Cocaine, Comet Cleanser, and I
Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Tales of Drugs and Food
Checklist … 1) Cook? 2) Booze. 3) Drugs. 4) Comet Cleanser. 5) Sleep? 6) Repeat.
And there it was. The cue that it was time to start the day. The sun was rising — almost staggering up from against the inner depths of the earth announcing that it was the start of a new day. Perhaps, the sun — a distant shining orb — was a reminder to us all to begin anew. To embark on the first step of a path beyond that of dull consistency, but of fulfillment and heroic deeds. And maybe it all came down to the sunlight streaming in, through the stiff curtains hanging in that damp desolate motel room that shook Andrew Zimmern from his own monotonous, self deprecating checklist.
July 4, 1961. It was the annual celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and Zimmern’s birthday. Borned in New York City’s Upper East Side, he had a rather comfy upbringing. He attended the distinguished Dalton School, which is a “member of both the Ivy Preparatory School League and the New York Interschool”, and rounded out his education at Vassar College . At the tender age of fourteen in the heart of New York’s most affluent neighborhood, he began his formal culinary training . He recites his journey from “working summer jobs in high school, then on to unpaid apprenticeships in restaurants in Italy and France, then to restaurants back home as a cook, then sous chef, executive chef and finally to a partnership in a food services development company and consulting group” . He accomplished it all with hard work, booze, and drugs — a seemingly impossible paradox. Concocting a checklist that would attempt to negate the previous stimulant or depressant that came before it, Zimmern dazzled his way to the top of the culinary scene in spite of the chaos that he was ingesting, injecting, and snorting into his body. He wrote in The Huffington Post, “I told myself I was in control, that I wasn’t really addicted at all. I used heroin to come down from coke, alcohol to moderate the pills. I had it all figured out” . He says, “At first, you don’t care. You just want to get high. But then … then it’s too late” to depict the after effects of his actions that drove him further from his family, friends, and career. He recalls how his phone calls went unanswered and the familiar couches he once crashed on after a high were no longer available. And as his friends started families and new jobs, he worked his way beyond the gateway of marijuana and reached the arches of cocaine, heroin, salvia, etc. And slowly but seemingly all at once, he was left alone.
January 1991. This was it. This is what his life has amounted to. He was dazed — lying on an impliable mattress surrounded by wasteland of glass vodka bottles piling high. He had lost not only his sense of inhibition but as well as his hope and purpose. Leading up to this moment, he tallies each turn that has led him to this very vodka stained room. He writes that he was “kicked out of my apartment, then another one. And one morning, a restaurant owner I was consulting with found me passed out on the floor of his establishment” . Following his unemployment, he followed “a group of drunks back to the building they were squatting in — in lower Manhattan” . He details this time as the “flophouse” where he would wallow in his nadir . Perhaps, the most damning detail of his narrative is when he described how he would use the little money he had left over from buying alcohol and illicit drugs. Heading into the local Dollar Store, he would pick up the bright green container of Comet Cleanser — powdered bleach. And before lying down against the cracked concrete foundation of the abandon building atop a pile of rags, he sprinkled a circle around his “bed” in an attempt to derail the colonies of cockroaches and rats that would amass at night. The sun doesn’t reach here. It cannot remind anyone of their latent and untapped ability. There is no chance given to enhance if not their present, at least their future. Hence, Zimmern maintained his exhausted and cataclysmic routine. 1) Cook? 2) Booze. 3) Drugs. 4) Comet Cleanser. 5) Sleep? 6) Repeat.
January 28,1992. It has been a year since he has been squatting in forsaken structures. This day, he was stupefied from his most recent binge of either a stimulant or depressant lying around, and woke up to rubbish slowly engulfing the ground. It looked the same as it had before, but somehow different like “the ace bandage of anxiety and misery I wore around my chest wasn’t there after 15 years” . Zimmern marks this day as his turning point — when he finally saw the sun. He recollects how he called his “best friend of 20 years” and pleaded for aid to get out of his dismal hole . For the days following, he attempts to negotiate with himself and his friend, repeating that “this time I would stay in control” as he threw back the whiskey bottle . In a venture to relieve Zimmern of his bent on drugs and alcohol, his friend convinced him to meet a former addict at a coffee shop. Zimmern agrees; He arrives to see the “back room packed — filled with people I’d thought had long since forgotten me” . Convinced to make a change, he trekked out to the “Hazelden Treatment Center for drug and alcohol addiction treatment in Center City, Minnesota”  . Although overwhelmed with a “terrifying sense of desperation, of utter separation from the world, of complete isolation”, he worked to look for the ever-elusive solution to his addiction.
February 26, 2007. Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern airs on the Travel Channel gaining a steady, consistent, and growing audience. On the show, he travels around the world eating “bull testicles, the stinky durian fruit, and haggis”, but also absorbing the people and culture . Each episode, he trots to another location to watch how food is procured and interacts with the local community. Hence, he gives the general public a look into unobserved communities. For one episode, he rides a horse to a farm situated in the middle district of the infamous city, Compton. Here, he connects the public to a previously unseen side of the “most dangerous city in America” . At nineteen seasons and counting, Bizarre Foods is the physical embodiment of the potential that was trapped behind the towering presence of drugs and alcohol. The show is something that may have never come about without the struggles and challenges that he had to overcome. Additionally, his platform has spanned across to the Food Network show All Star Academy acting as a chef mentor.The self-proclaimed “everything addict” is a spokesperson for the true product of determination and perseverance. An unconventional hero of sorts — Andrew Zimmern leads others in plight to their own beam of sunlight.
Partnered with Services for the Underserved (SUS), he is now able to to help people in “New York facing homelessness, mental illness, disabilities, HIV and other barriers to employment” to achieve self-actualization and empowerment . He was on a “ tireless mission to give every New Yorker the tools to lead a life of purpose” which parallels with Zimmern’s own personal mission . The globe-trotting chef explains that “it’s not enough to give a homeless person a home. You have to treat them with dignity and respect; you have to train them to get back into the job service system; you have to address their mental health issues and physical health issues” . His delayed journey to the top has molded him into a person who is relatable and understanding to all the complex quandaries of life.
Evident in his work today as a three-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, and teacher, Zimmern has grown and made great strides to transform society’s view on homelessness and ill . He takes the it upon himself to spin his life around not only to benefit his close ones, but touch the lives of other struggling addicts. And everyday, just before the sun rises, another person will be touched by his story to begin their own adventure.
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@sus_org. “‘Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern: ‘SUS Urban Farms Have The Potential To Transform Lives’” SUS Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern SUS Urban Farms Have The Potential To Transform Lives Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Walmsley, Katie. “From Homelessness to Bizarre Foods Fame: Zimmern Gives Back.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
Zimmern, Andrew. “Andrew Zimmern’s Road to Recovery.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.