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Why Andrew Zimmern Made a Food Show About Politics

The four-time James Beard Award winner’s new series explores what’s eating America.

Andrew Zimmern (pictured left) with chef José Andrés, who appears in the first episode of What's Eating America. Photo courtesy of MSNBC

Andrew Zimmern is joining the political discussion. With a five-episode TV series, What’s Eating America, that debuts on MSNBC Sunday evening, Zimmern takes viewers across the country to explore issues ranging from the role of immigrants in the food industry to how climate change affects food systems.

Best known as the co-creator and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, the four-time James Beard award-winning chef says the time is right to explore the intersection between politics and food. “This love for food, a population that wants to hear these stories and a national crisis when it comes to these issues has coalesced into an atmosphere that I think is the perfect opportunity to tell these stories,” Zimmern says.

Zimmern sat down with Worth to discuss how fine dining affects everyone, how being a 1 percenter shapes his point of view and the simple yet effective way that you can make a difference.

Q: First things first, what is eating America?

A: A whole range of issues that everybody is scratching their head about. These are issues that I describe as not being red or blue, not being left or right, but being about moving forward. They start out as social justice issues, as civics issues that shouldn’t be confined to the purview of one political party or another. Example: hungry children. If you were for hungry children, well, that’s not the kind of America that I believe in or anyone believes in. How we solve those problems is what moves [us] forward. Climate change, addiction, health and wellness, immigration—these are issues that we’ve been trying to solve in this country for a long, long time. We have to come up with solutions.

How does your new show change the conversation around food?

What’s Eating America is a tremendous opportunity to move the food conversation into a more expanded playing field. If you just look at the power that chefs have had in this country, when I was a young boy in the ’60s no one could tell you the name of any restaurant in New York City except André Soltner, Lutèce, that was it. Everybody knew that Henri Soulé was the manager at Le Pavillon. He was the person who ran that restaurant, so we know a restaurant’s name. You might know the chef if you were a regular, but the greater public didn’t know the chef.

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Chefs that moved out of the kitchen became a bridge to social justice issues. Chefs in California—I call it the Alice Waters movement. I don’t believe she was the first mouse to that cheese—she was the first promotable public mouse to that cheese. She was someone who identified farmers, their roles as caretakers of the environment, their roles introducing ingredients, sustainable eating, a healthy approach to how we deal with food in America. They put that forward onto America’s plates. They were the ones who extended the James Beard legacy to say that, “Yes, there is an American cuisine. There is an American food culture that we need to promote.”

When did you become inspired to do a show like What’s Eating America?

About 10 years ago, I started fiddling around with the idea in my head—obviously it’s while I’m doing Bizarre Foods—where can we do a show that’s actually talking about the big issues of the day, and using my skillset as a storyteller and cultural explorer to get those stories out in front of the viewing public. There was interest, and that interest would vanish. No one had really done that before on a major network. It was the stuff that was confined to magazine articles and food conferences. It was the stuff that was confined to fundraising efforts by food banks and NGOs.

Ultimately several years ago we started to get a lot of interest from different networks, and MSNBC bought the show last year. 

Why now?

The issues have gone front page. I was stunned that in the 2016 presidential election, nobody talked about real kitchen table issues. Not do we have enough money to pay for grandma’s medicine? But actual kitchen table issues. In other words, how does the food we eat, how we consume it, how we look at it—our food systems—affect us?

So this love for food, a population that wants to hear these stories and a national crisis when it comes to these issues has coalesced into an atmosphere that I think is the perfect opportunity to tell these stories. And we’re doing it in a storytelling style that involves a cultural explorer going out and talking to the people who are actually living these problems and these issues. And if I’m going to be selfish enough to take up time on air and give my opinion, I also have an obligation to talk about the solutions. So we made sure that it’s prescriptive as well.

You examine climate change in the show. Food systems being impacted by climate change isn’t news, so I’m curious what you found on this topic that surprised you.

The severity of the problem. Our climate change episode—within a short number of days, internally, I started calling it our climate crisis episode. I went down to Apalachicola, Florida. Apalachicola is a small town on the Gulf. For generations, 10 percent of the oyster harvest in America came from Apalachicola Bay. It’s a staggering number.

We went out to the most productive oyster reef in Apalachicola Bay, a place where for generations they didn’t even bother to put oysters into weighted totes—bags of 10, 20 or 50 pounds. They just filled boats until the gunnels were touching the water and then putt-putted back to the processing house. That’s how many oysters; they would wheelbarrow them off these boats.

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The number of wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay now, is zero. Not 1 percent or 2 percent. I’m talking about 0 percent. There are no more wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay. The reason is very simple: climate crisis. The water in Apalachicola Bay is a mix of salty and fresh. That’s where oysters live, estuarial waters. If oysters are in a body of water that’s too salty, predators can come in, certain types of fish and other animals that can actually crush the shells of young oysters. The salinity has decreased so severely in Apalachicola Bay because there’s so little rain there that there is now too much salt in the water, too many predators, no more oysters.

So you see in a town like Apalachicola Bay, not only has a very large fishery disappeared, but what were 70 or 80 oyster houses that lined the bay, that were always processing oysters, now are nonexistent. The tourists that used to go down there, the stores that used to stay open, the economic tax base in that city went down dramatically. A lot of stores are closing on Main Street. A lot of families are out of work. A lot of Americans are really hurting.

What are particular cities doing to combat climate change as it affects food systems?

They’re not.

How could our readers affect change on this?

