In This Episode
Emmy and James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer and teacher, Andrew Zimmern joins to talk about the politics of food in the pandemic era, from waitstaff wages to portion size. Also covered: the hard work of long-term sobriety.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. This week, I am talking to Andrew Zimmern, best known as the host of “Bizarre Foods” but also the brains behind multiple restaurants, a professor at Babson College, the host of a new show called “Family Dinner” and the anchor of a special series for MSNBC called “What’s Eating America?” He is one of the most generous and articulate people I know, and he happens to be sober, celebrating 21 years this year. If you’re curious about long-term sobriety, I want you to stay tuned for the second half of the conversation where he and I talk about some of the struggles that come after you’ve basically got a handle on the not drinking part of recovery. But before that, we have a long conversation about food, which means it’s also about the pandemic, politics, policy, intersectionality, and the price of a chicken dinner. Andrew Zimmern coming right up.
Ana Marie Cox: Andrew, welcome to the show.
Andrew Zimmern: Great to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: So for those who aren’t, you know, in the biz, they probably don’t know this, but a thing that happens a lot when you’re doing radio interviews especially, is when they do a soundtrack, they ask you, what did you have for breakfast?
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And I’ve always wondered, do other people have interesting answers to that question? So I want to ask you, Andrew, what did you have for breakfast?
Andrew Zimmern: I had a very typical breakfast for me, which is a ice coffee, even in the wintertime, and it’s usual the leftover coffee from the night before. And then about an hour after I’ve been up and I’m actually like, my metabolism is going and the dog is taken care of and all that stuff is done, I have a half a bagel and smoked salmon, tomato, onion and scallion cream cheese.
Ana Marie Cox: Is that like typical?
Andrew Zimmern: That’s two or three, you know, I do that two or three times a week. I there’s something about, I mean, I’m, a I’m a Russ an& Daughters human being. Five, we know five generations of Zimmerns, knew, well four generations have eaten at Russ Daughters. We know that a fifth generation, which would be my grandmother’s dad, worked in a factory around the corner and lived down the street, so I know he would have walked by there and not been able to afford to go in. So we know he was aware of it. Or maybe he bought something at holiday time. That’s what I’m banking on. So it’s either four or five generations have eaten there, and our families have been friendly throughout the years. And I just have something—if you are what you eat, I’m 25% Russ & Daughters smokes fish. So I just, you know, that’s two or three times a week. The rest of the time it’s left over, I go Japanese breakfast, which means I have a little bit of leftover salad, some pickle, a little this a little of that, a little bit of protein, and I’m out the door. I rarely do what people consider American breakfast: eggs, pancakes, French toast, bacon. Rarely.
Ana Marie Cox: Although, as I’m sure you know, the American breakfast is only recently the American breakfast.
Andrew Zimmern: That is correct.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes.
Andrew Zimmern: And I don’t even know, if we, do we refer to it is the American Breakfast, or is it still referred to as like the Denny’s Home Run or whatever? I just don’t know.
Ana Marie Cox: I think most Americans just call it breakfast.
Andrew Zimmern: OK.
Ana Marie Cox: Because that’s what kind of cultural chauvinists we are, it’s just breakfast.
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah, well I don’t eat oatmeal. I mean, you know, breakfast is a very personal thing. It’s also a meal that used to be irrelevant to me for so many years. And now I know from a health standpoint, if I eat breakfast, I eat less during the day, I feel better when I’m at work. I mean, I really have to train myself to do it because for so many years I didn’t.
Ana Marie Cox: So I think that this answer turned out to be even more interesting than I thought it would be because it reveals a couple of things or it segues into a couple of things. One is something that’s maybe an overarching theme of your career, which is the way that food ties us into history and culture and relationships. Even something like a bagel.
Andrew Zimmern: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: Everything we eat has a history. Everything we eat has a connection to the culture around us. There is no such thing as like a value-neutral food.
Andrew Zimmern: That is, that is correct.
Ana Marie Cox: And then tradition and routine, because the first thing I actually thought about asking you besides breakfast was about how the pandemic has changed you. You’re a traveler, right? I read an interview from a while back that said you only spent about a third of your time at home.
Andrew Zimmern: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: I imagine that’s changed.
Andrew Zimmern: It has. And for the better, When every, all my friends, you know, I came back, I actually had done, I guess, February of 2020 I had just come back from Los Angeles, end of February. Los Angeles was shut down. It was a ghost town, I could not believe. I was staying at the same hotel I always stay in. I like it because I can sort of walk around and stuff and and feel like I’m in a city and all of my favorite restaurants were shut. I mean, it was, it was scary. It felt, you know, in Minnesota where I live, I’m not in a downtown, I’m not in a city, I live in a suburb. So things were sort of normalized, and I went to Los Angeles and it was closed. And I was doing, I went there because I was doing the Bill Maher show and then I flew home and everything was shuttering and Minnesota was closing down. And you know, Governor Walz called me and said, Look, we’re going to have make this announcement in a couple of days, you know I want you there to represent the food community. I’m like, sure. And the phone calls started coming in from my friends: work is shutting down, oh my god, I can’t be with my family for this. Everyone was freaking out, not about the, the thing they were freaking out about the most was staying at home. How do I cook? How do I, and that’s what spurred all these, you know, the empty shelves all the rest of kind of thing. At my house, I was just like, Mazeltov! I mean, I was like, this is, I have all these work trips canceled. I get to lie on my couch. I was, as someone who traveled too much, I actually welcomed the downtime. Obviously within a couple of days, I became highly, highly more agitated about the the real-world problems that we were faced with, but for my own schedule, my own peace of mind, I was just like, this is the greatest thing that could happen to me from a slow-down—people have told me my whole life, slow down, don’t travel as much. Time to connect with people, catch up with friends and but like all of these positive side effects that others were complaining about, I was actually OK with, if not pleased with. And, you know, then I was sitting in the same problems with everyone else. But for a brief moment there, I was really excited about it. And overall, I do actually think it changed me and my behavior for the positive. I’m not going back to doing those schedules ever again.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m glad that you mentioned finding some gifts in the collective trauma we’ve experienced as the pandemic, because the food industry, mainly it’s been talked about as having enormous negative impact, the pandemic has had enormous negative impact. And I do want to go over that, but if in the back of your mind, you could think about what some of the positive things might be.
