“Giving Should Not Be About The Redemption Of The Giver, But About The Liberation Of The Receiver”
With Andrew Zimmern, Chef, Anthropologist, Social Justice Advocate and Global Thought Leader
“Giving is not about the redemption of the giver, it’s about the liberation of the receiver. Robert Egger said that. And while I believe that service to others is the key to happiness and peace of mind, it has a selfish rabbit hole into which it’s easy to fall down. Service work might have the unintended benefit of keeping me right sized BUT the moment I think it’s all about me, I’m doomed. At the end of the day we care for others first by offering dignity and respect. We also need to be willing to do it because there are others in need. It’s that simple.”
I had the pleasure to interview four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer and teacher, Andrew Zimmern. Andrew is regarded as one of the most versatile and knowledgeable personalities in the food world. As the creator, executive producer and host of the Bizarre Foods franchise on Travel Channel, Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food and The Zimmern List, he has explored cultures in more than 170 countries, promoting impactful ways to think about, create and live with food.
What is your “backstory”?
Thanks to my parents who had me traveling around the world mouth first, I knew from a young age I wanted a career in food. As a teenager, I spent my days at the beach and nights cooking in Long Island restaurants. After attending The Dalton School and then Vassar College, I began cooking in New York City restaurants helmed by Anne Rosenzweig, Joachim Splichal and Thomas Keller. I helped open and run a dozen restaurants, but I was also an addict spiraling out of control. Crashed and burnt, I spent a year living on the streets, stealing to support his addiction.
Ultimately, one last intervention by close friends brought him to the renowned Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. Transforming my life around sobriety, I began washing dishes at the Minneapolis outpost of New York’s Café Un Deux Trois in 1992. When a line cook fortuitously didn’t show up for his shift, I took over his station, and in seven weeks I was named Executive Chef. I turned Un Deux Trois into a successful gastro-bistro during his six-year tenure.
My revamped menu of French dishes shot through a Vietnamese and Chinese prism drew the attention of media. Local news appearances led to regular TV work as the ‘in-house chef’ on HGTV’s early slate of programming produced in Minnesota. Rebecca’s Garden and TIPical Mary Ellen proved to be extraordinary springboards. I volunteered to intern for a local magazine, TV and radio station. Within months I had a regular job as a features reporter doing live local news, became Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s dining critic and restaurant columnist, and hosted my own drive time radio show. In 2003, I created a test pilot for the show that ultimately became Bizarre Foods, targeting Travel Channel specifically as a potential home.
In 1997, I founded the Minneapolis-based, multi-media content production company Food Works. A full-service operation that develops and manages content, Food Works oversees production and distribution for all of my media endeavors, including my former podcast Go Fork Yourself, a 2012 Stitcher award-winner for Best Food/Cooking podcast, my website AndrewZimmern.com, Shop Andrew Zimmern and AZ Cooks, a weekly digital cooking series that helps aspiring chefs grow their recipe repertoire. AndrewZimmern.com was nominated as the best food blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2016, as well as the best food website by the Webby Awards in 2013 and 2014.
In 2012, I launched Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen. Inspired by visits to street stalls and markets around the world, Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen reflects the intersection of food and travel. The quick service concept is licensed at U.S. Bank Stadium and Target Field in Minneapolis, and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen is now a property of Passport Hospitality, a restaurant concept and design company I founded in 2015. Through Passport Hospitality, we provide consulting services to various restaurant and retail projects.
In 2014, we introduced Intuitive Content, a full-service production company that develops and produces dynamic original television and broadcast specials, while partnering with companies to create brand-driven series and web content. Intuitive Content’s first series, Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food, premiered on Travel Channel in August 2016.
In my latest digital series, AZ Cooks, I put down my passport and pick up my knives, sharing cooking techniques and recipes inspired by my travels and experiences in the professional kitchen. I demystifies essential dishes and ingredients from cultures around the world in pursuit of culinary literacy.
I also partnered to develop and design All of Us, a new travel goods and apparel brand designed to promote greater global citizenship and openness, while also improving the travel experience. Founded in response to the increase in global humanitarian need and divisive political rhetoric in the United States, the brand aims to raise awareness of the scale of the humanitarian crisis and dedicates a portion of all sales to the relief programs of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Additionally, I am a contributing editor and Chef-in-Residence at Food & Wine Magazine and a contributing editor at Delta Sky Magazine.
