Andrew Zimmern's Transformation Is Seriously Turning Heads

Andrew Zimmern's hit Travel Channel show "Bizarre Foods" has secured him a place in culinary pop history. The show aired for 20 seasons and spawned multiple spin-offs since its 2006 debut, taking him all over the world and introducing audiences to lifestyles, cultures, and, most importantly, gastronomic delicacies they've most likely never seen or heard of. Sometimes his adventures in exotic eating grossed us out. Other times, it's taught us that even the strangest and most unfamiliar dishes can actually be quite delicious.

On air, Andrew Zimmern is an affable, up-for-anything host. Off-air, he remains a serious force in the food industry. Zimmern is now an award-winning culinary professional with his own multi-media company that produces food-centric content. As if that weren't enough, he also has his own consulting and retail business and advocates for many social justice causes.

Had you met him 30 years ago, however, you may never have recognized Zimmern. As a teen and into his early twenties, Zimmern's life was ravaged by alcohol and drug addiction. He spiraled so out of control that at one point, Zimmern, unable to keep a job, lived on the streets (via CNN). Incredibly, he was able to turn things around, even celebrating 28 years sober in 2020. Now, not only does he enjoy considerable wealth and success, but he also seems to have reached real contentment in his personal life. Here's how Andrew Zimmern's transformation is seriously turning heads.

Andrew Zimmern's happy childhood was disrupted by a health scare

By his own account, Zimmern had a fairly idyllic childhood. Born in 1961, he was raised in New York City. It was, as he told Artful Living, "a privileged surrounding by most conventional standards. My parents were divorced but were best friends. I had a lot of healthy role modeling."

That changed very quickly in August 1974, when Zimmern was 13 years old. An accident during a surgial procedure left his mother, Caren, in a coma, shattering Zimmern's sense of security. She remained in that state for months, which eventually resulted in some considerable brain damage. Thankfully she survived. 

Caren died 37 years later in 2011. Her son posted a touching tribute on his website after celebrating her life with the "unique and fabulous" cocktail memorial party she had requested. Still, the initial shock of her coma and the intensity of her subsequent recovery affected Zimmern for years to come. "It was an extremely traumatic event in my life," he told Artful Living. "One that has affected me greatly up until even a couple of years ago, when I started doing some serious trauma-related work."

ZImmern once struggled with homelessness and addiction

The emotional damage from his mother's surgical accident was the catalyst for his early addiction, Zimmern has said, according to The Fix. As a teen, he began using alcohol and drugs to cope with the fear and isolation that set in after his mother's considerable health struggles. 

By the time he managed to graduate from Vassar College, his daily use had spiraled so out of control that he was losing jobs and stealing to support his addiction. "I lost an apartment. l became homeless for 11 months and squatted in a building," Zimmern told CNN Health in 2016. "I knew something was wrong with that. I was crossing lines that I never thought I would cross before." He became so despondent, he added, he once spent days trying to drink himself to death.

Instead, Zimmern made a phone call he credits with helping save his life. Using a pay phone, he reached out to a friend for help. After getting Zimmern to safety, the friend arranged an intervention that ended with Zimmern boarding a plane for the Hazelden Betty Ford Rehabilitation Center in Minnesota. He's now a motivational speaker and supports causes like Giving Kitchen, a non-profit providing recovery resources and support to those struggling with addiction in the food industry.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

One meal put Andrew Zimmern on his career path

Although addiction prevented him from achieving stability and success until he eventually got sober, Zimmern had his heart set on a career in the food world for years. He can even point to a specific moment he was struck with the realization he wanted to be in the culinary field. It was a fateful meal that he ate during a ski trip with his father in the French Alps, at the restaurant known as Paul Bocuse. Renowned and respected for its innovation and quality, Paul Bocuse's eponymous eatery at one point maintained a three-star Michelin rating for over 55 years, according to the BBC. Its French cuisine has enchanted patrons for decades. The young Andrew Zimmern was no exception.

