by Dimitri Ehrlich
It’s a challenging time to be in the food business. On one hand, people still need to eat. But the COVID-19 pandemic may end up disrupting food supplies in ways that are more lethal than the virus itself. In fact, according to experts cited in a recent New York Times cover story, indirect impacts of the pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year.
As a food expert who has traveled the world, chef, TV personality and social activist Andrew Zimmern is in an unusual position: He’s seen firsthand how people sustain themselves in marginalized communities, and long before COVID-19 began he was sounding the alarm about how climate change is threatening the food system, and the survival of millions of people who live in poverty. As a restaurant owner, he is also directly affected by the economic impact of social distancing; his Minneapolis-based Lucky Cricket is now shuttered due to the virus, and he’s not sure whether it will ever open again.
For most of his career as a TV host, Zimmern purveyed food exotica as entertainment. His Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel delivered exactly what the title suggested: adventure, travel and the occasional gross-out. But with his latest series, What’s Eating America, which aired on MSNBC in February and March, just before the COVID-19 crisis erupted, Zimmern’s gotten serious.
“Eating well in America has been a class issue,” Zimmern says. “In the richest country in the history of civilization, the fact that roughly a quarter of Americans are food-insecure is criminal. Everything that I worry about when it comes to food production starts with climate change—weather patterns are causing a huge disruption in our food system. So I come at the climate issue from the food side and tell stories about foods that are disappearing and raise awareness about how the supply chain is being affected.”
With What’s Eating America, Zimmern, 58, connects food to hot-button issues ranging from immigration, climate change, and voter suppression to health care and addiction. (The last subject is one he knows from personal experience; he’s now 28 years sober.)
Zimmern was born and raised an only child on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where his mother was a designer, his father an advertising executive. He attended Dalton and then Vassar. From a young age, he knew he wanted to be a chef.
He got his first paycheck when he was 14 years old, while working at a restaurant in East Hampton, and was soon climbing rapidly up the ladder in New York’s best restaurants. He worked for Thomas Keller, among other celebrity chefs—but despite these successes, by 1991 addiction left him living on the streets.
After a stint at Hazelden Betty Ford, Zimmern got sober. He had to return to the bottom of the ladder again, getting a job as a dishwasher, and slowly rebuild his life and career. “I was lucky. I was a child of privilege in New York. I took it all for granted. It almost killed me. It brought me mentally and emotionally to a place where I wanted to die. I went into a flophouse hotel and tried to drink myself to death. I didn’t succeed. I somehow made it out of there. Having been given this incredible 17th chance at life drives every decision that I make.”
Since getting sober, he’s been devoted to making a positive social impact. Through the James Beard Foundation and the Culinary Institute of America, he funds Andrew Zimmern’s Second Chances Scholarships, which offer students faced with extreme challenges an opportunity to overcome hardships and follow a culinary path. Zimmern now lives in Minneapolis, where he’s busy running several companies: KZ ProVisioning, which caters to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and the NBA’s Timberwolves; a production company, Intuitive Content; and Passport Hospitality, which oversees his restaurants. The unifying principle that connects all of Zimmern’s businesses: “If the work we do doesn’t inspire adventurous thinking, or doesn’t reinforce the idea that we are supposed to remain teachable regardless of where we are in life, and if the work doesn’t leave the world a better place, then we don’t do the work.”
Zimmern is also a podcaster, a philanthropist and an author, most recently of a book for young adults called AZ and the Lost City of Ophir, co-written with H.E. McElhatton. The book describes a meal of monkey-dung pellets, roasted wasps, grasshopper tacos and grub kebab. None of those are foods that wealthy people tend to eat, but Zimmern believes our food problems in America are not only a matter of economics—they are also related to deficits in our educational system, and complex cultural problems.
“The biggest problem is there are a lot of people who are time-poor,” he says. “We have jumped away from the way we lived a generation ago, when there was a grandmother in the house who could afford to cook. There used to be someone at home who was cooking a real breakfast. There used to be people cooking a real dinner at night. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
He adds, “Remember, we have tens of millions of children for whom the only hot meal they see is the one served at school. The schools are now closed. And the advocacy of the school nutrition association just hasn’t been there. So it very much is a dysfunctional ecosystem that feeds itself while it’s killing us with our diet and with our food.”
But Zimmern doesn’t think the problem of poor diet is always tied to poverty. “If you go into certain impoverished marginalized communities, from a food standpoint, they are eating well,” he says. “Because in some—underscore some—marginalized communities, they are still cooking fresh food, and they’re cooking food that’s very low in cost. But they are doing cucina povera, as the Italians call it: beans, and rice, and vegetables they grow themselves. But very few people—especially impoverished people and marginalized people—are situated to do that. Remember, so many of these people are crammed into our urban areas. They don’t have the ability that some rural poor do to be growing their own food, to be hunting in the evening for their breakfast and fishing in the morning for their dinner.”
“We need leadership from Washington. But all you have to do is listen to the president’s press conferences. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. We’re going to be very soon in the middle of the worst depression in American history. Tens of thousands of Americans—if not more—will die from this pandemic. We’re being given breadcrumbs and gaslighted from Washington at the same time. So I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.”
Zimmern, who recently co-founded the Independent Restaurant Coalition to help ensure the survival of restaurants during the pandemic, is now focused on lobbying politicians to change policy as it relates to food and the restaurant business. “Candidates are talking about different forms of health care but why isn’t anybody talking about, ‘Let’s get everyone fed, too’? We can set up educational centers to teach people about food. We can have pickup centers so the people who are time-poor, like dual-income families with children, who are living check to check, can go to community resource kitchens to pick up hot meals to save them time,” Zimmern says.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. When it comes to public policy, do we have the skill and do we have the will? We have all the skill in the world. In fact we could actually employ a lot more people. Much like some of FDR’s WPA initiatives. But we definitely do not have the will, because there’s no one in Washington who cares about marginalized people, who are desperate for help in America.”