When i’m not sampling unusual dishes at home and abroad, I teach entrepreneurship and offers insights on food issues to the students of The Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College. Through the James Beard Foundation I fund the Andrew Zimmern’s Second Chances Scholarship, which offers a student faced with extreme challenges a second chance to overcome these hardships and follow a culinary path.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I took part in a tribal trance dance organized by some shamans of a small Botswanan tribe in the Aha Hills who lived indistinguishably from the way their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The goal of the dance was to commune with the dead, heal the sick and allow the shamans to use the group energy to transport themselves to other times, dimensions and places. I had been living with them for a week and the trance dance took hours to get going. 40 tribal members sat in a circle as the shamans danced around us. After a while, one shaman dislocated all his major joints, ate several golf ball sized pieces of burning wood, buried himself by writhing into the sand and teleported his consciousness to another place. Another shaman danced around me for an hour trying to connect to me. Finally, he did, placing both hands on my chest and back and I felt like a cattle prod had been shoved up my spine. I floated above my body as I ‘saw’ him flip through what seemed like a photo book of my life. I was sobbing, and then Bom, the shaman, passed out.
I stood by as he was carried several hours later to his hut, where he slept while I stood guard. After that experience I wasn’t going to let anyone talk to him before I did. When he awoke well into the next afternoon I asked him through my interpreter what he had done to me. Bom said that I had learned all about him and his tribe and he wanted to know about me by looking at the pictures of my life. I was stunned and just started weeping again. What I thought had happened had really happened and the icy veil of cynicism that I’ve worn my whole life slipped away. He stood there smiling and I asked him the question human kind has been asking since we first started drawing on cave paintings, ‘what are we here for, what’s life all about?’ He laughed at me and walked away shaking his head. I chased after him, embarrassed I had blurted out such a clichéd inquiry. He kept walking, my guide trying to keep up with us and finally he turned to confront me. “All you have to do is love everyone and be love in the world,” and he shook his head, walking away, as if he had just told me 1+1=2 and completely secure in the fact that I couldn’t add. That experience changed my life forever.
What would you advise to someone who wants to emulate your career?
Make content. Figure out a message that hasn’t been sent, or a new way to tell one, and go make content that supports it.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
José Andrés. Nine years ago he told me to get my shit together and start helping the world become a better place. I listened, and it has become my greatest joy. Helping others is the only way I’ve ever found to regulate my own feelings and emotions. When I’m helping others I’m not self-obsessed and worried about me and my life. And it’s only then that I can co-regulate with other people, my friends and family, become empathetic and be happy with my life on a daily basis. It’s like the promise of Saint Francis of Assisi prayer:
Make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
…Grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
I’m not a religious person at all, far from it, but this prayer resonates with me daily.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful or exciting non-profit projects?
Where do I begin? I spend 25% of time and money on just that… I am on the board of Services for the UnderServed helping the neediest New Yorkers recast their lives. I am on the Board of Taste of the NFL, which allows me to fight hunger in America as does my work with Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry. I have a scholarship program I work on that helps food folks get access to affordable chem/dep treatment in Minnesota at The Retreat, and a second chances scholarship fund in my name at the James Beard Foundation that helps those who are less fortunate and have gotten in some kind of bind find scholarships to cooking school. I work with RED and ONE, helping them with women’s rights especially in the developing world, their poverty initiatives and am very proud of the work I did on the Electrify Africa campaign with them a few years ago. I work with the IRC on refugee crisis issues, and I do a lot of one-on-one mentoring within the sober community. I work with the Food Policy Action Committee and the Environmental Working Group on the Farm Bill and other national food related social justice issues lobbying several times a year on Capitol Hill. I work with Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota trying to help them grow and service more Minnesotans who are food insecure. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch…
Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
For several years I worked with a young man in North Dakota. He and his wife were active heroin addicts. Both got arrested, kids placed in county care programs. It took 4 years, but we got them out of jail, into treatment, got them jobs, from there some visitations with their kids. We got them permanent housing of their own and from there, better jobs. Last month I learned that their children are now living with them and the parents just celebrated their 4th sober birthdays. Some weeks it’s all about lofty ideas and Board work, but it’s so rewarding to get your boots on the ground and make a real life changing difference for one family.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I heard everything I needed when I first started out in life, but I flatly rejected it all. I thought I was too smart, felt I knew everything, didn’t feel teachable and despite having a huge ego, I had no self-esteem. I was a mess and by the time I graduated high school I was a very sick drug addict and alcoholic. I got sober 26 years ago when I was 30, and I wish I had listened to my father, teachers, caregivers and friends. I heard it all, everything I needed was given to me and I either ignored it or tossed it away. I was thrown a life preserver when I was drowning and threw it back because I didn’t like the color orange.
