Andrew Zimmern and the Transformative Power of Travel

I’ve been a big time fan of Big Tony B. since the No Reservations series began in 2005. His approach to travel television and subjective, experiential authenticity abroad felt so relevant amidst a sea of market-y documentation. His conceptual thread continues to be pretty darn obvious, which makes it easy to instantly jump on the Bourdain train. But for his fellow Travel Channel host (and our Creative Council member), Andrew Zimmern, I had a harder time identifying what truly made him tick and drove him to produce what he does. Thankfully, I had a recent opportunity to hear Zimmern clarify his concept in an illuminating way.

Poised and ready with my notepad, I asked my mom sitting next to me at the IUPUI convention center what she knew of Zimmern.

I think he eats weird stuff on TV to gross people out.

Mom represented a common understanding that was obvious among the crowd that night. Most people who posed questions seemed to think he was a superhuman eating machine with a hunger for the grotesque. Fear Factor meets Travel Channel. In actuality, and as Zimmern soon cleared up, this is far from the intention of the show.

Actively Seeking Insight

Zimmern began by citing some personal anecdotes, making the point that we all share stories. The equivalent of our war wounds displayed, amazing meals recalled, wildly-foreign encounters unfurled – these are major landmarks toward insight and better understanding. Thankfully, understanding makes all the difference for those of us in the human race.

And how is it possible to access that culture which is truly concentrated, the kind that will shock the system to the right degree? Dilution is an unfortunate side-effect of this cross-cultural stew. Zimmern prescribes heading to “the last stop on the subway” (which is ironically what I now take here in New York). It is there that one finds indecipherable languages, radically different fashion, and, of course, foods that challenge our habitual palettes.

The Transformative Power of Travel

Zimmern developed a passion for food and soon became a chef, identifying his point of difference as an expertise in exotic seafood. He dabbled in travel for the benefit of his craft, noticing the culinary traditions that echoed amazing cultures and realizing just how much food could resonate stories. When he began merging ‘host and producer’ into his title, the expectations of production, not to mention the interesting world around him, facilitated experimentation on an unfathomable level.

When trying to capture an exciting moment on film, Zimmern – like many others – experiences a true test of the self daily. Especially with the pressure of being a personality and portal for the audience, what would normally be avoided is often attempted for the sake of the show. Sky diving? Sure. I’m not even going to tell you what he’s eating on the upcoming Madagascar show (he asked us not to share those morsels), but I’m guessing it wasn’t on his culinary bucket list. But for the sake of exposure – and to please Confucius – these things are attempted. Travel guts reign supreme.

To be in the travel petri dish means there’s potential to mutate inexplicably into a person you won’t recognize. I never thought I would try things like pigeon skin or haggis, never thought I would swim next to sharks, never expected to have such a country count at this age. Zimmern is equally amazed at his incredible transformation through travel; to have experienced embarrassing purification rituals and sat in on unbelievable traditions of faith and history, eyes wide open and mind forever altered.

The more he accentuated his global experimentation, the more I reflected on my own and saw his programming in a new light.

Being a Traveling Jerk

Unfortunately, it does happen. While enjoying the rare and treasured delights of world travel, interacting with different mindsets, and merging practices – similar or dissimilar – often travelers experience moments that test their adaptive natures. In the midst of trying to assimilate or learn from new surroundings, we can often react strongly to something unnecessarily. It’s so easy to be a jerk abroad. Between getting pissed about lost baggage and offending local customs to the core, Zimmern pointed out the exposure of our jerkish ways while immersed elsewhere. Immediately, moments from Fiji came to mind. I think every traveler in the room flashed back to their own offenses. It’s true, because travel is an intensive study of others and ourselves. It presents the sort of situations that extract our alternate modes. We see our extremes and our flaws magnified, and hopefully we can learn to bite our tongues and think big picture when those times come.

While we’re all grappling for our own stability of character on the road, the important thing to remember is “be gracious” – so says Master Zimmern. It is not just a traveler’s duty but a human duty to be gracious. To be sensitive, to be open to how others differ, to be accepting of that which we don’t yet understand, keeping in mind how little we know – these are essential traits to possess and exhibit. This is where we merge into the meaning of Bizarre Foods.

Why He Eats the Bizarre

Every science experiment can challenge a hypothesis, every running stride can test endurance, and every bite can present an opportunity for greater understanding. To interpret the world one meal at a time means that for the rest of your life, you admit to being a sponge and open to the next imminent moment of vulnerability. Refreshing, this mindset. Instead of being absorbed in the crap of daily life, Zimmern chooses to be a constant student; his classroom being the seat in front of a steaming bowl.

A Hard Rock Cafe does nothing but coddle ignorance. It’s not educative and doesn’t force us to be aware – not like the last stop on the subway can present a slew of challenges and opportunities for new favorites. To continue tasting from the culinary rainbow is akin to attending class forever. And as we illustrate so strongly to our children, education is essential and important above all else.

To be human is to be open to differences.

I wish Zimmern had a few more conceptual monologues in his program to make the above points very clear. He’s got a very relevant message and an interesting way of approaching travel documentation. After his talk, I felt regretful of the opportunities when I didn’t indulge the Fijians on their organ stew or chicken feet for dinner. Experimentation in food has a whole new meaning for me now. Let’s hope I have his caliber of travel guts next time around.

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  • Andi

    As a veggie I have a difficult time watching his show, but I do like his message of being gracious!

  • Peny

    “To be sensitive, to be open to how others differ, to be accepting of that which we don’t yet understand, keeping in mind how little we know…”

    Ouch. Actually I was hit by this. Understanding the differences between unique individuals is a virtue not just on people who are often travelling but even on normal people who daily need to have an understanding heart and mind while facing people. Thanks a lot for the insight, eh.

  • Kirsten

    I have a weak stomach, so his show is hard to watch for me. Yet, it’s true – the message and philosophy behind why he does what he does is incredible. Great post!