The Untold Truth Of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods

One part "No Reservations" and one part "Fear Factor," "Bizarre Foods" has been enthralling and horrifying Travel Channel viewers for over a decade. Host Andrew Zimmern has turned his passion for little-known and under-explored areas of the culinary universe into a media empire. From cow placenta in Washington to stinky Tofu in Taipei, if it's unusual, Zimmern has probably put it in his mouth (via The Daily Meal). Despite the intimidating nature of the things he eats on the show, Zimmern's mission isn't to poke fun at the food served by the people he interacts with. He's quick to emphasize that his taste for adventure allows him to take part in delicious, one-of-a-kind food experiences he would never know about if he played it safe.

Much like the hot dogs Zimmern professes to loving, a lot of hidden work goes into every episode of "Bizarre Foods" before it's ready for human consumption. If you're curious about how the TV sausage gets made, prepare to learn the stories behind this beloved TV show. We promise it won't be as scary as learning what's in a hot dog.

If Andrew Zimmern had his way, it wouldn't be called Bizarre Foods

The world has changed a lot since Andrew Zimmern began hosting "Bizarre Foods" in 2006. Zimmern is conscious of the fact that as a food celebrity with a large platform, his words are important. The host told Thrillist that in recent years he has updated his vocabulary to be more inclusive, no longer using the word "ethnic" to describe food and refraining from describing small restaurants with the pejorative phrase "hole-in-the-wall."  One potentially problematic aspect of the show that he won't change is its title, which paints the foods from other countries as strange and unfamiliar. Although he says that "If I could rename the show, I would rename it tomorrow," he believes that the "Bizarre Foods" brand is too strong to change at this point.

Zimmern never wanted the show to focus on strange dishes exclusively, and initially pitched the program as a travel show called "The Wandering Spoon." Though earlier episodes of the show focused on foods that would seem unfamiliar to Western audiences, over time "Bizarre Foods" has morphed into the celebration of global cuisines that Zimmern envisioned when he was pitching it to the Travel Channel. That doesn't mean Zimmern has a perfectly clean record when it comes to cultural sensitivity. In 2018, the chef put himself in hot water with the Asian-American community when he made disparaging comments about Chinese restaurants in the Midwest (via Deadline).

Before Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern got his start on HGTV

Zimmern went down a long and bumpy path toward becoming a TV food celebrity. He found early success as a chef in New York City, his hometown, but substance abuse issues led him to relocate to Minneapolis in an effort to restart his life. Most people move to New York to follow their media dreams, but for Zimmern, TV fame came after fleeing the Big Apple (via He became a dishwasher at Minneapolis restaurant Un Deux Trois and quickly worked his way up to executive chef, earning national plaudits for his cooking. His success in the kitchen led to several jobs in local media in the Twin Cities, as well as an on-camera gig doing cooking segments on several HGTV shows. Zimmern remembers that he was paid a meager $50 an episode for his early HGTV work. 

Although his segments on forgotten HGTV shows like "TIPical Mary Ellen" may not have paid well, they gave him a foothold in the cable TV world. He took advantage of an opportunity to shoot a pilot for a food travel documentary series, and the rest is history.

The show cost Andrew Zimmern his marriage

Andrew Zimmern and his now-ex-wife Rishia Haas seemed like a perfectly matched pair. She shares his interest in food and has even written recipes for the New York Times. She also works at substance abuse recovery centers in Minnesota, a good match for a man who is vocal about his own sobriety (via The List). However, as anyone who travels a lot for work can tell you, the distance takes a toll on even strong relationships. The production schedule for his show, combined with his side hustles running a restaurant group, writing books, and starting a production company left little time for his wife and son (via The chef considers himself to blame for the couple's 2018 split.

Although Andrew and Rishia are no longer together, they separated amicably and they still co-parent their son. Two years after getting divorced, Zimmern heaped praise on his ex on social media, calling her "the bravest mom I know" (via Instagram). It seems like he's fulfilling the promise he made to the New York Times "to be the best dad and the best ex I can be."

Andrew Zimmern keeps several go-bags packed at all times

According to Forbes, Zimmern travels around 260 days a year shooting "Bizarre Foods." That hectic pace requires some strategizing, and the chef keeps bags ready so he can head out the front door to far-flung locales at a moment's notice. He often encounters several climates over the course of a few days, so one bag gets packed with a variety of clothes, from warm winter gear to short-sleeve shirts to formalwear. Another bag totes all of his shoes so he can easily change from hiking boots to loafers depending on the needs of a particular shoot.

Many of us enjoy taking a step back from technology when we're abroad, but Zimmern prefers to stay plugged in no matter where he is. The road is his home and his office, so he brings all the necessary technology to check email, make calls, and watch TV on the go. The amount of preparation Zimmern puts into his travel routine would put a boy scout to shame!

The crew doesn't always get to eat the exciting food

"Bizarre Foods" focuses on its host's reactions to wonderful culinary creations, but the people who keep the show running behind the scenes don't always get to share in the deliciousness. Sometimes they get lucky and can eat the leftovers from restaurant trips where Zimmern orders more food than he can finish on his own (via Mediaite). Other times they have to subsist on whatever limited snacks they can find in the often rural, remote areas where they film the show. Zimmern told an interviewer about a particularly grim trip to the backcountry in Mississippi and Louisiana where his crew lived off of knockoff McMuffins and gas station peanut butter sandwiches.

Fortunately for the long-suffering "Bizarre Foods" production team, their famous boss took pity on them after they endured weeks of watching him feast on wild game while they ate Wonder Bread. When the crew arrived in New Orleans, Zimmern bought the whole team a luxurious dinner at a nice restaurant in the city.

