Andrew Zimmern’s TV show “Bizarre Foods” has its season premiere tonight on The Travel Channel at 9 p.m. with a visit to Washington, D.C. While I’m excited to see Zimmern eat a blackened snakehead sandwich in a boat on the Potomac, I’m more excited about the past several days he’s spent eating his way around Queens. Especially yesterday, when I had the opportunity to take him on a global food crawl that started in the Himalayas and ended in Liberia. Before I gave the bizarre one a private food tour I caught up with him at M. Wells Dinette and asked him Seven Questions.
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten thus far on this trip to New York City?
I’m just gonna go right out with the bread at Rokhat Bakery [in Rego Park]. I’m just going with the thing that I’ve been talking to the most people about. The Golden Mall? Fantastic. Fu Run? Ethereal. To stand in the kitchen [at M. Wells Dinette] and have Hugue make little tasty tidbits for me? Glorious. And on and on and on. I had dinner last night at The Dutch. Carmellini was just killing it and sending out all kinds of great things. The moment he came out to say hello the first thing I did was take out the picture of Rokhat Bakery and say, “You have to go try this bread place.” I’m still captivated by it. What a special unique thing they have out there. Those samsa, those meat pies, the breads, the cabbage pierogi. I’ve never tasted its equal.
What’s your favorite way to eat bone marrow?
With my fingers. I put it up to my mouth and I suck. It’s the way I was taught when I was a little kid. The very first bone marrow that I had was osso bucco at Trattoria Sostanza in Florence in 1969 with my father. I remember my first visit there.
Where did you learn how to use chopsticks?
I learned how to use chopsticks from my mother. My mother went to Mills College in the ’40s in San Francisco, her roommate was Trader Vic’s daughter. Vic Bergeron taught my mother how to cook in the original Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. Ethnic dining in America, especially in New York, was not what is now back then. In the early ’60s, yes, there was a chow mein restaurant on every corner. There were a couple of good Cantonese restaurants around and there were your various Chinatowns in the five boroughs. We actually had a home where my mother would make certain Polynesian specialties. And, we had chopsticks. So, I learned from my Mom.
What’s a typical meal back home with the family in Minnesota?
Oh, gosh, the last couple of meals I have to remember through leftovers. Sautéed pork chops with cabbage that we finished with milk, sort of a quick version of the classic Italian pork shoulder braised in milk. We did a grilled chicken with roasted leeks where you let the leeks just blacken on the outside and you push out the middles. Simple, simple stuff. Lemon roasted broccoli with roasted chicken. Usually it’s, I hate to say, it’s meat and three, but that’s the way we eat back home. My wife likes to cook, I love to cook. Our son’s a great eater. We like to take our time with cooking, food is really important. My son can talk to you about food politics because we talk about it at the table. We love to cook together, and I take eating seriously. We eat very simply, four or five ingredients. Nothing is fancy in our house, but everything is super fresh, and we love to eat.
What is the flat out nastiest thing you’ve ever eaten?
For me it’s a whole category and it’s usually the foods that I didn’t even know existed, stuff that gets pulled up from the bottom of the ocean in a fisherman’s net. I’m not talking about illegal bycatch. It’s things like giant sea squirts. Some of them depending on the waters they live in and how big or small they are, are delectable. The little ones in Korean restaurants are fantastic. Some of [the larger ones] are some of the foulest tasting things you will ever, ever put your mouth around. Giant piure the size of basketballs that have to be sliced open with a serrated sword and the little throbbing corpuscles that live inside. It’s literally like pure iodine; it’s brutal.
Where, pray tell, does one find piure?
Well, I had that one in Chile, but I’ve had a similar one in Korea. You go into Noryangjin Seafood Market with a TV crew and the Koreans say, “Would you like to see something strange?” A lot of very everyday grandmother food in Korea is downright strange to a lot of American palates. So when they go out of their way to show you something that’s on the fringes of their food culture, trust me you are in the deep end of the pool.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
Gosh I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Every day of my life and I’m really not joking I have something that I say, “Wow, that is the best thing that I’ve eaten in a long time.” I’m not gonna lie to you. I’ve had some moments that I’ve actually had to pinch myself. We were shooting for a day and a half at El Bulli. I ate there for dinner one night forty-some odd courses. In between I spent the day in the kitchen and watched how they made and tasted 20 other things. The first day that I was in the kitchen there Adrià pulls me aside and says, “Let’s have lunch.” And he braised some baby rabbit, tiny little rear rabbit legs. Once they were tender he crisped them in a pan and then soaked them in a vinegar sauce. So it was sort of a new age escabeche, but it was something that required no modernist technique. It would be identical to what a grandmother in that part of the world would have made a hundred years ago. And he sautéed a little veg, and we just sat down together and with a piece of bread ate vinegared rabbit legs together. Those kind of moments, you know?
Sitting in tribal situations around the world eating food that no human being like myself has had before and I will never see again because some of these tribes are protected tribes. It took us years of petitioning governments to get into working with the Juǀʼhoansi in Botswana, for example. So when I had the wild African porcupine with them or jewel beetles or any of their other traditional foods that they eat I had access that people hadn’t had since the late ‘70s to them. I’ve gone hunting with Himba tribesmen in Namibia. I’ve been able to pull palolo worms out of the Pacific Ocean with Matai from Samoa.
It’s staggering the amount of gratitude that I have for doing what I do and the opportunity that I’ve had in my travels. I make a fun TV show, I’ve got a great job. On someone else’s dime I’ve been able to travel the world a hundred times over and see things that such a small number of people have ever seen or heard of let alone tasted.