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Coming to Minnesota saved his life ... and helped launch his food empire

Andrew Zimmern, when he was the Bravo executive chef in downtown Minneapolis, Minn. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Strawberry the chicken squats precariously, unsure of her pale, domed perch.

Beneath her, Andrew Zimmern — a slight smirk on his face as Strawberry's claws drag across his bald head — appears perfectly at ease.

Glasses poised atop his nose, the internationally known multimedia star, chef and adopted son of Minnesota mugs for the camera. He raises an eyebrow. He grimaces. He grabs Strawberry and puts her on his shoulder. He thrusts her toward the camera. The smirk gives way to an all-out grin.

"Beautiful!" chirps photographer Steve Henke, who is shooting this unlikely scene for a future Midwest Living feature. "That's stunning!"

Midwest Living creative director Kylee Krizmanic shakes her head, marveling at the ease of the subject. "Yeah," she says, "he's never done this before."

The sarcasm is obvious, because when it comes to food and media, Zimmern, 56, has done just about everything.

After establishing himself as a chef, he's expanded his resume to include Travel Channel host and producer, restaurateur, consultant, author, editor, podcaster, educator, salesman and social media kingpin with more than 1 million followers.

"I love what I do," he says. "It's so exciting to me."

Steve Hoffman helps place "Strawberry" the hen on Andrew Zimmern's head for a photoshoot for a Midwest Living (Star Tribune)

But it's more than that. Zimmern's present exuberance is a direct result of his reckless past — that took his job, his home and nearly killed him. He hurries from one project to another because he's making up for lost time.

"I missed out on 10 years of my life," he says, "so that gave me a different perspective. A sense of urgency."

The date is etched in his memory: Jan. 20, 1992.

Inside a 15- by 15-foot room at Manhattan's San Pedro Hotel, the blinds were pulled shut. Empty plastic bottles of Popov vodka, chosen because they were easier to carry, were scattered around the room.

When Zimmern woke up around 1 p.m. that day, he was on the floor.

And he wasn't dead.

"I can't even kill myself," he thought.

His plan had been to spend three nights at the San Pedro — adequate time, he figured, to consume enough booze to shut down his vital organs, to slow his heart, to stop his breath. It seemed like a good way to die.

By the time he embarked on what he thought would be his final transgression, he'd cut all ties. He went to his godmother's apartment on the Upper West Side, stole some jewelry, and checked into the seedy hotel.

He'd already decided: There were winners and losers in life, and he was a loser.

He'd known he wanted to work with food since childhood, when he spent New York summers roasting chickens with his grandmother, clamming and crabbing with his dad on Long Island and traveling with him on his work trips — discovering snails in France and bouillabaisse in Spain.

And he was drinking and smoking marijuana, starting at 13.

Between semesters in college, he cooked for little or no pay at restaurants throughout Europe. By 25, he was opening restaurants with an established New York restaurateur.

But the frenetic restaurant industry fueled Zimmern's addictive personality, and his drinking intensified. Soon, his tastes expanded to cocaine, quaaludes and heroin.

"You name it," he said, "whatever made me feel good."

Around 1989, when Zimmern was 28, his habit took over. He'd fall asleep in the bathroom at restaurants. His relationships evaporated. He was fired. And evicted.

"I couldn't hold it together anymore," he said. "I couldn't cover it up and I couldn't stop using. And I didn't want to. I was a user of people and a taker of things."

Suddenly, Zimmern was homeless. He swiped purses on Madison Avenue. He slept in an abandoned building in SoHo. For a bed, he would pile together dirty clothes and shake Comet cleanser around them so the rats and roaches wouldn't crawl on him.

But that third day in the San Pedro, he woke up. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of surrender. He cried. Then he picked up his phone and called an old friend. An intervention followed. And a plane ticket.

He was going to rehab in Minnesota.

Andrew Zimmern stopped by the Salvation Army's Payne Ave. location in St. Paul, Minn. (Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Finding himself, an audience

Newly sober Zimmern saw an opportunity.

A line cook at the restaurant where he was working failed to show.

"I can work his station," Zimmern said.

His offer was met with laughter. Zimmern, who was living in halfway house, was the dishwasher.

But the restaurant was desperate. And Zimmern's food turned out to be perfect.

As soon as he left the halfway house, he was handed the job of executive chef at Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis. He stayed until 1998, a year after he launched Food Works, a multimedia content-production company that would propel him to stardom.

It had been just seven years since that morning in the San Pedro.

"It's irreconcilable data," Zimmern said. "It's a Gordian knot. I accept it, but I long ago gave up trying to figure it out."

He didn't dwell on it then, either. Zimmern began working — doing what he could, for free — for local TV, a small radio station and Mpls.St.Paul magazine. Two years later, he was able to spin those gigs into paying ones, as a host and columnist.

In his head, he was preparing for his next move, one that would need every skill he was painstakingly acquiring.

"I wanted a bigger audience," said Zimmern. "To me, the story was always the most important thing. I was always obsessed with the story."