Andrew Zimmern: It’s not back on my mind. There’s many positive things.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh! OK. Do which you want to do first then, good news or bad news?
Andrew Zimmern: Well, I mean, let’s just recap the bad news briefly just to sort of set the table—bad pun. But the food industry as a whole, you know, got completely kneecapped. And I say food industry, I”m including supply chain, anywhere food touches a human being was was absolutely traumatized and entangled, from, you know, factory farms to food factories to production facilities to how we move food around the country, to how, you know, the culinary racism and almost genocidal way in which food is treated—and I’m talking about hunger and food waste here. We asked restaurants to be open and and they tried to, and then they pivoted, and then they were told to close, then they were told they could open again, and they were told to close. And, you know, the independent restaurant community went into huge debt. 35% of them have closed, I think if the Restaurant Relief Fund is not—Restaurant Revitalization Fund from the, applied, well administered by the SBA, is not refilled, I think we’re going to lose another 10, 15% of restaurants who have just taken on so much debt during, you know, the last 19, 20 months. I think it’s, we’re in for a big shock. And restaurants have changed the way they’ve done things. There are very famous restaurants that are now open five days instead of seven or not open at all and only do it to the public, but only doing delivery and pickup service. And you know, there’s just been all of these horror stories that we’re all well aware of if we read newspapers and books. However, there is a really fantastic upside to this. One of the biggest upsides is that, as as awful as it is to say, I think we had too many restaurants and not enough customers nationwide.
Ana Marie Cox: Or wait, wait, wait, we’re maybe some of the restaurants in the wrong place? Was maybe the distribution of restaurants a problem?
Andrew Zimmern: Without a doubt. Without going into heavy detail. But I, you know, I think there was a natural attrition there that occurred. And I mean, that’s so cold to say, but it’s I think it’s honestly the truth and people don’t like to think about that with restaurants that were so personally attached to. And it hurts me to say it, but I think it’s, I think it’s the truth. A small percentage, but I think it’s the truth. In closing, in facing these challenges, a lot of restaurateurs that had never considered the value propositions of their own revenue models were forced to reconsider them and change them. And I think that’s the biggest plus that I see coming out of this. Well, one of two big pluses, the other one being the actually changing the way we eat and the way we serve food, but I’ll get to that in a second. Restaurant economies have always been horrifically brittle over the last 50 years. 7, 8, 9% average money to the bottom line. That’s not sustainable when some of those profit dollars have to be put in to keep the business up and to take care of your employees the right way. So we have to increase that, that bottom line to a healthier number. Let’s just say to 20%, OK, In order to do that, we have to do many, many things. We also have to like change the price of food, change how we’re serving, change other ways to ring the cash register, and those challenges, restaurant people are the most creative people on planet Earth. I love food people more than any other people in the world, and so many of them have risen to the challenge and increased ways to make money that isn’t between 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and 6 and 10 p.m., right?
Ana Marie Cox: Can we talk a little bit about how the restaurant business structure worked out to be so brittle, and creating some kind of unequal structures and how people work there and who works there and how they get paid. Right? Explain how that is.
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah, over the last. It’s very simple. Over the last 40 or 50 years, they kept making cheap food cheaper. And when you do that, you, the only way to make that, if you’re going to do that and you’re going to make less and less money off the sale of food itself, you have to make up for it in a couple of different ways. One, prioritize alcohol. People will pay $25 for a drink at restaurants, and they will not pay $25 for a roast half chicken. That’s just, that just the simple math. It’s shocking to me, but it’s true. Then restauranteurs have to make up the dollars in other ways. So we’d start to pay people off the books to take jobs in kitchens, you know, part time or full time that we consider, quote unquote “less worthy.” And you begin to exacerbate over the last two or three generations this distance between the front and the back of the kitchen, the front of the house and back of the house, right? So this is the common picture of restaurants, a cliché, but not a myth, and that is people of color in the back cooking your food at $15, $16, $17 an hour, some making less washing dishes, servers out in front making a hundred dollars a night in tips, hosts and hostesses at the front desk answering phones and seeing people who are all very good looking and well-dressed and being paid $20 an hour, bartender—you know, you get the picture here. No, no, no, we just wind up with this bifurcated community in an industry where we’re supposed to be one big team. And it’s often been shocking to me as someone who is an entrepreneur and, you know, I teach entrepreneurship at Babson College and I try to read voraciously about the subject and learn from other people who are experts. I’ve never had an original idea in my whole life. I’m more of a synthesizer and connector, but it’s exactly, it’s going about it, it’s going about it backwards. You know, one of my favorite restaurateurs, Michael Lastoria, who owns &Pizza, one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in the country, has made incredible open-book displays in his social media of what he pays his employees and why to show you how you can grow and be more profitable by actually taking care of the people that work for you. Now we do that here in our businesses and and we’ve grown and made more money. You’ve got to invest in your people. You have to invest your people. Restaurants can’t be temporary or illusory.
Ana Marie Cox: I love talking about food, in part because it gets back, it always gets back to my other passion, which is politics, right? Always, always, always, always.
Andrew Zimmern: Yep. And it’s political.