People with money who have access, your readers, are a really important audience for me because a lot of them, without even actively thinking the words, this doesn’t affect me, their behavior is, this doesn’t affect me. And how do I know? Because I’m one of them. I mean, it’s a fact. So let’s just put the facts forward. I make a really good living. I think statistically I would certainly count as a 1 percenter. I just went to a really expensive lunch in Midtown, a business lunch. It was lovely. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Americans would not spend the money that my two guests and I spent on our business lunch. There were ingredients on the table that I would call precious and expensive.

I still get to indulge in them. The problem is the bigger the divide between the haves and have nots, the worse off we are. Paul Wellstone, who is one of my heroes and a mentor of mine, the senator from Minnesota who died tragically in an airplane accident, along with his wife Sheila, had a campaign slogan, [essentially] “We all win when we all win.”

And he was right. Because as a business owner, someone who has employees, I want to be able to afford to give everyone in my company healthcare so they stay with my company, so our turnover is low. It costs a fortune to train and bring in new people. If the people who work for me, the people who work for you, the people who live in our neighborhoods, who deliver our mail, who drive our buses, who are firmly in what we used to call the middle class, can afford to send their kids to school and buy a house, we’re better off. Just look historically at the numbers. We’ve always been better off. And we’ve been safer. Wage disparity, hunger, those are the things that revolution is made of.

Andrew Zimmern. Photo courtesy of MSNBC

As someone who has cooked in high-end restaurants and has also been to all sorts of places all over the world, how do you find finance and economics impact a culture or region’s food and food systems, especially in America?

It’s ironic that the food that we are most happy eating is the food that the Italians have dubbed cucina povera.

Poor man’s food?

Yeah. Think about comfort food. Think about the food of the South or the Midwest that’s born of frugality, that’s all about real cooking. It used to be popular when I was young in the food business to go into restaurants where they were really doing a lot of, not so much cooking, but just good shopping. Here’s some incredible smoked salmon that we buy. Here’s some luxury ingredients. We just put them on a plate. Here’s a really expensive piece of meat. We just grill it. You can order your sides, comes with a sprig of parsley on the plate. While not poor man’s food, it’s a simple grilled piece of meat.

Our food economy is upside down and it’s not working. The irony of course is that when you look at simple rustic Italian fare that’s classic cucina povera, we’re just obsessed with that. Now we demand that that’s what’s being cooked in our high-end restaurants. Best restaurants in the country are cooking that way.

Chefs are leading the way on showing people that you can eat every part of everything, and we should be eating every part of everything. Chefs are heroically demonstrating every night in their restaurants what should be done, but you just look at the statistics. And with dual income families, with children, there’s no more family meals happening. The family meal is disappearing because nobody has time to do it, which is why the biggest rise in our food system from a business standpoint is everything from food delivery services to ghost restaurants to other ways in which we can get fast, slightly more nutritious food, even from those that can afford it. And I think people need to understand that some of these more traditional ways that things were done in the past certainly need to disappear. You get smarter. Margarine is not good for you. Let’s stop making it.

I’m also curious how the business of high-end fine dining affects all people.

Super luxury dining is not going to go away. What’s the most luxurious restaurant in New York? Just an example of one of them? Eleven Madison Park. Eleven Madison Park will still be open 10 years from now because they just need a certain number of people to fill that dining room, and they figured out their economic model and they’re in New York City. There’s still going to be the people who can afford to go eat there.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, fast, cheap food in the form of processed food, sadly is still going to be there and we’re going to get more people hooked on fat, sugar and salt with this food that’s not nutritious. So we’re going to continue our problem with what is now a $1.5 trillion dollar a year problem with the four biggest food-related diseases, that number is just going up. Forty years ago, we were not spending all of the money that we are on diabetes, but things are getting worse and worse.

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It’s because people are looking to those cheap foods as a way to feed their family because they need to give their family the calories. And we’re doing it in our school lunch program as well, where you have people managing to a set number of calories on the plate instead of a nutrition standard, a real nutrition standard.

So these fast, cheap restaurants are going to exist at the bottom. These high-end restaurants at the top. But what I call the average American restaurant, just the little neighborhood restaurant, it may or may not have tablecloths, but it’s got people in the kitchen cooking real food. It has real human beings walking in a dining room and serving people. That model is going to disappear. There just won’t be customers for it.

What can our readers do to help accelerate progress on these political issues, if they wish to?

Get active in whatever it is that you believe in. I’m not going to tell anybody what party to affiliate with; it’s not my place.

I had to, many years ago, sit there and say, well, what do I believe in? What do I want my America to look like? What do I want the America my son and grandchildren grow up in to look like? Well, I want it to be a place where everyone votes.

The America that I want to live in is one where all men and women of all colors, beliefs, ethnicities, races, genders are treated and created equal. Because they are. And so I would encourage anyone who reads this just to search their heart and think about what they believe in and go support it.

I think this next election is not about the candidates, and it’s not against Trump. You hear that a lot with this electability issue. I think it’s about being for something and I think everyone, especially people with money who have access, who are able to do more for their fellows and yes, that includes writing checks and yes, that includes not being time poor. They can volunteer. They can get active. I just think it’s up to all of us, rich and poor, to seek out what we want our country to look like and lean into it intentionally and make it happen. One thing that I find in talking to a lot of people, they don’t know where they stand. And the reason is there’s an apathy in this country because they don’t think they can make a difference. And I think we just saw in the last election what a huge difference that makes.

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