Quick Stats: Andrew Zimmern, chef/host of "Bizarre Foods America"
Daily Driver: 2011 BMW 535i (Andrew's rating: 9.5 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: The coast of Italy
Car he learned to drive in: Pontiac convertible
First car bought: 1957 Postal Jeep
With his gift for storytelling and the ability to eat anything, no matter how strange, it's no wonder that chef and three-time James Beard Award-winning TV host Andrew Zimmern has some of the most popular shows on Travel Channel, including "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern," in which he travels all over the world, and the domestic spin-off "Bizarre Foods America."
Zimmern speaks of his cars and road trips with the same eloquence and enthusiasm as when he's talking about food. His daily driver is the 2011 BMW 535i xDrive, which he gives a 9.5 rating. "My relationship with my car is very personal. I love it," he says via phone from Minneapolis (from the car) "It's the perfect car for me. It's a great sedan. It looks good when I'm driving with my lovely wife (Rishia). It's actually a great family car. And in terms of get up and go when I need it to get up and go, I've never been able to say that it didn't."
Zimmern contemplated buying one of the 7 Series cars. "My wife said, 'That's just too much car for you.' While I love my current car, the next one I'm going to go up a notch. I love my car. I'm just going to get a 7 Series next year only because I want a little bit more interior capsule room and I want a little bit more get up and go," he says. "The get-up-and-go factor is pretty profound with me and I don't think it's because I'm having a midlife crisis, but I've had the opportunity to take a whole bunch of cars out on the open road and tracks recently, and got a chance to drive a couple of Lamborghinis and it ignites the 12-year-old child inside of me that just wants to go fast."
He had the chance to drive the Lamborghinis at this year's Food and Wine Classic in Aspen. "It was just awesome. Lamborghini brings down a whole bunch of the cars and lets some of us drive them, so I got a chance to take a beautiful brand-new Lamborghini out and drive it up towards Independence Pass. It was great," he says. "I got it up to about 130 miles an hour before I went by a police officer and I reminded myself that even though the road was empty, I was technically breaking the law. It's fun boys with toys. Some of the companies I think are very smart. They realize there's some tastemakers who were there and it's probably in their best interest to let some of us take out some vehicles."
Although he did post about it online, Zimmern did it subtly, he said, since he has a philosophy about using social media.
"Here's the difference: If people see the folks that come into their bedroom on the little magic box doing too much of that 'Hey look at me!' I think it's the downfall of social media," he says. "It's just not my personal thing that I like to Tweet about the most, but I had to shout out a big 'thank you' for the guys at Lamborghini for hooking me up with that. It was just such a treat. I had never driven one before."
The Zimmern family also owns a BMW X5. It's his wife's car, although Zimmern drives it all the time. He likes BMW's Hill Descent Control. "I'm particularly in love with that because we live in a very hilly neighborhood with a lot of ice," he says. "I love it, and it's a great snow car. I live in Minnesota, so that's the car I drive up to the cabin. I take it on my hunting trips. It's a wonderful family vehicle. We adore it."
Car he learned to drive in
Zimmern learned to drive in 1976 in his dad's Pontiac convertible. "I believe it was a Firebird. It was several years old. It wasn't a low-mileage late model. The car at the time was kind of long, and the car that I learned on in Driver's Ed was a stouter sedan. I'm assuming it was one of the first modern-day Ford or Chrysler sedans, whatever the local driving school was teaching kids on."
The difference in the two cars cost him when it came to his driving test in his dad's car. "I think like most kids, I blew it on my parallel parking because of the length of the nose of the car. If I remember correctly, that model in that year had a short rear end and a long front end, and I remember failing it. All I had to do was park and be successful and I was not, and I remember begging the guy to give me a chance and getting one and passing."
Zimmern got his learner's permit in East Hampton, Long Island, where he mostly learned to drive. "I grew up in New York City, but we had our summer home there," he says. "I'm born on the Fourth of July. I had done Driver's Ed in the city, and the first opportunity to get my license was during the summer at our house. Learning to drive in New York City would have been an absolute disaster. You learn how to sit in traffic and stop and start."
