When the opportunity to interview two of the leading culinary experts in the country came up, I was – needless to say- thrilled. Not only would this be my biggest interview to date, I would have the once in a lifetime chance to sit down and talk about what I find to be very important in the world of food with two people who have helped shape exactly what that is today. While filming for MSN’s Appetite for Life, Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World), along with good friend Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, g.e.b, Grahamwhich, Top Chef Masters) sat down with little ole’ me to discuss everything from the Beastie Boys to the North American rustbelt to the way our children eat to their love for Chicago. Saddle up B&Y’ers. This interview might just change the way you think about food and food culture in America and beyond.
B&Y: Both of you have extensive travel experience. What is it about Chicago that keeps you coming back or why you have made it your home?
AZ: I live in a smaller version of Chicago called Minneapolis. We are our own culture and our own place, but we are not as big a city. So the nearest big city is Chicago. Me and my family come here for weekends, we do our holiday shopping here, I’ll do a romantic getaway with my wife here. To me, this is an exciting big city. The coolest thing for me from moving from New York and now living in Minnesota for twenty years is seeing how much Chicago has grown. Every other month I come here for three or so days, but what is happening here is staggering. Just pointing up and down the street and having Graham go through the list of the restaurants just on this road. Also, as a globalist, Chicago was never on anyone’s top twenty list of great global food cities. Now it’s on everybody list of top twenty food cities.
GE: And what is so interesting too is looking at it politically, as things have evolved, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. So many of these rustbelt cities that have fallen to the wayside, but Chicago continues to evolve and attract artists and different people that keep that feeling of the energy growing
B&Y: People seem to be heading out of the big cities and venturing into smaller towns to source ingredients and start restaurants. In your opinion, are there cities or towns we should be looking towards in the future? Who is doing it right?
GE: Kansas City, Traverse City, Michigan…there are so many great products that come from there and good food generally stems from that.
AZ: Ten cities that off the radar that I am impressed with. Milwaukee is amazing. It’s radical what is going on there. Portland, Maine. Obviously Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon, which were two cities that five years ago everyone was talking about, but that have not become artificial or over hyped yet, which I think is good. Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia a really big one. St Louis is going to be that next city that everyone is going to be talking about.
GE: I know a couple of chefs that were in Chicago that moved down there just because they wanted to stake it out as their territory.
AZ: There is a lot of that lower Midwestern thing going on. When you start talking about Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, those heartland states that so many good cooks and cool folks left to go check out the coast and have now come back …I think that’s a good litmus test for that kind of thing.
AZ: Nashville, a great one. Now I’m going to get the letters but Nashville is too Disneyfied in a sense. I know I’m pimping out the home goods here, but Minneapolis and St. Paul are other secondary cities. I’ve been talking to my Food and Wine colleagues for awhile about doing a Minneapolis article and when they finally did and I saw it in print, I was like “Oh my God. We have some amazing stuff going on here”, and four out of the previous Beard winners were from the Twin Cities. There is really cool stuff going on there, very much like Milwaukee. There are lots of hidden neighborhoods that have evolved. I think cities that have had an economic downturn four or five years ago mean the chefs leave the downtown and go to places where the rents are cheaper and the people are living and that is when miracles start to happen.
B&Y: What about Detroit?
AZ: I think Detroit is the coolest cultural story in America. To go from a city of 2.5 million to 1 million over twenty years and there is no city budget for anything and it is literally the people and the communities bonding together to do stuff. In our Detroit show we found these guys called the Lawnmower Gang, and they take their tractor lawn mowers and mow all of the city parks for the kids and afterward have a barbeque. It started as a fun way to have a barbeque and now it’s like their tricking out their lawn mowers. The city market there on weekends has so many entrepreneurs. People making their own ice teas or curing their own sausages…
GE: It’s like the virgin territory. It’s like the Old West. You can come in and make it your own. There are so many good ingredients that come from Michigan and I think if you want to keep it local, you are going to see Detroit blossom into a cool scene.
B&Y: Switching gears, I would love to talk about food writing and music. On your podcast you have mentioned your advice to new writers is to “write like you are mad”…
AZ: I try to harness that myself. It was a lesson that was taught to me a long time ago by an editor and he said to me if you’re not going to have a point of view about what you are writing about and if you cannot convince the person who is least likely to believe that what you have to say is worth listening to, then why bother? What I tell young writers, because anyone can be a food blogger, is get a fucking opinion, get mad. Some people dance around it. Get mad and care about something otherwise you are going to get lost in the sauce. The best news is the web has democratized food writing and blogging and television for millions of people. Anyone with a camera and twenty-five dollars can put up a website and produce content. However, the flip of side of that is now there are a million voices and you have to have something different.
