Growing pains and hunger pangs: Andrew Zimmern discusses food, politics, and COVID-19 at UD

Zimmern touched on a variety of topics, from the way food connects us to the dire need for relief given to a disrupted restaurant industry.

andrew zimmern
Melanie Gasmen/THE REVIEW
In an interview facilitated by the Biden Institute, food personality Andrew Zimmern revealed some insights on food culture and how COVID-19 has disrupted the restaurant industry.

Senior Reporter

No matter the circumstance, be it an environmental catastrophe or a global pandemic, food is a necessity. Civilians and politicians alike partake in it, and a select few devote their lives to making it — chef Andrew Zimmern is no exception.

Known for his bravery in sampling foods, Americans may be inclined to find “bizarre,” the Emmy and James Beard-Award winner, is likewise an accomplished cook and writer. Although Zimmern has sampled delicacies such as fermented shark meat in Iceland, duck embryos in the Philippines, poison toads in Australia and much more, his culinary scope is not limited to the unusual.

Zimmern spoke with CNN National Security Analyst and Biden Institute Senior Advisor Samantha Vinograd on the evening of November 10th, hosted by the Biden Institute and Department of Hospitality and Sport Management at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. Although the event was billed as focusing on the intersections between food and “Issue areas like climate change, immigration, trade, sustainability and COVID-19,” Zimmern and Vinograd focused primarily on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry.

Zimmern, who was engrossed in a Vita Nova cookbook as the discussion started, began his cooking career in his grandmother’s kitchen. Zimmern explained both his grandmother’s and mother’s passion for food, with whom he spent much time in pursuit of food, from frequenting grocery stores on Broadway to collecting clams along the shoreline.

Advocacy isn’t necessarily inherently associated with cuisine, but Zimmern explained that, like his love for food, his penchant for advocacy was planted at a young age. He relayed a story of his mother’s arrest during a “Humans Against Rabbit Exploitation” demonstration when he was a student at Vassar College and his subsequent bailing her out. While in sobriety, following addiction, Zimmern recognized his ability to spur change through unorthodox platforms.

Zimmern, who emphasized his amazement at being recognized in distant locales as a by-product of his television work, stressed the role of food in the realm of politics. “Amazing deals can be struck over a bowl of soup,” Zimmern says.

Like most conversations in the past week, this one shifted to the election. “I think I share something with all Americans, regardless of who you voted for,” Zimmern says. He outlined how political tensions were only accentuated by COVID-19, with worker visas being compromised by immigration restrictions, medical system issues, economic implications and more.

“We have a lot of healing to do in this country,” Zimmern says.

In terms of COVID-19, Zimmern expressed his wish that more actions were taken sooner. “Essentially, our government has given up,” Zimmern says. COVID-19 has especially impacted him, as he has been unable to frequently see his child who attends school in a different state and had to make significant business adjustments, including letting some workers go.

Zimmern focused heavily on the impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry as a whole. In partnership with 60 others, Zimmern recently co-founded a group focused on getting “laws passed on Capitol Hill to save our industry.”

He gave an extensive list as to why the restaurant industry is so important, elaborating on factors such as employment and tourism.

“Nobody goes to San Francisco and says, ‘Oh, I want to eat at a Hardee’s,’” Zimmern says. “I mean, you want to go and try the food of that city.”

“We were very concerned that when the restaurants shut at the beginning of March… that we were looking at what I have called since the middle of March an extinction event if we didn’t get help,” Zimmern says.

Since June, Zimmern has stood behind the RESTAURANTS Act, a $120 billion dollar package that has already passed the House. He said 85% of American independent restaurants will close if the act isn’t passed, and explained that the impact won’t be limited to restaurants. A collapse in the restaurant industry could trigger a severe disruption in the supply chain, from the tomato industry to the linen industry. “You’re looking at, you know, trillions and trillions of dollars,” he says.

Such collapse would have especially severe implications for the seafood industry. According to Zimmern, given that 70% of all consumed American seafood is served in restaurants, the resulting decrease in demand could impact human culture as a whole given fishing’s prevalence for centuries.

“Anything that anyone can do to try to earn $1 and stay afloat, they’ve been trying to do. But it’s all running out,” Zimmern says.

As winter approaches, restaurants will likely find themselves under further constraints and threats. Such environmental factors as heavy snow can disrupt the ability of restaurants to deliver food, a service that has become more commonplace, and the lack of outdoor dining space and increased restrictions on gatherings could mean less business overall.