Describing the entrancing effect the meal had on him to First We Feast, Zimmern reminisced about everything from the tasting menu he ordered, which included black truffle soup served under puff pastry and tiny servings of mousse. He recalls that the meal was so incredibly good that he became "overwhelmed with the possibilities of food." 

While Zimmern has spoken of being an adventurous eater even as a child, he's made it clear that this one meal has by far made the strongest impression, per Food & Wine. "That dinner, I knew for sure I was going to be in the food business for my life," he said. "I always suspected, but at that moment, I knew there was no turning back."

He was a dining critic before making it big

Although we're accustomed to seeing him travel internationally in front of the camera now, the truth is that Zimmern spent the first several years of his career behind the scenes in the small Minnesota food world. His website explains that, after completing his time in rehab at Hazelden, Zimmern pursued work in the culinary field in earnest. He started as a busboy at local eatery Cafe Un Deux Trois, eventually rising up the ranks over the course of six years to executive chef. That beefed his resume up enough to land him a gig as Mpls St. Paul Magazine's dining and restaurant critic (via Twin Cities Business).

Although he's since moved on and become a high-profile television host, he's still got plenty of opinions when it comes to all things related to food. He is, for example, quite critical of certain apps when it comes to choosing a place to eat. "There's a difference between popular and good," he told Forbes. "I don't believe in a lot of the giant crowdsourcing apps, Yelp being the most famous one." 

Instead, if you're looking for a great meal and are unfamiliar with what's actually good in a given area, he recommends that you simply track down well-respected local food writers and influencers and check out their recommendations. 

A failed business project took Andrew Zimmern from chef to host

Successful as he may seem today, the truth is that Zimmern's professional journey was not without its missteps. One past blunder rocked him so much that he abandoned any aspirations he had at becoming a full-time chef. Speaking to Minneapolis Twin City Business, he recalled an early period when he helped open a local restaurant, called Backstage at Bravo. It didn't go well. 

"I realized I couldn't implement the partners' vision," he explained. "I kept trying to change myself to get along, but I eventually realized being in business for other people wasn't for me." Because of the troubling experience working under someone else's inspiration, Zimmern not only walked away from the restaurant, but he decided to take another avenue in the culinary field altogether.

Rather than continue cooking, he pivoted to hosting food segments on local cable stations. Things went significantly better there. And while he's enjoyed great success at it ever since, Zimmern has remained unlucky when it comes to opening restaurants. He's so unlucky, in fact, that the Minneapolis eatery he debuted in 2018, Lucky Cricket, temporarily closed just a year after opening. According to Eater Twin Cities, it was all done under the guise of remodeling. Lucky Cricket reopened under new management several months later but then shuttered its doors again in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted many other restaurants. According to its Facebook page, it is still currently closed for business.

Andrew Zimmern's show made him an overnight star

In the beginning of his hosting career, Zimmern worked steadily in local media but just couldn't attract interest on a national level. He even traveled to California seeking representation, where he was turned down by one talent agent, as MinnPost reports. Back in Minnesota, however, things were about the change. Zimmern and a small team made a TV pilot for a show they dubbed "Food Freaks." It caught the attention of a local production company, which liked the concept of the show but not, apparently, the title. Changing it to "Bizarre Foods," the company re-shot a new pilot at a nearby elk farm where Zimmern was filmed devouring elk testicles on camera. They took the eye-opening episdoe to the Travel Channel, which promptly ordered six episodes.

From nearly the moment "Bizarre Foods" began airing in 2006, Zimmern's life was transformed. A local outlet offered him a permanent weekend anchor role and while he attempted to host a daily radio show, the travel demands of his new TV gig were too demanding. To be frank, he was also getting much bigger offers. Per the Star Tribune, one professional leap happened shortly after an episode where Zimmern received an exorcism by an Ecuadorian man who stripped him naked, then pelted him with eggs and live guinea pigs. Jay Leno, then the host of the Tonight Show, picked up the phone and called for an interview. Said Zimmern: "We were off to the races."

