Andrew Zimmern: Chef Andrew Zimmern Shared His Keys to Staying Sober for 30 Years
YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, Andrew Zimmern is the guy from Bizarre Foods. Or, as he self-deprecatingly summarizes his most-recognized public persona, the host of “a show about a fat white guy that goes around the world and eats bugs.”
But Zimmern is also way more than Bizarre Foods, a show where, yes, he consumed insects, but also an experience that was born from deep personal work in recovery from drugs and alcohol. In fact, Zimmern says Bizarre Foods was centered on the tenants of 12-step recovery: patience, tolerance, and understanding.
Zimmern celebrated 30 years of sobriety this year, and his accomplishments are a testament to how hard he has worked—and continues to work—his program.
He’s won an Emmy and four James Beard Awards. He’s the CEO of Passport Hospitality a restaurant and food service development company. Plus, he’s deeply involved in philanthropy work, serving on the board of directors of Services for the UnderServed, Project Explorer/EXPLR, and Soigne Hospitality. And, more recently, he’s the founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, fighting to save restaurants affected by Covid-19.
Right now, you can watch him on Family Dinner on the Magnolia Network.
Heck, watch him in anything, through the lens of his recovery, and you’ll notice he’s far more than what he eats. He’s a man who has lived his life in service of others.
That, he says, he owes entirely to recovery.
Men’s Health: What does a 30 year sobriety chip look like? Is it like an Olympic gold medal?
Andrew Zimmern: It depends on which one you buy. There are more humble ones and then there are flashier ones—especially through the big numbers.
How does it feel to have lived more than half your life in recovery?
When you see three Xs there in Roman numerals on a coin you think of the horrific black hole you crawled out of quite some time ago, it’s kind of crazy. I turned 60 this year, so mathematically that gives me half of my life clean. It’s a time of great perspective.
Take us back to 30 years ago. What, what was the first step you took toward recovery and what did it feel like?
I don’t really feel I took a step. I feel like a step was taken for me.
I was homeless in New York. I was living in an abandoned building. I was stealing purses and stuff like that, you know, petty thievery to get by. I was a user of people.
It occurred to me one night, I’m sleeping on a pile of dirty clothes on the floor and I’m thinking to myself, well, there are winners and losers in life. I had lost a lot so that means I’m a loser. And I really was overwhelmed with this feeling of not going on.
I took the bold action of stealing some things, hawking some things, and putting together a couple of hundred dollars into a a pathetic little war chest. Then I checked into a hotel that doesn’t exist anymore called the San Pedro.
It was one of the last kind of flophouse hotel—a terrible place. There was a liquor store across the street and I’d bought a couple of cases of Popov vodka. I ripped the phone cord out of the wall and just started drinking around the clock.
My goal was to drink myself to death. I truly just didn’t want to exist anymore.
I came to less than three, no more than four, days later. I plugged in the cord in the wall and called a friend and asked for help. That was something that I had never done before in my life. I called a friend and he said, “Where are you?” And 20 minutes later, he was there.
He kept me at his house for 48 hours and he said I should have a cup of coffee with this friend of his. I agreed just to keep him happy. That was my last intervention. Some friends drove me to the airport; literally walked me on the plane. I had a one way ticket to Minnesota. That was the evening of January 28th, 1992.
What was your first 12 step meeting like?
I was on the hospital unit [at treatment] and a meeting was brought in by volunteers.
My first real [voluntary] meeting was the very first night that I was transitioned to a halfway house. A bunch of people were going to this meeting in Saint Paul and asked me to join them.
I knew that I was required to go to a meeting every day, and I went. There was three feet of snow on the ground and there was a plowed path about 50 feet in front of a house that was set back on this avenue. And there was this stunningly dressed, older woman with a tweed skirt and matching jacket and a kind of a throw over shoulders.
She just looked so classy and I remember having no self-esteem and feeling slovenly. I had no clothes or anything. I was wearing someone else’s clothes and I got out of the car and I walked down the path, and tried to go around her. She wasn’t moving. She was just standing there.
Then she sort of reached over and pulled me back onto the path and gave me a hug and said, “Welcome.” Then she turned to the next person and hugged them and said, “Welcome.” And I realized she was the greeter and I started crying.
Being hugged changed my life. It was my first really tender experience in recovery.
What was your first therapy session like?
Define “therapy.” I had several. I mean, you’re getting a lot of therapeutic testing and you meet with psychologists in the treatment center because they want to make sure you’re dry and determine if you have any other compounding mental health issues.
How about your first elective therapy session?
Oh gosh, that was probably a year or two into recovery. The literature of my 12 step program very clearly says that sometimes outside professional help is needed. I felt very strongly that I had underlying emotional and mental health issues that, if dealt with, if looked at, if I engaged with them, my recovery would be accelerated.
And so I’ve seen a therapist off and on at various times over the last 29 years. It’s really helped me gain perspective on the kaleidoscope of thoughts that were inside my head. Getting perspective on your life is so incredibly valuable.
I was able to deal with issues that my recovery work had revealed.
What was your first experience with a Higher Power?
I was in the first week of treatment. I realized quickly through our group that the one thing everyone has in common in recovery is that they have some kind of relationship with a power greater than ourselves.
Reading the literature and listening to people, I felt like a lot of people sort of had this white-light, spiritual experience.