Ana Marie Cox: It is political. And you mentioned this offhandedly, but I love trying to drive home for people but this thing we think of as like just a pleasant thing to go do. Right? It’s just a, we’ll go out to eat, right, has like this history of, you know, oppression and inequality that structurally built into it. Among other things, there’s subsidy, like food is so cheap because of government actions, right? Like we have gotten used to cheap food.
Andrew Zimmern: This let me interrupt you there and just signpost for the audience. You know, we have cheap, uh, certain types of cheap food made cheaper via subsidies because we’re subsidizing giant freight to, farm-to-freighter farms that are harvesting things like cotton and corn and oats and soybeans and things like that. Food that human beings eat, is qualified, you know, this is by law, as specialty crops. They have to be harvested by hand, not machine. There’s no machine that’ll pick a tomato or a pear or a cucumber. They just don’t exist. And you know, I would add on to that list, you know, immigration, you know, immigration reform is a can been kicked down the road, I think, by the last six presidents, seven presidents, and counting. You know, if we actually had real immigration reform in this country, it would be so beneficial to our national security safety on our borders and would actually create a food system, which, by the way, just independent restaurants alone is 5% of GDP. Add in all the farms and hotels and tourism and all that, and you’re at about 19, 22% of GDP, depending on whose numbers you use. This is a massive impact on our national economic front, and it affects I mean, food is a global and national security issue. If you take away bread and rice, that is the stuff that revolutions are made of. I would, I would also point out that just to finish my last point about the two silos that have forced people to change in the industry, the other one is actually serving healthier, better food for you. So in America, we always had 14 ounces of protein as the center of the plate, giant potato and a giant wedge of broccoli, and then you can help yourself to the super salad bar. That was like, that was a meal. Now we’re realizing we have to eat at a much more modern way, four or five ounces of protein, animal protein tops, if you’re going to have it at all. There are other ways to get protein, lots of beans and farinaceous foods and things like that. So you see a lot of restaurants opening these days that are putting an emphasis on that and are having a more widely varied amount of foods on the plate. Not only is it better for us, but it allows prices to come down because beans and grains and and things like that in smaller amounts of protein mean the kitchen is spending less, their profit margins can go up. You want a 16-ounce steak? Go to a premium steakhouse or cook it at home. I just don’t want to see steak on any other menu, except in a premium steakhouse, for example, right? I mean, just, it just kills your bottom line. And I think that we are, we’re learning how to treat our employees better. We may look back at the 2020s as a golden age of restaurants 20 years from now, if we were able to learn how to take care of our people better and actually do it.
Ana Marie Cox: We can, we can now drill down a bit on what you’re talking about as far as restaurants learning how to create systems that allow them to take care of their people better. It sounded like you were talking a little bit about like just multiple revenue streams, like not just serving breakfast, lunch, dinner or whatever. Want to talk a little bit more about that?
Andrew Zimmern: Well, sure, there’s a, you know, I love recent examples. There’s Ann Ahmed, a wonderful restaurateur here in the Twin Cities has a restaurant called Lat 40, Lat 14, Lat 41—I always get it wrong. My apologies if she’s listening. But she’s opened a second restaurant just last week called Khaluna. And so it’s a restaurant and it’s open for lunch and dinner. But there’s also a store so you can buy like the plates and bowls and things like that, and certain cooking utensils from the world in which of Southeast Asia, from which she draws her culinary inspiration. And that space will also allow her to hold classes and do other things and do paid for virtual events and private parties and stuff like that. So she is now adding, I’ll just pick a number 7% of revenue, gross revenue, to her bottom line that wasn’t there before. Right? And that could be the difference between a healthy, internal, sustainable economy for her restaurant group or one that isn’t. And I’m sure her decision making was driven in large part by trying to make her own restaurant company more sustainable financially. It’s something that if you can’t do it and it’s going to take too much time to implement, in some cases you’re better off closing doors. I’m involved in a whole slew of restaurants around the country, but mostly here in the Twin Cities and several we closed just because we, because of the food, the location, the neighborhood, the way it’s set up, what was being served, we could not make it, you know, we’d invest so much money trying to make it work that it would take us 10 years to get back to zero. And that’s just, it better off to close the doors and start over. In other ones, we changed our systems radically and and menus. And I think, you know, we changed the two biggest things in restaurants that have been changing is the food itself, and how we treat the people. And you know, that’s things like, you know, doing our own paid medical leave, having insurance available for everyone, offering a true living wage—not a false living wage that forces people to work two jobs, but an actual true living wage. Getting rid of some of the old ways of thinking, there was a wonderful article I saw, I forget where it was, but it was talking about, you know, customers’ viewpoints of seeing servers or cooks sitting. Well, you know, you’re working at an 8. 9, 10, 12-hour shift. You’re darn right, you need to have time to sit, right. Everyone should be allowed breaks. But mentally as a customer, if you’re in a restaurant and you see employees lounging at the water cooler in a restaurant, you think to yourself, oh, they should be doing something. If you walked into Dunder Mifflin and you saw people at the water cooler talking, you would think to yourself, oh, great, they’re connecting, they’re improving their relationships. That’s great. It makes them more productive. Why isn’t that true in a restaurant, right? So we have to remake our restaurant system. I think that’s happening as we speak. I think people are looking at national leaders and saying, what can I learn from those folks, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: People listening right now are probably wondering when this turned into an entrepreneurship and business podcast, but I think number one, this is all really important because it’s political and number two, you just brought up something that I think is a subject we cover more traditionally on a podcast, which is changing the way you think about the world. Like you as a listener, me as a person, how can I change the way I think about the world? How can I change my actions to help make it a better place? Because it turns out there are lots of tiny things that are just about shifting your worldview. And that’s one of them, right? Just to think differently about who the people are that bring, that bring us our food. Because I wanted to ask you what you think sort of the psychological ramifications in a good way—or not necessarily good—but with the psychological ramifications are for eaters of food—which we all are, but let’s just call them consumers, the consumer side—when it comes to the food industry. I mean, there’s an argument that people have come to realize maybe we should be a little more thoughtful about our food than we were pre-pandemic.
