A Zoom call in December presented a very different picture of local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern than the one fans see on television or around town. Gone were the signature round glasses in fun colors positioned at the end of his nose and the bon vivant half smile. Instead we saw a much more serious man with heavy rectangular eye glasses and a Coronavirus-issued full beard with a touch of gray. And a conversation that didn’t illicit many opportunities to smile.
His website is chocked full of projects he’s working on in addition to his past accomplishments traveling the world to introduce us to other cultures and Bizarre Foods—from a new television show, Family Dinners, that will premiere on the Magnolia Network this year to Passport Hospitality, a foodservice development company, to being a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition that is fighting to save the underdogs of the restaurant industry, independents. He’s also a restaurant owner: Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen (Target Field); the Dayton’s Project’s experiential food hall concept (still under wraps in downtown Minneapolis) and another one in Atlanta, Georgia; and KZ Provisioning, a catering company for professional athletes where he’s partnered with Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable and Demi.
How does he do it all?
“Juggling is difficult,” he admitted, “but I’m sorta unemployed right now.”
Like the rest of the world, his livelihood has been on pause. But not his activism.
“I’m seeing so many with a platform not using it for social justice work,” he said. "I think it’s incumbent to make the U.S. better for all individuals, and underline all Americans.” That desire to use his platform for good and not just profit, flowed into his day job. “That’s why I did 'What’s Eating America.' I was able to create content that married my desire to see change—for all Americans, not a few.”
When you are able to travel the world, he added, you see what works and what doesn’t in other cultures. And you also see that what we take for granted here, such as a never-ending supply of food on grocery shelves, isn’t always a guarantee.
Zimmern has a unique perspective because he’s experienced it all: drug addiction, alcoholism, hunger, homelessness, even prejudice. “I had two dads, and my two dads couldn’t get married until four years before their deaths. They were in their 80s,” he said.
As their health started to deteriorate in their late 70s, Zimmern was called in to help them manage their lives, because since they weren’t spouses, they didn’t have certain rights. “It was heartbreaking,” he said.
He’s been sober for 20-plus years and is not reticent about admitting that by all rights, he should be dead. And while not everyone granted a second or third life chooses to use it to call attention to inequity, he’s intent on elevating his celebrity status to make things better for the industry he loves.
Restaurants support so many special populations, he said: single moms and dads, students, artists, new immigrants (legal and illegal), etc. All of whom most likely can’t just “get a job at the bank tomorrow,” a normal 8-to-5 job with benefits and stability the restaurant industry can’t depend on right now.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition was birthed, he said, to deal with the fact that if something wasn’t done to help them, close to 80 percent would not survive the pandemic. By their very nature, independents never had a coalition speaking for them. “NRA (the National Restaurant Association) doesn’t speak for all players, they speak more for those who are more economically secure than independents,” he said. “I think part of the problem with NRA was an individual restaurant has less pull than a chain does. It’s difficult to speak for everyone.”
The first task as a coalition was to partner with U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips. “He wrote the legislation that fixed PPP,” Zimmern said. “When it first came out it was Swiss cheese. How could a restaurant pay employees when they were closed?” The coalition then went on to find legislators to work with to secure federal aid for independent restaurants.
The loss of independents, he said, doesn’t just affect the owners and the workers. Its demise means supply chains, service providers, municipal and state taxes will all take a major hit.
“Look how much we’ve been able to pivot,” he said about the industry. “We can sell liquor, we can’t, we can seat people, we can’t…”
Post-pandemic restaurants still have a lot of work to do. The industry has to be professionalized so that it can pay a living wage to all employees, plus medical benefits, personal leave, “and all the things that will help dismantle the toxic side of restaurants.”
One of the biggest things not being talked about, he pointed out, is restaurants receiving a fair price for food. “Forty years ago coffee was 25 cents, and then we found out about coffee plantations’ bad behaviors, and we saw fair trade and a coffee policy take place,” he said. People decided they were willing to pay more for a cup of coffee that supported the growers and the environment. “And then Starbucks came and people were willing to pay $4,” he quipped.
The price of a chicken entrée, however, has only gone up 15 to 20 percent over the last 20 years. That has to change, he said, if we want to support both the ethical treatment of animals and allow restaurants to charge what the dish cost.
“Why is it OK to charge $15 for a drink, but not $30 for a half chicken?” Zimmern asked. "It’s a different contractual relationship and we need that equity on both sides. If we could charge what it’s worth, (we’d serve) less meat, more vegetables and grains and we’d all be healthier.
“People in the restaurant industry are the finest, we’re the second responders. We’re right behind the first responders. And we are uniquely in a position to intersect with the farmers, foragers and the customers,” he said. And uniquely positioned to deal with racism, sexism, the environment and equity.
And while Zimmern has a platform, the industry has the stage. “I remember marching in the ‘60s and ‘70s with my parents,” he said, fighting similar issues. “I would much rather have on my tombstone, ‘He cared about other people,’ than he was on TV a lot.”