, something that everybody touches everyday? Could we be more successful?”

In addition to immigration, the show unpacked addiction, climate change, voting rights, and healthcare in its five-episode run on MSNBC.

“What’s Eating America” had the misfortune of premiering one month before the pandemic began. The show’s Sunday night slot was quickly filled with COVID-related stories. In the wake of a tumultuous two years, plus a leadership change at the network, Zimmern’s series remains in limbo.

“‘What’s Eating America’ is perhaps the work I’ve done that I’m proudest of,” he says. “I think personally that people don’t want all news, all the time; you’ve got to give them a night that’s a break. I still think cable networks should look at Sunday night as a night to do those types of docuseries, and I hope we get to make more of them for MSNBC or for someone else.”

Beyond his television work, Zimmern is also immersing himself in a cause he’s championed for years: reducing food waste. In addition to offering home cooks tips for cutting down on their kitchen waste, the chef’s body of work has also highlighted how many cultures around the world maximize every ingredient they have.

Last December, Zimmern was named a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. World Food Programme, a role that exercises his ability to understand the interconnected nature of food systems, culture, and politics. In this new capacity, he’ll be taking a trip to Zambia in the spring to raise awareness around hunger.

“I’ve been doing a lot on the waste and hunger issues for the last 10 years, but hopefully we’ll be able to amplify that because it’s very important,” he says. “You can’t talk about hunger without waste and waste without hunger. They go hand in hand.”

Given the daily demands of restaurant life, few on-the-ground owners and operators have the bandwidth to toil away on loaded topics, like the interplay between employee wages, food costs, menu prices, and profitability. That’s why it’s good to have someone like Zimmern whose culinary background gives him a certain sympatico but whose unconventional career grants him the latitude to dive into the big problems.

And dive in he does. Because at the end of the day, food might just be what saves us all.

“If you make the shift in food—because it’s so big and so large—you will make a subsequent shift in other areas. You will find room in other areas. You will find time in other areas to improve lives. That’s why I think food touches everything,” he says. “You can’t talk about food and not talk about the climate crisis or immigration or healthcare or criminal justice—it just doesn’t work. It affects everything.”

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