Nonetheless, Zimmern expressed his hope for upcoming changes in COVID-19 approaches that will accompany the rise of the Biden administration, especially for his home state of Minnesota, but emphasized the continued need for social distancing and wearing masks.

Although the topics of discussion were relatively bleak, Zimmern did a cooking demonstration for Hong Kong style soy sauce noodles for viewers. The event shifted from political discussion to a full-blown cooking show. As he cooked and conversed, Zimmern offered some culinary tips, such as to bite the tip of a chili to determine its spice level. The recipe is currently available on the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics website, courtesy of Zimmern.

As the demonstration began to wrap up, Zimmern was asked about the international sustainability methods he deems necessary for the United States.

“Almost all of them,” he says. “We are the poster child for a convenience economy.”

His explanation was interrupted as he brought up the finished dish to the camera.

“No delivery options are going to compare to that, for sure,” Vinograd says.

Zimmern continued by explaining the issue within America of eating foods outside of their growing seasons. He related his experience in Botswana with the Ju/’hoansi tribe eating a mixture of June bugs and Marula fruit nuts. When Zimmern asked the tribe’s shaman why they weren’t taking advantage of hunting nearby antelope and Kudus, he replied that they don’t move to the next food until the food at hand has been entirely consumed.

“It was quite remarkable to be living with a people who so fully sustain themselves only with what they are given,” Zimmern says. He also used the example of Asian countries, where diets are low in dairy and beef, and focus primarily on soup, nutritious animal protein, vegetable, legume and noodle dishes.

In elaborating on such examples, Zimmern wasn’t trying to attribute blame. He explained that he documented such lifestyles on his show, “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” so as to allow “people to see what that looked like so everyone could make their own decision for themselves as to how they wanted to live.”

“The wisdom is absolutely there for us, we just choose to ignore it,” Zimmern says, either due to pride or racist roots. Zimmern added that America’s own agro-economy was based on a slave economy.

“The rest of the world has it more right than we do,” Zimmern admits. “I love my country. I believe in American exceptionalism… but we’re really lousy at admitting that other people are truly exceptional at other things. We’re not the only one.”

Zimmern was asked about the most creative venture undertaken by a restaurant in the midst of the pandemic. He discussed restaurant groups switching from dine-in to take-out, delivery and ready-made meal boxes, and who set up “little marketplaces” to sell restaurant food supplies to support their food purveyors.

“Anything you could do to ring the register was a benefit,” Zimmern says. “It kept one more person employed, it put a couple hundred more dollars in the till per day and extended your runway.” He continued to outline the need for restaurants to resort to creative means to continue generating revenue in times where sit-down dining wasn’t always a given, and especially since restaurants only retain about 7.5% of every dollar they receive.

Zimmern asserted that no one enters the restaurant industry seeking significant profits. “We do it because we love what happens when we watch people in our dining rooms exchange an experience over food,” Zimmern says.

Zimmern predicts an impending shift in restaurants as a whole, assuming the industry sustains itself for the duration of the pandemic, heralding in “extremely hybrid food spaces.” If the RESTAURANT Act is ultimately passed, “I think the golden age of restaurants is actually ahead of us,” Zimmern says, stressing the potential for future innovations that will revolutionize the traditional industry.

The last question for Zimmern regarded genetically modified organisms’ place in a sustainable international food supply. “I’m actually a big fan of GMOs,” Zimmern says. “Food has been genetically modified since Mendel started crossing pea species.”

“I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I do not want 500-pound, 10-foot-tall salmon with giant talons marauding through towns, kidnapping people and burning down houses,” Zimmern says.

Instead he wants to utilize “all the tech and science at our disposal to feed a really hungry planet.” From plant-based foods to genetic manipulations to stifle horn growth within cattle, Zimmern sees potential for positive utilizations of GMOs that can improve the world as a whole. He acknowledged instances where GMOs can do more harm than good but stressed the possibilities for technology to solve the world’s food-related problems and help the environment.

“Genetically modifying some foods, and doing it the right way, the responsible way— we’ve been doing it for awhile, and it’s necessary for our future,” Zimmern says.

Inarguably, these are trying times for everyone, diner and chef alike. Although the fate of the restaurant industry hangs in the balance, one thing’s for certain: Zimmern offered viewers a great deal of food for thought.


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