Andrew Zimmern’s ‘Bizarre’ Stop

On a steaming Saturday in the District earlier this summer Andrew Zimmern was making his way through the flourishing greens of the Common Good City Farm, an oasis in what could have otherwise been a food desert near LeDroit Park.

He’s been in D.C. for a few days, stopping at favorite eating spots, discovering others, and doing some filming for the seventh season of his Travel Channel series “Bizarre Foods America” – the sixth season of which begins Monday.

It’s not that the foods he’s sampling here are necessarily bizarre – unless you’re among those who still think kale is – it’s just that the word that brought the Minneapolis based chef TV fame on shows where he’d visit farflung cultures and was up for any of their cuisine – including, famously, bugs.

Bringing along the “bizarre” tag to foods he actually admires certainly used to be a problem, Zimmern said over a picnic table at Common Good, as his crew set up.

“Imagine before our show aired calling up a fancy restaurant in Paris and saying, ‘We want to come in, we’re doing a show called ‘Bizarre Foods,’ and trying to explain that to Pierre Gagnier’s publicist. I was on that call. That was ugly.”

But that was then. “Bizarre Foods America” marks its 100th episode Monday with its season premiere.

“Now  our show is in 70 countries, we’re an international show that has a good amount of acclaim — and people line up begging to be on the show. I find that sweetly ironic.”

Along the way, he adds, “I also think we’ve helped redefine the word bizarre.

“When the show started, we looked it up in the dictionary and the definition has more to do with something that’s different or an alternative way of doing something than having any pejorative context. And I love having done that with this show.”

Still, he was still pictured by his network as recently as earlier this year eating bugs (albeit stars and stripe-painted beetles).

“Paint a thousand pictures and nobody calls you an artist, but eat one bug and you’re the bug-eating guy,” Zimmern shrugs.

But let him be clear: “I gladly eat bugs. I look forward to eating bugs – in the countries where they eat them,” he says. “I do not eat bugs where bug eating is not part of the zeitgeist, the same way I don’t go to a gas station to eat sushi, the same way I don’t go to a vegan restaurant and eat pork shops, the same way I don’t go into a Chinese restaurant and order a pastrami sandwich, unless it’s a Jewish deli in Bejing.

“That’s what separates us,” he says. “We tell different stories about cultures and use food as our prism through which we shoot the show.”

One of the things “Bizarre Foods America” has contributed to the food movement in the last decade has been helping  expand people’s horizons and to show “there’s more than one way to eat something.”

Showing his spotlight on little known eateries in the country has a positive effect on the businesses, he says. But, he adds, “I get a lot of mail that says, ‘You just discovered my favorite ramen place in Columbus, Ohio, that nobody knew was there. Now on Saturday, the wait was an hour. Thanks a lot.’”

He was glad to show off Common Good and all that it does in the city. “This is the net effect of gardening: beauty and butterflies and civic pride,” he said, waving his hand toward the bulging cabbages. “People making a difference. This represents a whole lot of people who won’t go hungry for a whole bunch of meals. That’s all great stuff.”

Among his other stops in the area were three of Jose Andres’ places, America Eats, Jaleo and Oyamel, Wolfgang Puck’s The Source, several Ethiopian restaurants in the U Street area including Habesha market, La Chiquita in Takoma Park, the J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel and the Florida Avenue Grill, which he hailed as both a great place for eggs, ham and homemade scrapple but a good spot for living history. “It’s been open since the 1940s and is where the Civil Rights leaders gathered in the segregated city,” he says.

He also found time to go snakehead fishing with the director of sustainability at Profish and sampled food trucks along the state department, including Chucacabra, Hulagirl, Fojol Brothers and another Andres operation, the Pepe food truck.

But he didn’t stop at the White House, home of its own food revolution, only because he was there in the spring.

“I was there for Easter as the First Lady’s guest and got to hang out with her and chat,” Zimmern says. “It was pretty marvelous. I think what she’s doing is fantastic. Obviously I consider Mrs. Obama one of our great voices in America for change.”

And, he says, her work creating her own community garden on the White House grounds and writing a book about it to boot, has already had effect.
“If the first lady can grow a garden for good and harvest thousands of pounds of product a year that’s served at state dinner, and served at state dinners,” he says. That’s having an effect.

No word on when the D.C. episode will air on Travel Network, but it will be later this  year, network officials said.

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