Andrew Zimmern's day job comes with a unique list of occupational hazards, but he manages to keep a good sense of humor about it. One has to, if they're in the business of eating things most people would cringe at.
"The fact that I've had 60 or 70 types of animal penis and testicles actually in my mouth at one time is a huge amusement to many people," said the 49-year-old chef and host of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods." "To me, I'm just curious, I'm just hoping one day to find one that's actually good," he said and added, "but size does matter. The bigger ones cook better and end up having a better flavor."
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The premise of "Bizarre Foods" involves Zimmern traveling the world to seek out and dish out the strangest of delicacies. He basically goes everywhere and eats everything, attempting to sample dishes in their own native regions, wherever that may be.
In his excursions, Zimmern estimates he's been to 80 countries and has sampled 15 different types of rats, 100 different types of bugs, and every single part of a cow, including the bile sack and even its blood – straight from the animal itself.
"I mean, literally, we nicked a cow's artery, filled a jug, took mud and feces to stop the bleeding and drank the jug in the field with these Tanzanian warriors," he said. "That's what they drink before they go to work every morning of the year."
Clearly, not your average cup of morning joe, but as Zimmern likes to say, one man's weird is another man's wonderful. "The world is small -- don't practice contempt prior to investigation," he said. "Life's too short. We balk at things we know nothing about."
It is through embracing this philosophy that brought Zimmern along a path that was tumultuous at times.
Zimmern began his culinary career at 14, working nights in restaurants while many of his peers worked landscaping jobs. "I didn't want to be at the beach every day where the cute girls were," he said. "I wanted to be where the other cute girls were at night -- in the restaurants."
A Dark Turn
After college, Zimmern's journey into cuisine took a dark turn when he became heavily involved with drugs. He said his situation became bleak and he described squatting in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan. He survived for an entire year by stealing purses and selling the passports and credit cards to support his drug and alcohol habit. "I was the guy you crossed the street to avoid if you walked by me in New York," he said.
He said that time was a very low point in his life. "You're living the life where you are constantly beat up, abused, abusing other people, doing something horrifically shameful, and tawdry things that crater your soul," he said. "You give away pieces of yourself that you swear you would never do."
He talked about stealing wallets from friends? "Those are the things that you do when you are being driven by the insanity and the compulsion of alcohol and drug addiction," he said.
Zimmern credits his friends with saving his life: they put him on a plane to the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota in 1982. He's been sober ever since.
Following his treatment, Zimmern opted to stay in Minnesota, and became a real force in the culinary culture as a chef for the Minneapolis café Un Deux Trois, where his menus received the highest acclaim. He established himself as a food writer and radio personality in the Twin Cities.
Although Zimmern isn't proud of that dark period in his life, he said that it's become part of who he is today. "Any decision that I make, anything that I do, every single consideration of my day goes through the prism of what my former experience has been," he said. "I have a life based on completely different principles now, and I try to stick with those."
"I think it has been the secret to my success," he said.
"Bizarre Foods" is now in its fifth season, and in May Zimmern was awarded the TV Food Personality Award from the James Beard Foundation, the nation's most prestigious award for culinary professionals.
Rules to Eat By
These days, he lives and eats by just a few rules. Rule number one is to always try something twice. As for rule number two, "Never tell someone that has cooked something that their food sucks," he said.
After three years on the job, and who knows what all that has been in his mouth, Zimmern says he has never gotten sick.
Despite a diet that includes tongue tacos or stomach soup, Zimmern insists that he is a normal eater. "Regular viewers of the program know, I love something, I'll look at the camera and say 'this is the best donut hole I've ever eaten,' he said.
And if he doesn't like something?
"I look at the coffee and say, 'This is very interesting. Thank you,'" he said. "I will play Russian roulette with some food. But I won't play Russian roulette where the gun is loaded in every chamber at very high caliber," he said.
Zimmern said he does the draw the line at one thing: he won't eat human beings.
Everything else, however, is some potentially good eatin.'