B&Y: How has that changed the landscape of what you do and food culture? It can be a really positive thing, but can it ever be a not so positive thing?
GE: Sure, anyone can write something negative about you, but what is great is the positives outweigh the negative because we have just as much of a voice as a writer. They can write something and I can get on twitter and fight their points. It’s not sour grapes anymore. It’s being able to get on and say “these are the ingredients in the dish”, “they got these wrong”, and really call people out and stand for what you do. I think it changed that narrative where the customer can critique what you do but then it’s an open road to have a dialogue as opposed to just being a big target for people to give their opinion.
B&Y: Music is a big part of my life as a cook and a writer. Does music influence you in any way?
GE: I have a band. All of the music on my website is mine. And at g.e.b all of the menus are on records, we have a record player, and we have playlists where everyone on the team contributes something to the list. We curate Lollapalooza and cook for all of the bands. Everything we do is music inspired and it’s the first question we ask someone when they are applying for a job.
AZ: I’ll piggyback on what Graham said. The person who set the tone for that nationally is Graham ‘s restaurant group. What started it, cause it pre-dated the opening of your first restaurant, was Mario Batali plugging his first iPod in at Babbo, but that turned that lights on for people to say, “Oh my God I can do that”. The most plugged in and integrated food scene with music is at your restaurants.
B&Y: You played guitar with Buddy Guy last time you were in Chicago?
AZ: I am probably the worst guitar player food person who is known for playing guitar. I can play three chords. I now keep my guitar and my amp in my office far away from my wife.
B&Y: Your son listens to the Beastie Boys, which I thought was very impressive.
AZ: He is obsessed with it. Thank God we are over the Baby Beluga phase and into License to Ill.
GE: My two year old has a drum set and a little piano and he just yells to try and sing and my five year old, cause we are always listening to the radio in the car and it’s always on 80’s. He loves Taco, “Putting on the Ritz” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”, and then he realizes how cool the music was in the 80’s.
B&Y: Do you cook with your kids?
GE: When we are at home. There is a lot of travel.
AZ: It is really sweet. Your oldest is five and Noah is seven and a half so the difference is now I can trust him with a small knife, cutting one thing in half, where when he was little it was like “dump that in there”. It was like arts and crafts time. I am just glad my kid has preferences. We will be at Whole Foods and I will say “Skirt steak or salmon?” and he will pick something and it does not have to be nuggetfied.
B&Y: And it gives them ownership over the food.
AZ: I wrote about this topic a lot and it’s a part of my new kids book, which drops Oct 30th and will be available on presale on Amazon, but there are no picky children. Some parents will say “Well my son came out of the womb picky”. Well no, your son in his first eight or nine months of living heard you saying things about food. When an American child doesn’t eat fish, they say he’s picky, but there is nothing genetically different between a child that is nine months old in Chicago and a child that is nine months old in Japan or Finland and guess what, they are eating fish everyday. It is how we talk about food, what we expose our children to and when you give them ownership over anything, they want to do it.
GE: That is what I have seen too. My five year old, there are a lot of things he likes to eat and he doesn’t, and I think a lot of that is his personality but you take him to the market or the store and you see all of these different ingredients and all of the sudden its “I want that and I want this and try” and if we go home and cook together and let him cut the asparagus or peel it or do something then he will enjoy it more. Having a hand let’s them make a decision instead of you just saying to them “eat this”.
B&Y: Do you think that is where food culture is changing? Is it changing to educate young people on the ownership of food and what food is?
AZ: It’s changing on a small percentage of what used to be elites and what now has dropped into a top percentile. The worst thing about America is that eating well is still a class privilege, and when I talk about eating well, I’m talking about from a health perspective, a well-being perspective. My love of food and the food world and the reason why I do what I do and the reason I respect the hell outta what Graham does with his restaurants and his television program is that it doesn’t fetishize a world of cuisine. It actually is opening the doors to people. And I think there are a lot of food snobs that complain about the entertaining value of Bizarre Foods or Master Chef or other brands we are associated with, and that pisses me off because I think what that does is prevent the largest group of Americans from participating in a full food life and if we can treat people with dignity and respect who are below the safety net, who are underserved in this country, the best way to do that is to give them the warm embrace that everyone talks about when it comes to food. You know, food is how we show love for each other; food is why we respect each other. I got news for you. In restaurants, that is not why the line cook is serving me that plate of pasta. It’s their job. The best way we can do that is to express to the largest group of Americans how to eat locally, to eat what’s around you, and to cook and have food be a part of their foods with their families. I think that, to me, is the mission. I am not worried about anyone in this restaurant and whether or not they are getting enough arugula. That is less interesting to me than getting kids across America to eat a more balanced diet.