Andrew Zimmern: We better be. We better be, or it’s going to disappear. And we need to put the, you know, and I’m not purposely bringing it back to politics, but we need to put the power of law—
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, feel free.
Andrew Zimmern: We need to put the power of laws actually behind some of these ways of of thinking. That means minimum wage, right, and reorienting that. A lot of the state and municipal tip credit issues that are on the table. There are so many different things that we need to do to actually make a fair and unbiased framework around which for restaurants to operate. For too long, restaurants have been able to sort of operate in the shadows in ways that have been extremely unhealthy. It’s like letting a child who is too young play for too many decades in the dark on its own. The vast majority of restaurateurs are hardworking people that just want to feed folks, and they’re in it because they love seeing what happens when someone is like smiling at their table, taking the first bite. OK. That’s the vast majority. There are a lot of bad players out there taking advantage of the system and using it as a way simply to make money. That’s great. I’m all for making money, but we have to have level playing fields here. We have to address some of these issues around food production, our animal raising, you know, we have to have the ability for restaurants to offer paid medical leave insurance, and actually professionalize this environment. Independent restaurants alone make up 5% of GDP. We can’t ignore the laws that are needed to protect those people in those businesses. It’s just an absolute a mind boggler to me. Remember, restaurants are a very special community, it’s made up most, well it’s the number one place for single moms and dads to work, the number one place for returning citizens, people coming out of jails and institutions. Number one or two place depending on who you listen to for new Americans, that includes legal and illegal. I mean, I could keep going. Oh, it’s the new stat: number one place for the last-time job seekers. It’s traditionally been the number one place for first-time job seekers, which it is. Kids put themselves through college, first job after college, a way to supplement income, bartender, wait tables a couple of nights a week. But now people in their later years are coming into restaurants because of the need supplement income. So it’s a very special [unclear]. If we don’t take care of those people, they will wind up on unemployment or in other straits where we’re going to have to pay even more in out of the government doles to support them. So it’s in our best interest financially to take care of them before it becomes a problem. You know, it’s like changing the food that’s eaten. We, you know, we spend a trillion, one and half trillion dollars a year on the big four food-related diseases. If we could actually change our food system and prioritize getting healthy food on the tables of those that need it and not just allow food stamp programs to buy a vast majority purchase foods on the inside of the supermarket as opposed to the perimeter where the fresher, healthier foods are. If we could just give people complete leeway to that, if we could have a national program for school lunch where everyone is given a free lunch, I mean, all of these things would create healthier human beings. We would save hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. I mean, it is, to me the issues are, it is political issue after political issue, after political issue that would help us. Because I see everything through the same lens you do. I mean, it’s ultimately the only way to give something teeth. And we have an industry that we need to help. We desperately need to help them, which is why you know, Biden’s programs, I hate to say Build Back Better because I don’t think it describes things, I’m one of those people who wants to talk about it in terms of, you know, national sick leave and maternity leave and all the things that actually will be key for human beings if they want—but all of this applies to the small businesses that are restaurants. Restaurants are Main Street America, and we have to support them. The food piece from a health and wellness standpoint to me, is the most fascinating undiscussed part of this. We know that food RX works right. That’s where for diabetics, instead of giving them thousands of dollars a month in medicine that only costs $100 a month in other countries—don’t get me started—but $1,000 a month here, why not help them with food and exercise, right? Which all doctors say diabetes, especially type two, if caught early enough, food and exercise can take the place of of a vast percentage of the medicine that’s involved. And this has been proven. We’ve had test cases in cities, food RX got $40 million from the government under Obama as an experiment, worked like a charm. We detailed food RX in a community down in Texas, in What’s Eating America? my MSNBC series. It works. And it actually saves us money. Why we have such a tough time embracing these is I, you’ve talked about it endlessly, forever.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to say, I’ve got some white supremacy for ya, some patriarchy.
Andrew Zimmern: Well, well, you know, you did, you know, I did mention culinary racism and culinary genocide at the top of the show and—
Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned how many women and how many people of color work in these industries, right?
Andrew Zimmern: That is correct.
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, that is not an accident. It’s a vicious cycle. We don’t care about those places where those people work.
Andrew Zimmern: That’s right. And it started 402 years ago. You know, this is this is a, you know—
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, we call it the service industry, which in part also just bothers me. I don’t know, I mean, I know it’s a descriptive term and I know it isn’t meant to carry the weight of the 500 years, but . . .
Andrew Zimmern: Words matter. We have to we have to call it the hospitality industry. We have to call it, you know, we can’t, that aisle in the supermarket, you know, we can call it the international aisle, which some have. We’ve got to can stop calling it the ethnic aisle. We stop, we have to stop referring to restaurants that serve foods from different countries around the world as “holes in the wall,” “mom and pop,” “postage stamp restaurant.” You know, it’s all this implicit idea that Mexican food has to be cheap and Chinese food has to be cheap and Guatemalan food has to be cheap. No, it doesn’t. There’s no food that’s cheap. It’s meats and grain and potatoes and vegetables, and they all cost money. The same prices, by the way, that the French restaurant next door is paying from the same suppliers.
Ana Marie Cox: And if I were to speculate just a little bit more about why it is that these inequities persist, I think it also has to do with the way that we, that cheapness of food, which doesn’t necessarily even mean a dollar amount, but the way that food is just fuel for us in so many ways, like the way that it’s the monoculture-ization of food, like all food is kind of alike, like all food, we expect conformity in our food. Like we don’t value uniqueness in food, we don’t value a new flavor necessarily. We want it to taste like something else that’s gone before. So there’s this whole industry that’s based on kind of just the low—I mean, I guess you could say all capitalism is based on the lowest common denominator—but I think there’s something especially tragic about this, about the food industry being a place that is making, its dumbing us down a little bit.