In 2003, he sold the Travel Channel on his concept, "Bizarre Foods," which now includes four shows. In one episode, an Ecuadorean medicine man performed an exorcism on Zimmern, stripping him naked, spitting on him, splattering him with eggs and beating him with live guinea pigs.

Jay Leno called the next day.

"We were off to the races," Zimmern said.

Though Zimmern has since built a massive food empire, he's still known as the bald white guy who eats bugs in weird places. That's a pet peeve of his, but he does keep a jar of dried grasshoppers in his St. Louis Park office and pops them like peanuts at meetings. And he doesn't eschew his reputation for looking at live animals and seeing a meal, either.

At the Midwest Living shoot, Zimmern barreled through the door with a leather pouch full of knives and boomed, "Can we kill and eat the chicken?"

Kelly Lainsbury, the vice president of branding and marketing for Food Works, replied dryly: "I promised them that wouldn't happen."

But Zimmern's drive to see, eat and learn about every seemingly odd foreign culinary practice has always been about much more than shock value: He wanted to connect the other bald white guys at home with different people, different cultures and what was going on halfway across the planet.

He wanted to give back. And he wanted to stay clean.

"I wanted to teach patience, tolerance and understanding in a world that wasn't having it," he said. "It was totally selfish. I learned early on that the way to stay sober was to do things for other people.

"I so desperately did not want to go back to that place in New York I crawled out of."

Andrew Zimmern checks his phone as he arrives at a meeting at his office in St. Louis Park, Minn.

Telling tales and listening

It's quiet on the set in the Hopkins studio, as Zimmern wraps Vietnamese summer rolls.

He folds vermicelli, fresh herbs and fried chicken into rice paper sheaths as the cameras roll, shooting a cooking video for his website.

"You want to snug up your ingredients so it's nice and firm," he says. "Just snug 'em up. It's like packing socks in a suitcase."

He stops, pauses and, with intention, repeats the last sentence.

It seems Zimmern is always on.

In his spare moments, he holds court with anyone who is around. One morning, the tale du jour is of a stowaway who snuck onto a private airplane to get some face time with the culinary celeb. The next day, he's waxing poetic about his high school band (the Aromatic Prawn Explosion), an Emirates A380 flight ("it's heaven") and the previous weekend's trip around the world.

"I'm at a hunters' lodge in the Northern Yukon, shooting animals and roasting them over an open fire with the locals," he said. "And seven hours later, I'm on a flight to Dubai. Then I have to come around the rest of the way back home, and that's all in the span of three days."

When Food Works producer Arwen Tag tells Zimmern she has improved as a cook since working on the show, he retorts, "Arwen, the day I walked up and said 'Hi, I'm Andrew Zimmern,' your cooking improved."

Though confidence oozes through Zimmern's pores the way booze once did, he's not arrogant.

"I've worked with a lot of celebrities and he's unique," said Colin Threinen, a freelance photography director. "He's not controlling. He takes ideas. He trusts his staff and he really relies on them."

Andrew Zimmern unbuttons his shirt, joking while doing an impression of someone during a meeting at his office

‘Miracles are real’

Twenty-six years ago, when Zimmern arrived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, his first lucid thought was "Where the hell am I?"

He planned on completing his rehab and getting the heck out. But somewhere between the halfway house and his perch atop the culinary word, he fell in love — first with a place, then with a woman, Rishia. The two later married and have a son, Noah.

These days, the man with the thick Manhattan accent calls himself a Minnesotan, though his mother-in-law jokes that he talks too fast and has too great an ego to pass for one.

Zimmern loves to eat at Spoon and Stable and Bellecour — he's an investor in both — as well as more obscure Asian gems.

"For all the restaurant community, when he goes out there and says, 'This place is amazing — run, don't walk to get there,' that's a true genuine post from him and that's a great promotion," said Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner at Spoon and Stable and Bellecour. "But it's not just promoting one single restaurant — he's promoting the food scene. It shows he really believes in us and is proud of what's around him. We all reap the benefits of that."

Still, given his intense travel schedule — he's typically gone six months out of the year — Minnesotans are more likely to see him on a TV screen than at their favorite restaurant.

When he's in town, he relishes a slower pace, playing disc golf at Bryant Lake Regional Park and roasting chicken for his family using his grandmother's recipe.

He continues to be involved with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, where he completed treatment, as well as other local nonprofits addressing addiction and homelessness — donating money, hosting dinners and speaking at fundraisers.

On the rare occasions he looks back at his old life, he barely recognizes it. Then, he was a user of people and a taker of things.

And now? Now, he's found peace, and a belief that there is goodness in his soul.

"I think I've always had this in me," Zimmern said. "It was just covered up by a lot of junk. You have to peel away the rotted layers of the onion to get down to the core."

That January day in 1992, Zimmern started peeling.

He's well aware that coming to the state saved his life, and gave him the foundation for what would ultimately become an empire.

"I can't believe it when I look back at who I was in the '80s and who I am now. It's not the same person," he said. "Miracles are real. I've seen them."

Story by Amelia Rayno / Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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