Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods,” became famous for traveling the world and eating so-called “disgusting” and “exotic” food. Despite this premise, which Zimmern now admits was culturally insensitive, it was a hit. Even my dad — who eats the food Zimmern deemed bizarre — loved the show because Zimmern is fun to watch. In a world where food is written about and curated in such precious, packaged ways, he’s a charming, down-to-earth guy who simply loves to eat.
Zimmern’s affability is on full display in a recent interview he did with Fast Company at the Minnesota State Fair. He is, as interviewer Mark Wilson says, “the unofficial mayor” of the Twin Cities.
In his interview with Wilson, Zimmern shares his life story and gets real about his new passion: a casual Chinese restaurant Lucky Cricket, which he launched out of a suburban mall outside Minneapolis. This is no hole-in-the-wall passion project; he wants Lucky Cricket to be the first of 200 locations across middle America. His mission? “I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horses--- restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.”
I’m a Chinese American born and raised in Illinois. I disagree with his claim about the Midwest, which in Chicago boasts reportedly the only Chinatown in the nation that is growing instead of shrinking. Its restaurants are a big part of that momentum.
But beyond urban centers like the Chicagoland area, the Midwest’s “horses--- restaurants” are what paved the way for Zimmern’s venture and more broadly, Chinese cuisine in America.
Chinese American food may have originated in the nation’s coastal cities, where immigrants first opened shop, but I’d argue that this cuisine’s ability to thrive in the Midwest with fewer Asian patrons cemented its lasting role in this country. These “horses---” restaurants may not clear Zimmern’s bar for authenticity, but despite adversity, they created a time-tested model for immigrant food and helped make Chinese food not only ubiquitous, but part of American identity.
If Zimmern wants to snub Chinese American food because it’s “masquerading as Chinese,” join the club, I guess.
But what would pass muster for Zimmern? Dishes that are spicier, funkier, more daring? Zimmern fails to acknowledge that for a variety of reasons, these tastes weren’t able to go mainstream until recently. Imports of Sichuan peppercorn, the fiery and floral flavoring agent present in some of his dishes, were banned for nearly 40 years until 2005. Plus, bolder Chinese dishes were long relegated to the “weird” and “exotic,” and Zimmern played a direct role in that.
Besides, Chinese American cuisine is not trying to be “authentically” Chinese. Chinese chefs Americanized their cuisine because the U.S. restaurant business was and is an economic lifeline for new immigrants. To this day, such chefs as Peter Chang continue to successfully remix Chinese cuisine for American palates.
As it happens, Zimmern is also making Chinese American food. Only, when he cooks it, it’s “a unique take on the bold flavors of honest Chinese cuisine.” He too is trying to make money in America, except he has the noble cause of “saving” white people from eating bad Chinese food. When Chinese people make Americanized Chinese food for white people, Zimmern calls it “horses---.” But when he does it, it’s “unique.”
It seems important to note that Zimmern is opening Lucky Cricket specifically for white Midwesterners — people he says don’t “get” personal interpretations of Chinese food. As he says to Wilson: “I have to introduce them to hot chili oil, introduce them to a hand-cut noodle, and introduce them to a real roast duck.”
This is the detail that makes Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket venture seem almost okay to me. Chinese people already know their food is amazing. Why have Chinese chefs cater to white diners when he wants to?
For one thing, Zimmern stands to profit after insulting the roots of Chinese American food. But looking deeper, let’s suppose white Midwesterners are really the unadventurous eaters Zimmern thinks they are. Then, Lucky Cricket’s premise becomes complicated. Is Zimmern the best person to open that door? He thinks so: “Someone else is gonna be the next P.F. Chang’s, and I don’t want him to blow it. And is it up to me to do it? I certainly think I’m in the conversation.”
As Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan wrote in a piece that prompted much social media reaction, “That act of ‘translating’ on behalf of the presumably white audience — the idea that American diners need to have something unfamiliar ‘made more palatable’ to get them to the table — has shades of a strange, increasingly outdated form of cultural elitism.”
Zimmern actually seems well situated to introduce white people to different takes on Chinese food. After all, he has years of experience showing white audiences how gross “ethnic” food is and making it seem interesting anyway! But seriously, given that he’s been a professional eater for years, Zimmern could distinguish what part of his menu is traditional and what is experimental. Without much trouble, he — an experienced travel guide — could indicate where in China his more traditional dishes are from. In his media appearances, he could reference more of his inspirations instead of bad-mouth those who came before him.
It’s not hard, but it makes all the difference. Personally, I think you can cook whatever food you want, but the way you market your restaurant and sell the “experience” is another story.
At the very least, don’t insult the restaurants, chefs and diners that laid the groundwork for your business plan. Own your role in the great American food story, and in true Chinese tradition, honor the past as you look forward.