Andrew Zimmern: Of course it is. And what’s happened is that, because we’re driving that balloon into the, that Zeppelin into the ground, you know, the Hindenburg is always in my head when I think of this—because we’re doing that, we have created a system, let’s just, let’s just take chickens, for example. You know, in 70 years ago, they were all roaming free. And then someone realized they could double production by putting them in boxes and then they got sick so we said, OK, let’s pump them full of medicine. And we just we wind up with a very inexpensive chicken that’s raised under horrific conditions that has very little nutritional value. It’s dangerous for some people to eat because of what’s pumped into it. That’s flavorless, OK, to your point about that, that pursuit of pursuit of mediocrity, Right? But it’s at the right price. And it’s the same thing in the beef industry. And for anyone listening who disagrees with me, I would just ask you to go into your supermarket and stare, I’m just talking about a regular supermarket, not a fancy one. Not Citarella’s out in East Hampton, Long Island, right? I’m just talking about a local regular supermarket. Go in there and you look at the beef in cuts, all single portion. They’re all oversize based on what nutritionists would tell you to eat. Look at the chicken. Take a look at the dollars per pound, and then just go start Googling and see how much meat cost five years ago, right?
Ana Marie Cox: Don’t Google about the conditions unless—
Andrew Zimmern: No. Just just look at the prices. Because I will tell you, I will tell you, we have we have created, we’ve trained consumers to look for a certain size of protein at a certain price and gosh forbid, we go above it. Traci Des Jardins, one of the great chefs in America who owned a couple of restaurants in San Francisco, I was talking to her just pre-COVID in a lecture series I was sponsoring and hosting at CIA at Copia, and she was closing a Jardiniere, her signature fancy restaurant. And I asked her why. And she said, I can’t take care of my employees because we’re not making enough money. And I asked her to expand on that. And she said, well, you know, we were at 9%, 10% profit margin, which was high for us, but I knew I needed to spend, I needed to make about 3% more off of the average check to offer the right benefits and the right wages that I believe my employees deserved. So she put a service charge on: 3%. 3% would be added to every bill. Now that’s if you spend a $100, that’s $3. I don’t think that deters anyone from going to Jardiniere, which, by the way, was not an inexpensive little restaurant to begin with. And her customers went bonkers, right?
Ana Marie Cox: I’d bet they’re all good San Francisco liberals, too.
Andrew Zimmern: That’s right. Exactly. This is I mean, this is the irony. Great irony. One of the most liberal cities in America, if not the most liberal. And so then she raised the prices. She wanted to do a little experiment. Now Jandiniere was famous like Zuni in the same city, famous for its roast chicken. Right? She made a dynamite roast chicken. So I asked her, I said 25 years ago when Jardiniere, what was the chicken? She said, oh, it was, you know, whatever, $20 for the plate? I said, what is it now? She said $23. And I said, OK, so your chicken. And she said, that’s the least expensive item on the entrees at dinner. And I asked her and she knew where I was going. That’s just interrupted me and she said, you know, I was only able to raise my price of chicken on the menu 15% over 25 years. But all of my costs went up: 800% in rent, 900% in pay. I mean, just went on and on with these massive increased numbers. The people were easier, they didn’t look, they didn’t care if the $120 bottle of wine was $140, but they sure did care if that chicken price went up because for some reason, not everyone is a vintner but everyone walks into a supermarket, looks at the price of chicken, they forget what goes in to the chicken that went on to Traci’s plates. And I think that restaurateurs—and this is the scary part because some people have to leap first, right? I mean, there’s got to be someone who says, I lept and it’s safe down here in the water. We need to have restaurateurs, my wish is that people start charging what the plate actually costs to put out there, right? Which would mean if they want to stay in a certain window, they have to put less meat on their plate, more beans and farinaceous foods. Serve food a different way. And I think those are going be—
Ana Marie Cox: Smaller menus?
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah, those are going to be better places. I mean, yeah. You know, I don’t think it’s going to be as dark a future as Blade Runner, but I do think we’re going to have, you know, in that amazing movie, in the future—
Ana Marie Cox: Some interesting food choices.
Andrew Zimmern: 2070, Everything looked like, you know, a neighborhood in Tokyo that I eat in a lot, where everything is six seats at the counter and two tables inside, and they serve seven items on the menu and most of them are single subject restaurants. You go to a tempura place for tempura and sukiyaki place for sukiyaki. I think we’re going to have, we’re already seeing more of that here in America, right? You’ve already seen every chef, I mean, Wylie Dufresne just opened a pizza restaurant. Every great chef has just opened a pizza restaurant because it’s inexpensive and you can be creative with it. I think we’ll start to see a rebound back. But I do think we are witnessing the rebranding of American food culture in restaurants right now. We’re living in it so it’s hard to analyze it because it’s right under our feet. But in a few years, I think we’ll be able to have some really good perspective on it. I see it happening all around us.
Ana Marie Cox: Because I’m so aware, and you’ve been talking about big systemic changes, and systemic changes are how we make real change, right? Like climate policy shouldn’t be about recycling, right? Climate policy should be about big companies doing what they do. But there is a big part of this change that you’re talking about that does depend on consumers, like you are saying.
Andrew Zimmern: It’s cultural. That’s the toughest part. It is, and we talked about this at conferences I go to. We just did it at the Milken Institute. I was on a, I was on a panel with Questlove and Nate Moog and a couple of other folks, and it was amazing how we got to this point where there is a responsibility of the consumer, which means, to actually change the way in which they eat, dine out, spend and live. And that is a cultural change. And the only thing that to me, I said—and you’re familiar with this way of thinking ,you’re very public about it—you know, things like fear and tragedy are real movers when it comes to change. When I’m fat, dumb, and happy, I kind of try to stand still, you know, I just want to enjoy it. When there is danger, I’m ready to make a change. And people I think need to understand, I mean, it’s very timely right now as we’re having this conversation with what’s going on overseas with the climate conference, I mean, there we are looking at real danger and real, real massive global problems when it comes to weather and food, and they are interrelated, tremendously, more interrelated I think than people even realize. And we have to, as a society, start to make real substantive changes. I know this sounds crazy coming from a food guy, but we have decided we’re eating out half as much. We’re focusing on different types of food in our home. And it’s just become a very, very necessary part of life because I can’t be talking about this one way and living it another, and it’s really, really hard. It’s really, really hard.
Ana Marie Cox: The phrase that I’m most familiar with from that place, there’s rooms that we both go, to is people don’t change unless they’re uncomfortable enough to change. You have to wait till you get, the discomfort is greater than the fear of change.
Andrew Zimmern: That’s right.
Ana Marie Cox: And speaking of those rooms, we’re going to take a break and then come back and talk about some, some steps that people take sometimes.
Ana Marie Cox: We’re both sober, both out about that. Both got sober in Minneapolis, also. Know some of the same folks. Now I don’t have as much time as you do, and you talk about a lot. This is like a sober person to a sober person question kind of.
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: You have more time than I do quite a bit, but I’ve been doing it for a while and I’ve been blessed—and I do mean literally blessed—that I don’t think much about drugs and alcohol anymore. Right? That’s not the problem for me in my life. I mean, you know what I mean.
Andrew Zimmern: I’m laughing only because I am my problem, right now.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes.
Andrew Zimmern: I’m not worried about drinking today but I’m petrified when I walk out the door in my office, I might be an asshole to someone I care about.
Ana Marie Cox: That is really close to the answer that I was wondering about because like, sometimes what I tell people is that it’s been relatively easy for me to put drink and drugs down, but I relapse on self-hatred and self-pity all the time. Those are the bottles that I reach for. What do you relapse on?
Andrew Zimmern: I relapse, my big one is telling myself scary stories, which is a, you know, probably the thing that I have to focus on the most during the day. And I use a very quick four or five second mindfulness exercise that when I’m telling myself scary stories, I can get rid of them with very short bursts of intense centering, saying: leave my head bad thought three times in a row and imagining a train leaving a 19th century train station. I don’t have to get on that train with that bad thought, I could just watch it go away. And I’ve trained my brain to do that, and it really, really does help. The majority of places where those bad, scary stories come from are things that threaten my comfort or will require more hard work. And that gets into and the reason being is that I feel I’ve done enough right, which is not true. And I also forget that everything good in my life has always come from those moments of challenge, from doing the hard work. So I should actually be welcoming those kind of challenges in my life because they always lead to a betterment of my situation, surroundings, people I care about, myself personally. And then I make less mistakes in that area. But I have these, these fear-based thoughts around certain things that I hold so dearly. I do a lot of bargaining with my higher power. You know, that’s my favorite one. Like, you know, I just, you know, I’m a dad, you know, so you know, and codependency is an issue for me. It’s like, I will, I joke with friends all the time. I’ve had to stop doing it, where I say I’m only as happy as my least happy child, right? Because it puts so much emphasis and pressure on them, right? I need to just accept wherever my child is at and do what I can for him and with him and let him have his own experience. And that is so difficult for me. It’s difficult for me at work. But I think the biggest thing that I relapse on is instant asshole to make myself feel good. And it doesn’t mean I’m like, oh God, I feel crappy, let me go yell at someone. That’s, not what happens. It’s the snarky little comment. It’s the, it’s the little jab here and there with someone instead of trying to be, you know, caring, kind, compassionate, patient, tolerant and understanding with the people in my workplace, the same way I would if someone you know is a first-timer at a meeting or DMs me. I had two people who I only made a suggestion to online, they’d slid into my DMs on Instagram and they asked a question and I said, here’s the number for inter-group blah blah blah, go tell your truth at a meeting and ask for help. One celebrated four years yesterday, one celebrated one year yesterday, and they texted me to thank me, etc., etc. and I had done nothing. All I had done was spent five seconds leading someone I didn’t know in a direction that I had some experience in. But I did it with kindness and with love, and I’m like, I did that for a stranger, it took five seconds. Why can’t I do that more and more and more every single day with the people that are actually around me and be mindful about that? It’s the thing that I struggle with. And you know, it’s I mean, look, I’m just a garden variety, you know, low-bottom New York City garbage head, and you know, I wish that you know my, I’ll take, when I was two years sober, I went to this national, international AA conference, and Mel B, who was a friend of Bill’s, he was very old at the time, but he’d written a book called New Wine, and it was his 60th birthday the night that he was speaking at this conference, and his wife came out and gave him his 60-year medallion. And as is the tradition in recovery rooms, a lot, especially old school, you talk about how you, what you learned that year. And Mel before he spoke, well I’m going to tell you my story, etc. etc. I really think I, more so in this last year than any other, I finally learned to love unconditionally. And then he put it down, where I said, I turn to my best friend, who was also a year sober at the time, and it looked at him and I said, well, that’s great, so in 59 years, we have that going for us. You know? And all those things are not on our timetable, we just have to, it can come at any point. Some people get it five years sober. I’ve learned I just have to put in the work. It’s not that it becomes harder to put in the work the longer that you’ve been sober, it’s just that, you know, it’s why I try to keep it greed. It’s why I still go to meetings. It’s why I still sponsor guys. It why I still do all the stuff that I do, because if I don’t keep it fresh, I lose that perspective on the desperate straits I’m in. I came into recovery one, two, three. I physically, I put down the bottle. I was aware that there was a solution for me, and then I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself that’s helped me to stay sane and stay sober. I slide back, I know that I’ll use again by going out three, two, one. I’ll lose that spiritual connection, and then the stinking thinking comes in, and then I’ll act on it. So I try to stay really close to it these days and Zoom, by the way, you talk about benefits of the COVID era—I was able to go to meetings a hundred times a day if I wanted to. I got to go to meetings in other countries and other cities all around the world. I got to go to meetings with friends in L.A. on a regular basis for about six months before work picked up again. That was absolutely fantastic. I hope the technology—just to bring it full circle—kind of stays within the recovery world in a healthy way. And I also hope that it helps us in our food world as well. We shouldn’t be, we shouldn’t be afraid of it. There are ways in which—I’m not talking about billionaires in space—I’m talking about real science helping human beings.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m really happy you brought up the work of recovery, you know, the ongoing work of it. Because I think the pandemic has also made recovery something that people are talking about more. It’s usually been in a rather dark tone because there have been increases in overdoses. There has been increase in drinking.
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah!
Ana Marie Cox: A lot of people also self-reporting problem drinking. And I feel a little bit like a Pollyanna sometimes, when I say, no, no, this is actually just revealing things that already existed. And actually, there are solutions to them as well. The solutions have already existed. Right?
Andrew Zimmern: It’s fascinating, though. There is one. I agree with you a thousand percent. I’ll offer one friendly amendment because it happened to me and I just find it fascinating. It hasn’t happened since, but I had a sponsee who was, got out of treatment in February, went into a halfway house and was starting his second month of sobriety in March of 2020. And so those first three, four months here in Minnesota, where everything was locked down, he’s locked inside a house in his room with five, six other dudes in this sober house—sorry, not halfway house—and some people were like, always, you know, in sobriety, there’s some people breaking the rules and going in and out and people weren’t wearing masks and deliveries had to come into the house and people had to go out to the supermarket. And every week there was a different person who they thought had COVID, half the time they did. So then you were locked down in your room. You couldn’t afford a laptop. People were trying to do Zoom meetings on their phones. It was, it was. And by the way, he’s plagued with the mind of a 60-day clean person, right, which is bouncing all over the place. And, you know, ultimately, a lot of those people stayed sober and just like it is all the rest of time, a whole bunch didn’t. But what was amazing, there was a really, really challenging time where you had to work a little harder. You couldn’t just walk to a meeting. You couldn’t get, I mean, he was, you know, luckily his, through some people, he found me as a sponsor, right? But he didn’t, he wasn’t from around here, so he didn’t know who was sober and he wasn’t it, it’s hard to tell like, you know, when Zoom meetings really were just—I’m talking about just starting, this was March—he was desperately trying to find the fellowship because he wasn’t getting it with his peers in his house. And it was hard, you know, I knew how to get it at Zoom meetings, but he didn’t know how to get it. So I said, log on five minutes early, stay 15 minutes afterwards. I mean, it’s the same kind of thing with, you know, electronically, but you don’t know what you don’t know. It was fascinating to me. And I love the way that Zoom is, is staying or other things like Zoom are staying in many meetings that have gone back to meeting in person in certain places because it allows the world to connect to that sober group, and I think ultimately it will be, it will be beneficial, more word is spread, so to speak. You know, you have to take that one little step yourself. It’s an action step. I put an action step against every one of my character defensive, defects, against every one of my fears. My sponsor and I’ve had the same one for 30 years told me year one, you can’t think your way into right-acting, but you can act your way in the right-thinking. And there’s always been an action step, a doing of something that I can put against any problem that I write down on a piece of paper. And it always does involve me doing something. Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, sometimes appearing to be hard but once I do it, actually not that hard.
Ana Marie Cox: And often new. Often a thing you just haven’t done before.
Andrew Zimmern: Of course.
Ana Marie Cox: And that makes it hard. Or thing that you don’t think anyone has done before, and that makes it hard.
Andrew Zimmern: It’s fascinating. One of my first counselors in treatment, Mike Langen—and he’s deceased so I can use his last name—one of the great heroes of Minnesota recovery worked at Hazelden for 30-some odd years, but he was my counselor at my halfway house experience, and he pulled me into his office one day and he said, you are such a fucking mess. He said all you want to do are things that you’re already good at, you know? You don’t take—he was just screaming at me. He knew I was a New Yorker so if he used enough F-bombs, I would, I would maybe listen to him a little harder. But he really said, you need to do things that you’ve never done before. Try new things. It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to learn. You always need to be teachable. And he just hammered this at me. And so I picked up a couple of sports. That was the year I started playing disc golf and snowboarding. I still play disc golf all the time and snowboard. And I use those, that same mantra when you know, as a business person, you know? Trying new things is how we learn. It’s how we stay teachable. It’s how we stay being newcomers at something. It’s how we give ourselves some humility. I suck at some of the new things I try and people laugh at me. They’re like, You’re 60 years old, why are you going to go do X, Y or Z? And I’m like, because it’s really fun and it’s new, and I haven’t done it before. You know? That’s why. And I want my son to not be afraid of trying new things. I want other people who are listening to not be afraid of trying new things. Exercise new muscles. It’s how human beings have survived for 40,000 years.
Ana Marie Cox: One of the new things that I’ve tried in the past couple of years is indoor rock climbing, bouldering.
Andrew Zimmern: Oh yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And I, I’m good enough at it to enjoy it. That’s what I’ll say, right? Like I can, the easy route, I can climb up an easy route and that gives me a feeling of satisfaction and great. But what is really inspiring to me about bouldering is actually something that I didn’t do, I was, there’s bouldering teams. I guess, Bouldering was in the Olympics this year so maybe people, know you can do competitive rock climbing. But this place that I was at actually was the Minneapolis Bouldering Project had their teen team, their young adult team, practicing. And it was, the instructors like, OK, here’s your problem—they call the courses problem—do it. And they all went through it. It was actually relatively easy. They’re like young gazelles, they’re just bouncing up.
Andrew Zimmern: Crazy.
Ana Marie Cox: And then the instructor says, now do it wrong. I want you to make a big mistake. I want you to climb this route the wrong way. And I was like, I almost started crying.
Andrew Zimmern: Yeah, it’s powerful.
Ana Marie Cox: Because I was like, God damn, I wish someone had said that to me at some point. I wish someone had told me to do it wrong once or twice.
Andrew Zimmern: You know by going the wrong route on a bouldering project, you then find yourself, I’ll just say, dead-ended, and you have to either go back and try a new way or reach for a, reach for a grip with your hand or your toe or jump, you know and we can—it requires faith, it requires resilience, it requires creative thinking. It’s all of these things. It’s is so relatable to personal wellness and fulfillment and personal growth. Whether you’re an addict or an alcoholic or not, it is, it is a beautiful metaphor for what we do. My sponsor always called that if you want to go over here all the way to left, you may have to start by going all the way right. You know, it’s that sailing metaphor of tacking back and forth, you can’t necessarily always go in a straight line. There’s a thousand of them. But it really is, it really is true. It’s my mistakes, even the ones that I make today that allow me to make great strides in what I’m doing over the course of my life.
Ana Marie Cox: So we have been doing a little bit of perhaps recovery inside baseball, talking about the how it is part rather than how it was or how we get started. And talking about the work of recovery. I suspect that you and I might have this in common, so when we talk about the work you have to do, we talk about doing the hard thing. We talk about putting in the time of discomfort, being willing to have that discomfort. I at least made a mistake in early sobriety, thinking that that meant I had to work, work all the time. I don’t know if you know what I mean, but like I thought I needed to get an A in AA.
Andrew Zimmern: Of course, who doesn’t?
Ana Marie Cox: Right. And I thought that, well, if the solution to all my problems was to take another job, right, to take another writing assignment, and it took me a while to realize that what is actually uncomfortable for me sometimes is to not do anything.
Andrew Zimmern: Yep! Thousand percent I dove into work when I was six months sober in a way I’ve never worked before in my life until I was 13 years sober and got more seriously into TV where there was another burst of work. And both of those times took away focus on other things, and I suffered serious, serious consequences in my life. Huge upheavals. I was not able to put in all the work most recently career-wise and have my marriage survive. That, those decisions have reverberations in my life that if I had to do it all over again, I would probably, I’d like to think that I would say, no, I’m not going to do 32 episodes a year, I’ll do 24. But the money was seductive. The fame was, I mean, I’m just being honest. It was like, you know, I started to have a hit show. I’m on the Jay Leno Show. I mean, stuff is good. I’d never experienced that before. Boy, am I lucky that happened at 12, 13, 14 years sober and not at two years sober. I would have, I would have used for sure. I mean, I just feel that I just would not have been able to handle it. I didn’t have the skillset. I barely survived it as it was. Over-working things and doing too much has always been what I thought was a solution for myself because it was more comfortable than focusing on the stuff that I had to do. I made a list the other day. Someone texted me, a new friend in L.A. actually, I was just texting with them and I said, I’m glad, you know, I’m practicing avoidance or something. And this person is, has no idea what avoidance means. And they said, oh, what do you mean? And I said, oh, there’s, you know, I’m sitting here texting with you and there’s like eight or nine things I really need to focus on. I said, I’m not trying to get off the text, this is nice to catch up for five minutes, I said, but it’s, these are the kind of things I do. So I and she goes, well, what are the things that you’re avoiding? She was just asking! And I was like, oh my gosh, and I said, you know something, I’m going to make a list. And I made a list and texted it back to them. And once it’s written on paper, I’d forgotten my own advice. I would say this to any young person I’m mentoring in recovery: write it down. Write it down. Once you write it down, it’s there’s no escaping it. I mean, you can throw it in the garbage, but then you know what you’re doing, you’re throwing it in the garbage. And I actually, the very next day did item number one. And then I skipped a day, yesterday, I did item number two. And it’s amazing what that sort of micro journaling and stuff will do. I will do work that makes me look busy in avoidance of the things that I should be doing. And sometimes some of the things I should be doing is doing nothing. You know, I’ve had a ping pong table in my garage for 19 months, and I keep saying I’m going to invite a couple of friends over and ask me to move it downstairs. I have friends at my house frequently where I could just move it downstairs, but I don’t do it. It’s the weirdest, weird, why am I afraid of this fucking ping pong table? But it’s a metaphor for my life. I realize it’s a metaphor for my life. I get stuck in the weirdest places and it’s actually talking about them that gets me unstuck.
Ana Marie Cox: Are you going to go move that table now, after our conversation?
Andrew Zimmern: I think I am. That’s why I am, that’s why I’m going to send you, I’m going to text you a picture of me and my little ping pong. I’m sort of in a ping pong outfit right now.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, sure.
Andrew Zimmern: I’m ready to go play some Wes Anderson style ping pong.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. Well, I will let you go play some ping pong. Andrew, thank you so much for coming on the show and thank you so much for your time.
Andrew Zimmern: Oh no, it’s been absolute, it’s my pleasure. You know, it’s been a long time coming. You know how, how much I care about you as a friend. And it’s great to see your face and great to talk to you and great to talk to your audience. So have a wonderful, wonderful—if I don’t see you before up here, I’ll see you in March in Austin.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, the South by Southwest might actually happen.
Andrew Zimmern: It might actually happen. I’m going to be down there for like a week.
Ana Marie Cox: A big thank you to Andrew Zimmern. You can catch his new show, “Family Dinner” on the Magnolia Network, and find episodes of “What’s Eating America” including a special on addiction on MSNBC.com. This show is a product of Crooked Media. Lesley Martin is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. And please take care of yourselves.