But he got hooked on cars a few years before that when he went to Italy for the first time with his dad, who was in the advertising industry. His dad's colleague took Zimmern and his best friend, both 12 at the time, for a ride in a Ferrari.
"We sat side by side in the passenger seat of his Ferrari Spider and he drove us from Milan up into the hills to a town called Bergamo. Short drive. I think it took us a half hour," he recounts. "Took us to a restaurant for dinner and I had never been in a car like that and it started a love affair for me."
First car bought
"The first car that I bought was a 1957 postal van with sliding doors and the wheel on the right-hand side, English style. It was painted grey. I still have the postal key ring on my current car's key set from that car," Zimmern says proudly. "It cost me $100. It didn't go over 35 mph. Going across bridges, if it was a windy day, the car would literally move sideways. Those two-door little postal Jeeps are not designed for anything other than puttering around neighborhoods delivering mail, but that was my first car."
Zimmern bought that when he moved to Minneapolis. "Growing up in New York, we had a family car that was in the garage that I could use and I had friends with cars. When I was up at college, all my roommates had cars. There never was a need for me to get a car and I didn't see it like a lot of other kids see it -- it wasn't a ticket to freedom for me."
Wen he lived in New York City, his parents had cars available to him, which was a luxury for any city dweller. And since they were in the city, the family cars weren't driven much.
"When I moved to Minnesota, I hadn't been here more than a couple weeks before I had to buy a car because there was no other way to get around,' he says. "I was 30 years old, I had just moved here, I had cratered my life in New York and had come out here and was working in a restaurant in St. Paul and needed a car. And it was the only one I could afford. It was great."
He graduated to an old Ford Bronco after the postal Jeep. "Then I went to a really old Jeep Wagoneer, the kind with the sofa seats in the front, not buckets, and the fake wood side," he says. "That old Grand Wagoneer. That car went through snow like it was nobody's business."
He then went through several Jeep Grand Cherokees. "I went through my Grand Cherokee phase and I got rid of my last Grand Cherokee about three years ago and we swapped over to BMWs."
For years he would keep getting new Jeeps, until one cold day finally made him consider buying another car. "During the wintertime, the Grand Cherokees were cold on the passenger side and every winter my wife would say to me, 'When are we going to get a car that actually heats when it says it's going to heat?' It was one of those things we always laughed about, and at one point we just looked at each other and said, 'We have the house in 'burbs, we have the 1.5 kids, the cat, the dog. Let's get a sedan and a family car and switch it up.'"
With "Bizarre Foods," "Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World" and now "Bizarre Foods America," he's become a popular TV personality, yet Zimmern still hasn't gotten a splurge car.
"The splurge car for me is the next one. And I don't mean that in the philosophical sense, like I'm never going to do it -- there's always a splurge car out there in front of me," he says.
There was always a practical side to his car purchases. "I have always wanted to do other things and growing up with dough, growing up in New York City, very few people have cars," he says. "We were the exception having cars that we were able to keep in our apartment building. Cars are not a part of the equation. Why would you spend money on a car, you don't use it? It's not something that overly practical young Jewish men decide is the best thing to do. I wanted to travel, I wanted to spend money in restaurants, and I'm not being cutesy there. It's actually how it was. So I decided at an early age I would get a car that I liked and I just kept getting the same one. It's why I went through five models of the Jeep Cherokee. I loved those cars."
He's realizing his son is getting older and he's thinking about what the next car might be. "I'm less concerned about him in the back in a child seat, we now have some family history to look at and say, 'Hey, we can use my wife's car for this and my car for that' and so I'm trying to remain practical but I think the next one is going to be the splurge car."
He is thinking about the BMW 7 Series as the next car. "I'm really worried about myself because I keep having these opportunities to drive fast Italian cars and gosh knows it's a very, very, very powerful drug," he says.
