“Will they be serving fried ants and alligator?” people wondered aloud when it was revealed early this spring that celebrated chef, author, and world traveler Andrew Zimmern would be headed to the Hamptons for Chefs & Champagne New York 2013. The fete in his honor takes place this weekend at the idyllic Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack. The James Beard Foundation, a bastion of culinary excellence, is recognizing Zimmern’s work that broadens the conversation when it comes to food, most notably through his celebrated show, “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on Travel Channel.
“It was freakish to be nominated. It was freakish to win,” the very humble chef, who has 30 types of mustard and a lot of Chinese take-out in his fridge on any given day, told Hamptons.com about his multiple James Beard Award wins. “It was surreal to win twice. To win three times was surreal. I don’t even know where to begin. It’s somebody else’s life.”
The New York native, who now lives in Minnesota with his wife, Rishia, and their young son, Noah, was inspired early on by, “My Dad, I’m a paler version of him,” then by “My friend, Clark, in grade school and high school, his mother, Elizabeth, was an amazing cook and loved spending all day in the kitchen. She cooked in the kitchen all day long doing very hardcore stuff that really put a switch inside of me.”
“Early on, when I was in high school and I was working odd jobs during the summers or one night a week in the winter as a kid or something, there were people like Leslie Revsin, a woman and a restaurant owner in New York City.” Revsin was the first woman to work as a chef at the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York, later opening Restaurant Leslie in Greenwich Village. “She specialized in tablecloth restaurants and I got a chance to work with her. She made a profound impact of how I look at food.”
Fellow James Beard Award winner Christopher Idone, founder of Glorious Food, was another early inspiration. “He was a caterer in the 1980s. He wrote a bunch of cookbooks. I met him in the late 1970s and he was the one who traveled. He was ahead of his time.”
Food and travel came together for Zimmern in “Bizarre Foods” in late 2006. For seven seasons viewers have lived vicariously through Zimmern’s adventures as he journeys the globe sampling local delicacies from fried crickets to monkey brains. What is the most bizarre thing he’s ever eaten that he’d like to eat again? “Oh god, so much,” he began. “The minute I say southern Africa, southwestern Africa, I think Botswana and I think of the giant African porcupine. One of my favorite foods in the whole world is a kudu [a woodland antelope] that I ate there and the fantastic marulu fruit.”
“I believe that interpreting culture is best done through food and it is a methodology, a vehicle, a lens through which to look through the world. I think I could read a people’s history in a bowl of soup.” Over the course of his delicious travels he says that, “South Asia and southwest Africa have become two of my favorite places to be. The different people are fantastic. After that, it’s the culture. And after that, the food.” What makes the food in that region his favorite when the world is literally his oyster? “I think I respond to everything there. I think for a sour, salt, bitter person the food there is exploratory.”
No stranger to the Hamptons, Zimmern’s family had a house in the Hamptons as far back as the late 1940’s. For the next sixty years, the family enjoyed time on the East End in East Hampton. While he still visits from time to time, “It’s a little bit more difficult with family and all the rest of that but I try to get out there once a summer.” When in the Hamptons he is not “King of the Grill,” nor does he look for unique noshes to add to his television travels. Instead he tells us with a laugh, “I try to be the ‘King of the Nap.’ I do nothing. I go to Georgica Beach in East Hampton and sit in my chair and do nothing.”