Catching "real" moments in restaurants is hard with a big film crew

The directors and editors of "Bizarre Foods" do a good job of making the segments seem real and unstaged, but that "reality" requires a lot of careful planning (via Mediaite). It's difficult to capture the authentic vibe of a place when Andrew Zimmern constantly gets mobbed by fans. The producers have to strategize to get people to act naturally when there's a celebrity and an eight-person camera crew around. In the shoot at a Korean BBQ restaurant chronicled by Mediaite, producers ended up paying for the dinner of the group sitting behind Zimmern so they would stay for the whole time cameras were rolling.

Everything on the show takes longer than editors make it seem after the fact. The Korean BBQ segment got edited down to around five minutes of TV time, but it took over two hours to shoot. The crew needs to set up lights and style the food carefully to make it look delicious onscreen, and they have to shoot a ton of footage to be sure that they have enough to piece together into a linear narrative. They even shoot multiple takes of simple actions like walking into a restaurant to make sure every camera angle is up to par. With all of the stopping and starting that shooting a TV show requires, it's remarkable how well Zimmern projects spontaneity and informality in his on-screen persona.

The show gave Andrew Zimmern a rare illness called burning mouth syndrome

You might expect delicacies like cow urine, fermented shark, and dung beetles to wreak havoc on Andrew Zimmern's stomach, but his worst-ever food illness came from something more pedestrian. He told a Reddit AMA that eating unclean cumin in Morocco in 2005 gave him a rare virus that still affects his health to this day. Although the initial effects of the virus have long since passed, it caused him to have bouts of a condition called burning mouth syndrome about once a year.

Per the Mayo Clinic, burning mouth syndrome can cause a scalding feeling on the inside of the mouth, excessive thirst, and numbness. It can also make you lose your sense of taste, which is tough for a professional TV food taster. The clinic says you can mitigate the symptoms by staying away from spicy and sour foods, but that's not really an option for Zimmern. Despite the discomfort, he takes his diagnosis in stride, calling it "a casualty of war."

During the early years of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain were friendly rivals

As the hosts of two shows with similar premises on the same network, it was natural for Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain to feel competitive with each other. Zimmern told Mashed in an exclusive interview that the rivalry never turned malicious, and the two hosts helped each other out and pushed each other to become better. He remembers late nights swapping tips with Bourdain for getting access to difficult filming locations like Cuba and Syria.

Zimmern said that he and Bourdain shared much more than just a love of food and travel. The two men both had children around the same time and went through struggles in their marriages. Through it all, they were able to laugh together and share stories. Naturally, Zimmern misses his late friend, and wishes Bourdain was still able to provide commentary and rant about world events. He expects the "No Reservations" star's influence to expand over the next several years as the people who grew up watching his show start to gain power in the food world.

An old Cajun lady scared him more than anything he's eaten on the show

Sometimes the dishes on "Bizarre Foods" seem more appropriate for an entomologist's lab than for a travel docuseries, but Andrew Zimmern rarely gets intimidated by anything he's supposed to put in his mouth. If you want to see the host with real fear on his face, you have to watch the episode "Bizarre Foods: Cajun Country" where he cooks with Alzina Toups. A grandmother in her 80s, chef Toups doesn't look intimidating on the outside, but she's a towering figure in the world of Cajun food. The Southern Foodways Alliance praises her restaurant Alzina's, where she serves her famous dishes like crabmeat lasagna and fig tart to one lucky party per night.

According to Zimmern, she can also be a harsh critic in the kitchen, so he was quaking in his boots when she asked him to cook frog legs for her. To his relief, she enjoyed his frog legs, but she did reprimand him for wasting meat when he helped her clean shrimp. He admired her reverence for the ingredients she works with, and was happy to emerge from her kitchen relatively unscathed.

Sometimes he forgets about local customs and causes awkward situations

Andrew Zimmern is a gregarious, charismatic guy, and he usually has no problem getting the people he interacts with to warm up to him. Sometimes, though, his friendly nature does more harm than good. He said in a Reddit AMA that "The problem is, when I get really happy, I forget what I'm doing or where I am and I happen to be a big hugger." This sometimes causes awkwardness when he's interacting with devout Muslim women. 

The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates warns American travelers that observant Muslim women often prefer not to touch men who aren't their husbands or relatives, even to shake hands. It's a big no-no to hug an observant Muslim person of the opposite gender without asking if it's okay first! Zimmern mentions that forgetting this rule got him into hot water in Fez, Morocco. Fortunately for him, he's usually able to play off this faux pas without serious consequences, but he's definitely made some people uncomfortable with his unsolicited hugs.

Andrew Zimmern sometimes runs into anti-American sentiment

Although the host is usually welcomed with open arms in the countries he visits, he does sometimes encounter unfriendly people. A poster in the same Reddit thread asked him if he ever experiences hostility abroad because of his Jewish-American background. Zimmern replied that "It happens all the time." He said that he gets in more trouble for being American than being Jewish, but he doesn't let the hate diminish his pride for his home country. "I wear my patriotism on my sleeve," claimed Zimmern, saying that when he's overseas he tries to use his own behavior to counteract negative stereotypes about Americans. 

Ultimately, Zimmern views the act of visiting other places and sharing food as a way to encourage greater understanding between different civilizations. He told the Travel Channel that "food is the simplest way for me to learn about another culture. Share a meal with folks and it will change your life as you see what real people are thinking and feeling."