Zimmern's fans might notice he sometimes will incorporate driving on his show and that's intentional. "We go duck hunting and I want to get some big fat-wheeled Jeep that I can slog through the mud with. I seek out driving opportunities wherever I can in my TV show as well. We've had some fun driving moments in 'Bizarre Foods' and some fun driving moments on my Web series. It's a blast. I love driving," he says. "So much so that I speak at a conference and I insist that my wife and I always take separate cars, not for safety or security reasons, but just because I like to turn on the music in my car and zone out and drive."
While Zimmern's shows are all about the food, it's not uncommon for him to bring up cars when they're planning future shows. "I hate to say that everyone is sick and tired of me in production meetings saying, 'What kind of car could I drive there?' but I'm always saying, 'What kind of car could I drive there?'"
Favorite road trip
Zimmern has enjoyed many road trips and there are some he'd like to do one day. "My dream is to do the Peking to Paris race. I'm obsessing from afar about some of these road rally races," he says.
"My favorite road trip probably that I've ever taken is I did the coast of Italy when I was 25 or 26 years old," he says. "We rented a car and started in the northwest side, went all the way around the boot. Down one leg and up the other over the course of the summer."
He also enjoys driving along the California coast, including the drive between L.A. and San Francisco. "Last year my family and I spent four days doing what you could do in a half day, driving from the Mexico border up to Los Angeles, stopping along with my kid doing everything from the San Diego Zoo to Legoland, to spending a couple days at the beach," he says. "It was awesome. We literally started at the border and came up. That was really fun."
He's looking forward to taking his family on a road trip that he did many years ago. "At the beginning of next summer we're going to do a trip that I did as a youngster and my wife did a couple of times, which is Minneapolis through South Dakota and the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and up into Yellowstone. I'm really, really excited about that," he says. "I did it as part of one of those camp troupe trip things. If I remember correctly, they put us all on a bus outside of Chicago."
Fans of his show might recall the time he went to Mongolia. The trip required a lot of driving. "I'll tell you what's really exciting, I got to do this in the show, one of the best road trips I've ever taken was across Mongolia," Zimmern says, in a way that makes you feel like he's about to let you in on a secret. "We probably covered 1,400 miles in a Jeep convoy across the steppes -- they don't call it a prairie. No roads -- well, limited roads."
A lot of the time they were driving across the Mongolian prairie. "That's a blast," he says. "Other than some really bad meals. You're sleeping in tents with tiny little stoves powered by animal dung. It's not for the faint of heart. Sadly, I wish we chronicled more of the actual traveling, but we don't. Some of the best footage that is on our cutting room floor is of traveling across the steppe on our Mongolia show. It's great because you can put a camera on a hill and drive a bunch of cars with those big roostertails of dust across the steppe. It's the iconic 'look at me traveling' shot."
"Bizarre Foods America" on Travel Channel
"Bizarre Foods America" is the spin-off of "Bizarre Foods" and Zimmern shows that you don't have to cross an ocean to find bizarre foods. The current season ends Sept. 2 with Zimmern going to Houston. There will be reruns until a new season picks up again in November.
"The great thing about having a successful heritage series that has a legion of loyal fans and is growing every year, which I'm extremely grateful about, is that we know how to tell great stories," he says.
"I think what some of the biggest surprises of the season, my favorite episode is probably our Queens, New York, episode because I don't think people understand how and complete and perfect an ethnic eating experience Queens represents, with over a hundred ethnic communities there," he continues. "It really is a pretty brilliant place. And the food there is second to none. Manhattan gets all the love and attention, Brooklyn gets all the hipster rage, but if you're looking for the ultimate food experience, Queens, New York, is where it's at. I had family there. I had family all over the city except Staten Island and my mother lived in Astoria for the last years of her life."
One interesting place he found in Queens was a restaurant that featured dishes from Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
When he spoke to us, Zimmern was in the middle of shooting the new season. "The season that we're shooting now which starts airing in November, we go back out overseas as well," he says.