I had already forgotten about my experience at that flophouse hotel, but when I looked back it was, in fact, my first white-light, spiritual experience. I was instantaneously motivated to ask for help, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
I was told that “you can’t think your way into right acting, but you can act your way into right thinking.” I laughed and thought that was a silly little cliche, but my counselor challenged me to try it.
So I went out in the snow, got down on my knees, and said a prayer to this tree: “Tree, take care of me. Show me there’s something out there.”
Later that night, the speaker [at a meeting] just literally told my story from the stage. It was different words, but my story. Later I asked if he could be my sponsor. He’s still my sponsor today.
It was pointed out to me that maybe that was the tree giving me what I needed. And I found that idea really intriguing—just to be made aware of what was around me.
And as I became made aware of what was around me, I started to recall that day in the flophouse hotel and all these things. And I realized that I did have a Higher Power and it was all the other people around me.
How did you handle the inherent earnestness of program language and step work with your sense of humor?
Put 25 addicts and alcoholics all over the country to a basement room at a building in Minnesota, and you have a comedy that you can’t write anywhere else.
There’s dark humor in people talking about terrible aspects of life and everyone all chuckling along with it in recognition. There are incredibly, incredibly funny moments as we share our stories and how we learn. It’s, of course, punctuated by incredible emotional rockets that are profoundly uplifting or sad or just insanely poignant. But there’s laughter and it’s irreplaceable.
I felt like a raindrop entering the river in 12 step rooms and that continues to this day.
How did you balance travel and recovery?
I would seek out meetings and other countries—dozens of countries, sometimes where they didn’t even have English-speaking [meetings] just to be in the room and hear the cadence of the language. Listening to other people in a language I can’t speak going around and sharing still gave me incredible comfort.
What was your relationship like with food before recovery and how did it change in recovery?
I was always obsessed with food. You know, when I was five, my parents thought that I was going to be in the food business.
I’ve never not worked in restaurants since I was 14. So food has been the central part of my life for 55 years.
But once I got into recovery, there are there posters on the walls and rooms that talk about patience, tolerance, and understanding. I realized over the course of my recovery that I had so much patience, tolerance, and understanding for other people.
I would do anything for the newcomer, but why wasn’t I doing anything for other people in other places in my life? I started to think about food that way.
I was the chef and a minority partner in a fancy French restaurant and my insides weren’t matching my outsides. I quickly abandoned that job and decided to pursue a career in media. I started working for a local magazine, a local radio station, and local TV station.
I created my own syllabus, my own internship program, and made myself indispensable at all three places. And all of that eventually led to the career that I have now.
AZ and the Lost City of Ophir
Very, very simply put, they are dramatically connected. I will give you the most blatant example. Bizarre Foods, which I would assume is how most people know me, was on one hand a show about a fat white guy that goes around the world and eats bugs.
That wasn’t what I intended it to be. It was a vehicle for me to preach about patience, tolerance, and understanding. I created that show in recovery rooms. The mission was to show people how much we have in common.
Have you ever cooked for, or brought food to 12 step meetings?
I brought food in, but I’ve also been a part of cooking for workshops that are put on.
I go away every year and do workshops and I’ve had the opportunity where someone has said, “Hey, we’re doing this dinner thing,” and there’s like 12 of us, and I help figure out [the food].
I think there’s a big connection between food and taking care of others and service work. I consider it service work.
I know I’m bringing up something controversial here, but 12 step groups operate on a strict adherence to anonymity. You, clearly, are not quiet about your recovery. How do you reconcile the two?
This is very important to me. The question actually gets the anonymity issue ‘wrong.’
We are anonymous at the level of press/radio/film.
What we are anonymous about is what 12 step group we attend.
The reason recovering people don’t name their group is so that we are never seen as speaking for something that has no leadership or spokesperson. That’s the anonymity part.
What I believe, as do many others, is that publicly saying I am a drug addict and alcoholic is very powerful. It demonstrates that recovery is possible for anyone.
What is your favorite form of service?
It’s really impossible to say. It’s like, what’s your favorite book? Three or four come to mind.
I love having intergroup phones switched over to mine and working the overnight shift where people just call with questions. I love working one-on-one with the men that I sponsor because that’s a very intimate relationship. I love taking meetings into other places. But I learned a long time ago from an old-timer that it’s just as valuable to pick up the phone and call your mother more often and tell her that you love her.
There there’s lots of ways to be of service. Sometimes I even anonymously go around and empty the garbage here at work in the office or push all the chairs in all the rooms, which I learned how to do in 12 step rooms.
What is your favorite form of self care?
Uh, sleep? You don’t do a lot of that during acting out.
I mean, I hate to be a one-trick pony, but if I’m feeling really crappy, really shitty, about some aspect of my life, I’ll call three or four men off a phone list from a meeting that I go to.
If I’m thinking about someone, I’m not thinking about myself and my own little problems.
How do you define serenity?
That I’m doing what I’m supposed to do in a given day so that my head hits the pillow clean.
I feel extremely serene when I’m okay with everything in my life at that moment. That acceptance is serenity.
What advice do you have for someone who believes that they might have a problem, but isn’t sure if therapy or recovery is right for that?
I really only know one way to get sober and that’s how I got sober.
Over the course of the many years, I’ve heard a lot of other stories from other people, but I don’t have any intimate understanding of what to do outside my own recovery.
So I tell people, decide, right now, one person in your life that you trust and love and go and tell them all of your story. Go ahead and do it. And then go to a meeting as quickly as possible and ask for help, which in a nutshell is what happened to me.
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