If the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is “summer camp for chefs” — and Andrew Zimmern believes that it is — then Zimmern may well be the camp counselor.
By his count, the chef, restaurateur, media personality and food writer has been to something like 25 of the last 27 iterations of the three-day eating-and-drinking bonanza. And by this reporter’s count, his three scheduled appearances on this year’s seminar schedule were more than any other foodie or chef. (A couple of sommeliers had him beat with a count of four on the wine side.)
Zimmern sees the Classic as an “opportunity to breathe” in an industry where there isn’t a lot of room for the luxury of inhaling and exhaling. He also sees it as a chance to educate, which he does plenty in panels, cooking demonstrations and courtyard conversations.
“Over the last five years, this industry has pivoted into a place that cares more about the industry than ever before, and more about the guest education than ever before,” he said in an interview in downtown Aspen on Saturday.
“It’s not just about giving away a sample, it’s about explaining what that farm-raised piece of fish means to our climate crisis, you know?” Zimmern said. “You know, it’s not just about the panel, the funny panel we did (Saturday morning at the Classic) — “Wait, Wait … DO tell me!” — it’s about all of our desires to let the guests know what’s really going on inside our industry.”
Zimmern was one of five on that “Wait Wait” panel, which was loosely based on NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and also included sommelier Amanda McCrossin and chefs Maneet Chauhan, Paola Velez and Tiffany Derry.
Panel participants shared plenty of quips, and Zimmern took every chance to pepper in some of his cheeky zingers. But the focus wasn’t so much on answering a quirky quiz (in the style of NPR’s iteration) as it was on telling diners how they could better support the restaurants where they eat.
Speak to restaurateurs if there’s a concern rather than leave a Yelp review, the panelists suggested, and respect rising prices that reflect the higher cost of ingredients and an investment in restaurant labor, too.
Zimmern already has an enormous platform to spread his good word. He’s the creator, host and executive producer of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” franchise, plus “Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food” and “The Zimmern List,” and he has several other series to his name. He’s written four books; he does podcasts; he’s the founder and CEO of the restaurant and food retail development group Passport Hospitality.
To him, an event like the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is another way to reach a lot of people who already regularly seek out the chance to hear what he’s saying and be a part of the conversation, too.
“I see it as the same opportunity: I see this crowd, this community of culinarians all the time on the road,” Zimmern said. “It may be a different set of guests, but these are still the same people, whether it’s concentrated or not, who come into our restaurants, read my books, who watch my shows, so I just think it’s all part of the same melting pot.”
But there are also a lot of people out there who don’t have the means to really engage with that “community of culinarians.” What about them?
“I think actually, that’s one of the problems with our industry, is that we forget that sometimes we’re just talking to 1 percenters,” Zimmern said.
It’s why he makes a point to cite statistics on food insecurity, and to identify solutions to feed people who might not know where their next meal is coming from. He also sees some of his media work — appearances on other podcasts, interviews and the like — as a way to reach the folks who can’t afford to dine out all the time but still want to engage in the culinary conversation.
“There are people listening to that podcast for whom a meal out in a restaurant is a once-a-year thing, not a once a week, and so I spend the majority of my time over the course of the year trying to reach those who struggle to have a food life,” Zimmern said.
Later Saturday afternoon, at his seminar on “Falling in Love with Invasive Species,” Zimmern cooked up iguana and carp — in part because proving the maligned menu items can be delicious might help address the invasive species impacts, but also in part because these proliferating proteins could help address hunger and food insecurity, too.
“If we want to feed this hungry planet, we need to redefine what constitutes food,” he said in the interview. “And I think I can advance that conversation by talking about invasive species.”
And, notably, talking about them with the same gravity and affection and sometimes-hyperbolic enthusiasm that he applied at last year’s Classic to not-so-bizzare foods like schnitzel and moules poulette.
“We have a romantic relationship with food that is unlike any other at any time in our collective histories,” Zimmern said during the invasive species seminar. “And we should be applying some of that love and worship, and dare I say it, fetishization of food that goes on here (at the Food & Wine Classic), we should be applying some of that energy to those that don’t have as much right now.”