Andrew Zimmeran won his first major award for hosting

Fame eventually came quickly for Zimmern, but more official recognition for his work took a little longer to achieve. In 2010, however, he finally received one of the food industry's highest honors: a prestigous James Beard Award for "TV Food Personality." He's since received three more James Beard awards. "Bizarre Foods" won "Best Television Program on Location" in 2012, and, in both 2013 and 2017 he won "TV Food Personality."

Not only does Zimmern clearly enjoy dressing up and goofing around with his peers at the James Beard awards, he's also been known to get emotional. While delivering his 2017 acceptance speech, he was reportedly moved to tears, per the Food Network. "What I really wanted to do was make a show about people and about a quality in the world that seemed to be having it less and less of it all the time," he said. "And telling stories about the things that brought us together rather than the things that divided us." 

Other accolades that followed include two CableFax awards for "Bizarre Foods," and a 2020 Daytime Emmy Award for another travel-themed food series, "The Zimmern List."

Andrew Zimmern has made big changes to his eating habits

People who eat for a living undoubtedly have a difficult time watching their weight. But even during his off-camera time, Andrew Zimmern copped to some seriously high-calorie eating habits. In 2017, he told People that it wouldn't be unusual for him to eat last night's rich leftovers — like pot roast with some not especially healthy white bread — for breakfast. Another long-time way he often started his day, he said, was a far less healthy meal consisting of a double espresso and a couple of tobacco-laden cigarettes.

He not only vowed to kick that especially poor eating habit, but he also warned against regularly indulging in more traditional American breakfast favorites like pancakes with bacon and hash browns. Zimmern explained that doing so for a period of several years was so bad for his health that it "almost killed me" (via People). Taking the health scare seriously, it appears that he has really turned things around. A year later, he was showing off a healthy vegetarian plate from New York Mediterranean restaurant Filfillah on his Instagram, writing specifically that it was helping him make healthier food choices.

He's apologized for offensive remarks

Andrew Zimmern stirred up some major controversy in 2018. Speaking to Fast Company prior to the opening of his Asian restaurant Lucky Cricket in the suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, Zimmern readily and metaphorically put his own foot in his mouth.  While slamming fast food staple P.F. Chang's, his goal, Zimmern said, would be to deliver actual quality Chinese food to the masses. Zimmern stated that he would thereby be "saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horses–t restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest." The backlash from the Chinese American community was swift, and Deadline reports that Zimmern was soon torn apart by both the media and the general public.

He apologized, posting a lengthy statement to his Facebook account, writing that "The upset that is felt in the Chinese American community is reasonable, legitimate and understandable, and I regret that I have been the one to cause it. [...] I feel terrible that in my remarks I came across as arrogant and patronizing because it's simply not who I am." 

Zimmern has since gone on to explain the changes he's made when publicly commenting on just about anything. As he told MPLS St. Paul: "The rules for me are: 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?"

Andrew Zimmern split from his wife

In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Zimmern revealed a major transition that was taking place in his personal life. As he admitted, Zimmern and his wife Rishia, who share a teenage son, Noah, would be divorcing. He took full responsibility for his part in their split, saying that he paid too much attention to his work and not enough to his family. "I wasn't there for my wife and I wasn't there for my son," he explained. "My wife gave me a thousand chances to make it right." 

He further noted that the strain that his travel schedule and other career ambitions put on his relationships was a problem he had in common with the late Anthony Bourdain, who had been a close friend. Although it was too late to save his marriage, Zimmern nonetheless vowed to make improvements to his relationship with his ex-wife and their children.

It appears Zimmern has since found happiness in a new relationship. In 2021, Artful Living referenced Zimmer's new partner, Lissa Visser. And it appears Zimmern has indeed stepped up his role as a father. On National Sons Day, he posted several photos of his son taken throughout the years with a caption expressing Zimmern's devotion and how "no one has taught me more about patience, tolerance and understanding than this kid."