GE: And the thing is you read these facts. I just read that prisoners get a more balanced meal double the offering of fruit and vegetable than a kid at public school does, and also the idea that it’s cheaper to buy a happy meal than a bag of carrots. All of these things have been set up against people that are the ninety-nine percent. If you go to Whole Foods and see who is paying thirty-five dollars for wild mushrooms versus someone who has never eaten uncanned mushrooms, I mean that is interesting. It is about starting young, and that is what Alice Waters has done. That is her deal, and she started it forty years ago just educating people. Look at what an eggplant is, and look at how many colors there are and look at this. And as a kid, it can be “Wow that is cool”. It’s like coloring. There are so many things you can eat and different fun things you can work with. For me growing up seeing a snail on a menu was like “Wow I can tell everyone I had a snail”, and I think that kind of stuff is exciting for people at a younger level that can then build for the next generation.
AZ: There are so many different places the public dollar touches when it comes to food. Senior homes, schools, prisons, hospitals to name what I think are the big four and our military bases. These are the people that you could arguably make a very good case for – children, seniors, first responders, the people who keep us safe. Those are the folks that should probably be getting the most attention when it comes to food, and the message that we send when we throw some slop on the tray in a prison – look, I get it. It’s really hard to build a PR campaign around let’s make better food in our jails, but with a recidivism rate like we have and when nothing is working, nothing else is working… as someone who has been in jail before, as someone who has been in psych wards, as someone who had a mother in a public senior facility, whose kid goes to public school in Minneapolis, that food has touched my life in a lot of different ways. I think we oughta pay a little more love and attention on the food we have in those communities rather than throwing it away. I was down in Florida, and you know I am an alternative protein geek and you know when I see alligator meat being tossed into the garbage, let’s feed that to people, and I am not doing that because I am fetishizing alligator meat. It’s a healthy lean protein and when it’s fresh, it’s actually pretty good.
GE: Its just interesting when you look at pink slime and ammonia and things like that and that is what is being served in most of these places. When you really get back to it, it was the Senator in Iowa or Nebraska where the beef is created, lobbying to utilize the scrap that we can add a ton of chemicals to so we can make it edible so that they can get more money. No one had an interest of what is healthier or what makes the most sense. It’s simply who has the most money to lobby and push for something and then that affects everyone.
B&Y: When you started your journey into food, did you imagine you would ever have a political responsibility?
AZ: Let’s be very clear about something, and this is a new discovery for me, and I’ve said this a lot. When my TV career is done, I would love to run for political office in Minnesota, and help our community. There is a difference between being political where there are two sides that are being oppositional, with being civic-minded. I think what Graham and I are talking about is good civics, not politics. To me what we do with our food lives is a civics issue. It’s a national wellness issue. It’s something that no one should be against because who isn’t for wellness. Civics and the study of civics allow us to provide solutions that everyone can embrace without ranker and I think what you are talking about is being civic-minded. You don’t think the way the two of us do without growing up in an environment that emphasizes the importance of civic solutions. Speaking personally, once I got a platform of a certain size, I felt an obligation to give back that way. And it’s not because I want to be political, it’s because I am civic-minded.
GE: It’s interesting. I think Andrew is a few steps ahead of me on this, but I have often said the same thing. I am thirty-five now, maybe I cook till I am forty, but then it’s how to give back and run for office or do some kind of thing because politically, on a national level, you can see how everything is broken, but as a chef or a TV personality, if you are able to create a vision and change people’s minds and see things differently and follow you on a small scale, why don’t you apply that idea but on something larger. Instead of convincing everyone to eat meat X, it’s being able to say look at the ton of acreage in the city. It’s just empty lots. How can we create jobs and with that turn these lots into farms and have that food put into the school system.
AZ: I think it’s interesting that you say I’m ahead of you. At first I was nodding my head in agreement, but that’s not really the case. When I look at all of the people in our business that are thinking and talking about these things now, it changes when you get married and have children, and when you get married and have children and own your own business, you’re thinking of your life here as a native Chicagoan as a businessman as a taxpayer. Your kids are now involved and that changes everything. Absolutely everything, and it did for me. We are kind of the same age that way, and it comes at a different age for everyone in their lives. When I was a single guy, I was out there, partying, hustling, successful to a certain degree, you are thinking of yourself. Now, I have learned through my family, extended family with my employees and the people around me that it is a much different way of looking at things and that is a big wake up call.
GE: I think it’s big picture and long term. Everything was goal and date-oriented. By twenty-five I’m this and by thirty I’m that. Then you have kids. You know I say on my team or on my crew, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Let’s put this person here so they can succeed. I kind of do that self- analyzation too, and say ok, it was great to get to this level, but now how do you do something important for your kids, for other people?
For some behind the scenes moments, peep the slideshow below: