TV chef Zimmern talks Milwaukee
Chef-turned-travel expert Andrew Zimmern is probably best known for his adventures criss-crossing the globe as the creator and host of Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods." During his travels, the New York native-turned-Minnesotan has eaten a broad range of adventurous fare, from squirrel in the Appalachians to cow's blood in Tanzania.
But, it's Zimmern's desire to gain an intimate understanding of culture through food that drives his travels. That same desire is reflected in one of his latest projects, a series of webisodes called "Appetite for Life."
Zimmern visited Milwaukee this weekend for a whirlwind trip featuring visits to Sweetwater Organics and Clock Shadow Creamery. I was fortunate enough to catch up with him during one of his rare spare moments, during which he shared his thoughts about the ways Milwaukee is helping to shape the future of food in the U.S.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you decide which Milwaukee places to feature for "Appetite for Life"?
Andrew Zimmern: The theme for this year's "Appetite for Life" series is about innovation and partnerships. We're trying to harness the passion of young people for innovation and making change in the world.
Here in Milwaukee, you have what is probably the most traditional food on the planet, other than bread, which is cheese. Cheese is not a new thing in Wisconsin, but to be in the only urban cheese-making facility in the state with young cheese makers, that's a fun thing for us.
Those are the stories and angles that interest me the most. That's where we can demonstrate what kind of change is possible and show people the passion that so many folks have for creating food in America.
OMC: Do you remember your very first trip to Milwaukee?
AZ: Yeah, I was with my dad. It was on a business trip. It was a long time ago. I think I ate at Kopp's.
OMC: In your experience, how do the perceptions of Milwaukee compare to the reality you've found here through your travels and experiences of food?
AZ: You know, everybody shrugs off cities like Milwaukee. I've heard the same thing about St. Paul, where I lived for 17 years before I moved across the river to Minneapolis. Somebody would come there and say, "Wow this is a cool place," and it's like, yeah, we've known that for a long time.
We were driving around the Walker's Point area with some folks today and showing them the "other side" of Milwaukee and I remember coming here, I think the hook got set for me about seven years ago.
I was doing a travel article for Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I sold them on Milwaukee as a destination for Twin-Citians looking to go and have a great weekend. I spent an incredibly cool weekend here. From the Serb dining hall to the Friday night fish fries. From the super cool beer bars where at midnight some great little power rock trio takes the stage, to some of the Mexican restaurants in town.
And seven years ago there weren't half the hipster cool things to do in town. There's been an explosion here, and I said the same thing in a phone call to a friend last night. They were sitting in their apartment in New York and making a joke about Milwaukee. And I said "You know, Milwaukee really is Brooklyn without a lot of the assh*les." And I'm a New Yorker and I'm saying that. Brooklynites have lost Brooklyn ... I mean other people have moved in. But Milwaukee ... I'm really warmed by it.
There are more 100-year-old restaurants operating here in Milwaukee than almost anywhere else I've ever been in the United States. Where else can you eat food in a 100-year-old dining room? It's just an amazing place.
Milwaukee has a lot of character, but more importantly, it has a ton of culture. So, for someone like me who tells stories about culture through food, the appeal of a city like Milwaukee is tremendous.
OMC: What's your impression of how Milwaukee adds to the national food scene?
AZ: Oh, gosh. I mean, there are a couple of ways. The craft food movement in America is all about tradition. I have friends in L.A. and New York who are always bugging me about connections into some of the stories they know I've covered in Milwaukee and cities throughout the Midwest because we've been doing it that way for a long, long time.
And this is not a knock against chefs on the coasts; they have been leading for a long time. Everybody always joked that the Midwest was flyover country and that things that were hot 10 years ago in New York and L.A. would eventually pop up here in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And now it's the exact opposite. The stuff that we've been doing for years and years is now popping up there. Chefs in San Francisco and Miami and Boston and Houston are scrambling to learn how to cure bacon and make sausage and do things like that from scratch.
The hottest trends in food right now are canning and putting things up. We've been doing that for a long, long time. Every line cook in the Midwest knows how to do that because their grandparents taught them. The hunting and foraging trend is something that is a movement on the coasts but it's not a movement here – it's something we've all done our whole lives.
So, the things that Wisconsin and Milwaukee stand for most are the things that are sort of the hot culinary trends right now. I think that's a fascinating turn of events.
OMC: Did anything in particular inspire you while you were here this time?
AZ: This was a short trip today. We only visited a couple of spots, and it killed me that I couldn't go to some of my regular haunts. However, the biggest impact that this trip had on me was really in the time I spent at Sweetwater. The enthusiasm that those young kids have ... there are young people who are half a generation older than those kids who are entitled brats. I deal with a lot of them in many parts of the country. But, I see young people like the ones at Sweetwater Organics as the ones who are going to save the planet for my son. So, it's a really grateful feeling.
OMC: So, what are your haunts?
AZ: That trashy, dirty supermarket-good barbecue sauce at Speed Queen. I can't explain it – that sour, sweet, smoky, wonderful flavor with that not-from-nature color. There's just something about it. I've just got to have it.
And there's what Justin and Sandy have been doing over at Sanford ... obviously. They're old, old friends of mine and I love that place.
The soft-serve (custard) giants that are here are incredible. I frequent both of them and I'm sick and tired of talking about it because you swing by one place for a cone, and everybody says you're not going to the right place. Drives me crazy. There is no "right" place.
And it's really interesting. I was just here overnight a couple of weeks ago. I spent the night at the Iron Horse Hotel to see what their new chef manager, Scott Pampeau, was up to. He's one of the young hotshot chefs in the Twin Cities who has moved here to Milwaukee. I think what he's doing over there is really cool. The changes over there are really fun to see and it will be cool to see what happens there over the next year or so.
OMC: When will you be coming back to see us next?
AZ: I think I'm speaking somewhere near here in the spring, unless I come down for a sporting event or I'm driving through before that. I'm always perambulating between my backyard in Minnesota and Chicago. So, Madison and Milwaukee are always places I'm headed ... probably six times a year. I may be deer hunting with a friend near here a few weeks from now. You never know.
The "Appetite for Life" webisode featuring Milwaukee will air in early November on appetiteforlife.com. In addition, our fair city will be featured for a second time on "Bizarre Foods" in an episode set to air in March 2013.
Keep up with Zimmern's travels at andrewzimmern.com.
INdustri Cafe | Sept. 25, 2012 at 7:43 p.m. (report)
AZ, Thanks again for the visit! See you soon!
"Milwaukee...Brooklyn without a lot of the assh*les" would make an excellent bumpersticker or tourism slogan.
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