Andrew Zimmern is nearing the end of a six-day shoot in the St. Louis area. The chef / author / blogger / businessman / TV host is in town filming an upcoming installment of Bizarre Foods America, a show that highlights regional specialties from around the nation. The U.S. version of his 6-year-old Bizarre Foods series is midway through its third season on the Travel Channel. Zimmern had never visited St. Louis, so we thought it fitting to present him with a welcome gift…not a metal Arch or some cheesy T-shirt, mind you, but something most definitely cheesy (left).
A short dialogue with Zimmern at Smoki O’s Bar-B-Que (1545 N. Broadway, 314-621-8280) on Thursday went something like this:
So, Andrew, in honor of your inaugural trip to St. Louis, I thought it appropriate to present you with a gift, something local, something I know you will appreciate: a 5-pound block of Provel cheese. Ahhh, yes, I had some of this last night, at a place called Schottzie’s, on a pizza.
So what did you think? Had you had it before? Never, but I actually did like it. I’m a New York City guy, but when I moved to Minnesota 21 years ago, I discovered that pizza places there used a lot of crap cheese, processed cheese.
Are you saying that…? No, no, not at all. What I like about them is that they give a different texture and flavor. What I like about St. Louis-style pizza is the sweet sauce, because it works so perfectly well with the taste of Provel. So thank you for the gift. Quick, somebody go put this in my car…before it goes bad. I'm kidding…
The focus on your show is on regional food, so will you get out of the immediate St. Louis area while you’re here? It’s a St. Louis show, but we can’t ignore the opening of paddlefish season, so we’re heading to the Ozarks tomorrow to cover that, too.
The Spoonbill Catfish is Missouri's State Aquatic Animal. And we’re very excited about that (right).
How many other places do you plan to visit? We tell six stories on every show, but obviously can’t say where we’re going ahead of time. Schottzie’s was a difficult shoot. There had to be 500 people there… It’s hard for us to tell somebody’s story over that many people screaming and yelling and jumping up and down behind me.
In your travels across the country, was there one regional item you thought you might not like that you ended up really liking? There’s not a place we go that the human being in me, the inveterate traveler in me, the culinarian in me, doesn’t say, “Really? I really don’t think so...” A great example was last night. I ate half that pizza…and had just come from 17 other meals. I liked it.
Schottzie’s is famous for brain sandwiches, but something tells me you already know that. I assume you’ve had brains before? Many times. They weren’t invented here, you know. Fresh brains—battered and fried—are fantastic. The best brains in America are found just outside of Dearborn, in a Lebanese community. They steam them, then chill them, which means they can be handled differently. They smear them on a bit of leavened flatbread with a bit of lemon and tomato—maybe some Lebanese mayonnaise—then roll them up. Now that’s a fantastic sandwich.
Did that treatment change the consistency? That’s usually where the objection is. Nothing changes that creamy consistency.
Do you have a favorite city in the country to visit? I’m a New York City boy who chooses to live in Minneapolis. After that, I guess both Portlands [Maine and Oregon] and Austin, Texas. I love Birmingham, Alabama. There are so many great people and thousands of great places to live and eat in this country… But I’m a bright-shiny-objects guy, so I always fall in love with the place I’ve just been.
I looked at map of where Bizarre Foods America has been, and it seems there’s been more focus on the perimeter of the country. Nah, we’ve been to Iowa, Wisconsin, Chicago…so I think you were looking at an incomplete map. A lot of the country, though, is very white bread, with not as many stories as the edges have…which is not a knock against the Midwest—I consider myself an adopted Midwesterner. It’s like if I did a show about sailing…we could visit this lake or that lake, but, dude, there’s a lot more to tell if we’re by an ocean.
The first six seasons of Bizarre Foods was basically filmed out of the country. Will you ever go back out on the road, as in overseas? Oh, yeah, we’ll do that next season. You never know the shape of these things, but I know we’re gonna make more Bizarre Foods, and I know we’re gonna go back overseas.
So you enjoy world travel? I thought maybe you’d done that and now you’d focus more here in this country. No, I love travel. And I’m on the road more here than I was when we did the international seasons.
What is your average work day like? It depends. The other night, I was on beach near L.A. at 2 in the morning, pulling grunion out of the water, then was up four hours later. We have long days and short days, but I have 17 other businesses and things I like to do—like books and magazines.
You have a food truck, AZ Canteen. How’s that going? Amazingly. It’s in Miami now, but it will be heading back to Minnesota soon. We really hit on something with the truck…mainly because I think the food is so good. And it’s expanding—both the number of trucks and we’re pushing into brick-and-mortar facilities.
Food trucks in St. Louis are experiencing some growing pains, but I recall you saying that they’re here to stay, that foods trucks are not a trend. Mobile food has been around for thousands of years. It’s a less expensive, less restrictive way to get food out in front of people. It creates jobs, it stimulates the economy. It would be hard for you or I to get into the shoe business, but you and I should be able to open up in the back of that car, and as long as we abide by Health Department rules, be able to knock something out.
As in other places, there’s been some governmental resistance here. Look at Chicago… One of the most vibrant food cities in America just licensed its first truck to be able to cook on wheels. That’s crazy. You get inspected just like any other restaurant… They’re easier to inspect. It’s silly. Back home, we created the Minnesota Food Truck Association, which effectively lobbies city and state governments to get us some recognition. And it’s working.
Do you cook at home? All the time. I cook, my wife’s a great cook, so yeah.
What’s a typical meal? Roast chicken, two or three vegetables… My kid begs for dessert… He gets it half the time.
Just like the rest of us… What about when sitting around watching TV? You a Cheetos Guy? Cheez-It’s, maybe? Popcorn… Apples… I’m a big fruit at night guy. I live in Minnesota. I eat what we eat ‘cause that’s our culture. When I’m on the road, I eat whatever they’re eating.
I’m jealous. I have a great job, you have a really great job… I have the second best job in the world. I applied for the best job—Pope—but it didn’t work out. I did not get it. I like the title, I like the digs. I just think it’s time for a Jewish-American Pope… Let’s mix it up.
And with that, Zimmern excused himself, as the featured attraction—Smoki O's crispy-fried pig snoots—had arrived. Zimmern, slowly rotating a snoot in mid-air (left), seeking to find the proper adjective in a language where too few suitable pork snoot adjectives exist, settled on “beyond good” and then hit paydirt: “crispy nose bacon.”
Later that day, in a tweet (below), Zimmern heaped some serious praise on Otis and Earline Walker’s signature snoots (find additional SLM insight about the couple here):
The airdate for the St. Louis segment of Bizarre Foods America has not been determined, but we’ll let you know when we hear something.
UPDATE: The episode will premiere on August 26 at 8 p.m. CDT on the Travel Channel.
Interview photographs by Kevin A. Roberts