Failing happens every day — it’s how you learn, and it’s how you respond to it that matters. I never learned anything when I got something right the first time. Spending years in kitchens taught me that the learning happens when something doesn’t work, and that lesson on patience has proven invaluable. The recipes I cook the most, the ones that others love the most are ones that have been tweaked and tested for years.
It’s better to be happy than to be right. For years I thought that I had to be right about everything. Real leadership and real success happens when you learn that happiness is more valuable than ego. When I was relying only on myself I was never successful. Once I gathered a team around me and took on the expansion of my businesses and let others manage what I couldn’t, that’s when things started to take off.
What other people think of me is none of my business. In my TV work for example, when I listened to every opinion my head would spin and I would get very down on myself. The ‘gotcha’ world of haters on social media is a vile and pernicious environment. Once I learned to ignore that noise my peace of mind and creativity returned in force.
Be the dog. The key to life is happiness. The key to happiness is to be empathetic. The only way to be empathetic is to start listening and then co-regulating with your fellows. I used to pretend to listen and then begin to operationalize right away, always problem solving instead of sitting in the unease of ambiguity. We need to lean into and learn to love ambiguity because life isn’t black and white, it’s grey. Too often a friend would come to me, describe a problem or situation in their life, and I would immediately move to solve a problem when all they wanted was to share their life with me. They didn’t want a solution, they wanted a friend. I had to practice being the dog. The dog only sits in your lap and is “there,”providing companionship in the moment. The dog asks for nothing, the dog only brings calm and allows for the shared experience. Once you learn to be the dog, you learn to be there for the other person, you learn to listen and then you are co-regulating with another human being. That’s empathy. Once that’s achieved, if something really needs solving or operationalizing it’s accepted instead of rejected outright. And everyone is happier.
Learning to shut up allows us to learn humility. I love to talk and want to be the hero all the time. But I learned to live a different way if I wanted to stop being a grandiose know-it-all. Before I open my mouth I ask myself 3 questions. Is it true? Does it need to be said? And if it’s true and needs to be said is it up to me to say it? That last question is the key. Often times it’s not up to me, it’s not my business or my expertise, and frankly, I take away the opportunity away from someone else to handle something that I might not be best at.
Giving is not about the redemption of the giver, it’s about the liberation of the receiver. Robert Egger said that. And while I believe that service to others is the key to happiness and peace of mind, it has a selfish rabbit hole into which it’s easy to fall down. Service work might have the unintended benefit of keeping me right sized BUT the moment I think it’s all about me, I’m doomed. At the end of the day we care for others first by offering dignity and respect. We also need to be willing to do it because there are others in need. It’s that simple.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”
“Resentments are like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” My friend Larry told me that one day. The most corrosive element in the world is resentment. It accelerates and activates every bit of shame and trauma we carry inside ourselves. It leads to the worst behavior and acting out imaginable. It’s the ultimate blame game racket we run on ourselves. I think about this every day, and I believe in living a life free of resentments.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? (He or she might just see this.)
Barack Obama for sure. Simply because of his personal story, and of course his political acumen.
And Chamath Palihapitiya who runs The Social + Capital Partnership. He’s the founder & CEO of Social Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to transforming society with technology. I believe in the need for massive transformative models to solve our biggest social justice inequities. We can’t keep nibbling away at the issues of the day. And I believe in technology as the fastest and most readily accepted format for change. Just look at the iPhone which is only 10 years old. I would love to spend a day with Chamath Palihapitiya.