by Jessica Schimmel
photography by Peter Frey + Andrea Martin
You started training in the culinary arts at age 14. What inspired you at such a young age? What did you do to get your training started?
It was a different time and place, 1975, and I spent the summers with my family on Long Island – East Hampton. I was always involved with food and our family was food-obsessed, before it was pop culture. My mom and I would go to the farmer’s market and actually go to the fields and help pull vegetables. I knew what fresh carrots tasted like.
And then I begged my mother to work in a restaurant called the Quiet Clam – a very progressive seafood restaurant – with Irene Gould, and I would work 2–3 nights a week during the summer. And I thought it was smart because then I had my days free to be on the beach. In high school in New York I begged my mother again to work a night or two a month for Leslie Webson at the original One Fifth – another progressive seafood restaurant. It was a fantastic couple of women to learn from. It was a lot of canoodling my way in the back door and begging my parents. And I learned things that I still use today.
How is Bizarre World different from Bizarre Foods?
Bizarre World is an extension of Bizarre Foods; it is an evolution, not a revolution. The third show I shot for Bizarre Foods, before it even aired, was me spending time in Otavalo, Ecuador, with a witch doctor. I never ate anything or even talked about food, but it became an infamous episode.
We started talking about ways to incorporate non-food stories with the concept we had built, and we came up with Bizarre World: a food first travel show that allows us the opportunity to do non-food stories.
The most bizarre thing you have ever eaten?
Well, what do you mean by bizarre: worst or strangest? The strangest thing is called piure and I ate it in Chile. I never even knew it existed. It is a sea invertebrate the size of a boulder and it looks like a rock, but rubbery. If you swam by it a million times you would never know you could eat it. Inside there were thousands of red pulsing globules. It is the strangest thing I have ever heard of, let alone eaten.
The worst thing I have ever eaten was during Christmas of 2003 – a pot roast at my
Ever turn anything down?
Yes. There is always some scenario that happens about once a year. I was in New Delhi at a snack cart and behind the snack cart there was a brick wall with a crack in it. In the crack there was some old metal to collect the water from rain, etc. They were sprinkling this water on the dish they were serving to moisten it. I asked for no water. I am okay with Russian roulette, but I don’t want to play with a bullet in every barrel. I knew if I consumed that water it would be a week stay in the hospital and my Western body just couldn’t handle it. In extremely rural and fragile areas, I have turned down raw water, although I drink the water in Mexico and Tanzania. But water akin to sewage water is not something I am going to risk in the middle of production.
Do you think America is more closed minded about its cuisine than other countries?
America is absolutely the most closed-minded country in the world when it comes to food. The only people with an open mind are the upper and middle class who can read and watch about new foods. We are the newest food culture in the world. Whenever I hear about the “Modern American” menu, I laugh. As opposed to what?
There is no word for organic in Hindu or Somalia. There is no such thing as eating as a necessity versus luxury. That is a luxury that is distinctly American. We are a very new country and we have a new food system for getting adequate food sources. But the rest of the world has always been eating that way.
Chinese food is arguably better in America than China – we have amazing and incredible chefs and better ingredients.
Cities like New York, LA, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco have amazing food. But the interior of the country still has a very provincial attitude towards food. No one eats alternative meat like goat or a fish with a head on it. We still have a long way to go.
What country do you think has the most interesting menu options?
It is a very tough question. Shanghai is the most progressive in Asia, and Barcelona is the most experimental in a country where they could not imagine what the future of the food would be like. The best food in the world is in Tokyo. They have a level of execution of their own country’s cuisine like no other – they are cooking Japanese better than any other country cooking their own food. And New York is by far one of the greatest food cities in the world.
How did the concept for the show come about?
I am a content machine. I had always wanted to do be the food guy on the Travel Channel – it was my dream job. And I was doing local TV when I met a friend who owned a production company with the ear of the networks. I came up with a pitch and they said to make a ten-minute video of the idea, and then they asked for another one and then asked for us to do a special and we pitched the series of Bizarre Foods. It was three or four years of hard work but we got the show on the air.
Where is the best place to eat bizarre food in NYC?
The nature of our show is to redefine the word Bizarre. I would say some of the most innovate modern cooking in the world is in New York City. Restaurants like WD-50 and Daniel Boloud’s restaurant are magical great cooking. Even modern day Chinatown in Queens or Arthur Ave. in Brooklyn has some of the greatest Italian food where you can still hear people speak Italian. And in Astoria there is Greek and Egyptian food that would make you think you were in another country. New York is the most exciting food town in the world.
What are your thoughts of the increasing importance of the sanctity of “natural,” “organic,” and “no additives/preservative” products?
Like Michael Pollan said, “Don’t eat anything your grandparents wouldn’t recognize.” He was not saying we shouldn’t try things but we shouldn’t make pop rocks apart of our everyday diet. We should try things at restaurants and state fairs but try it once.
We have lost touch with our food system and we have modernized our food and lost control. Good food is in the hands of too few people. Even in big cities like Paris, people still go to a local butcher shop and buy meat. Local food is a lost thing in our country and that is a dangerous thing.
Obama is subsidizing US milk and cheese exports to punish New Zealand – what are your thoughts?
Subsidies are a dangerous game in this country. I am a globalist and I am an American. I first and foremost love my country but it is a dangerous road to go down. We did the same thing with tobacco farmers, subsidizing them to turn over a percentage of their field for agriculture, and all it did was make our farmers play by rules that other people didn’t have to play by. We undercut and therefore had an unsafe and unchecked food source.
It is the monkey that will upset the global applecart. I am a free market foodist and I think if we take care of things at home and feed the 350 million Americans first, with local products- getting American products in the hands of the hungriest – we would find all the answers would come after that.