By Adrian Danciu
Last week, chef and Bizarre Foods mastermind Andrew Zimmern returned home to Minnesota to speak at the 75th annual American Public Gardens Association Conference. Hosted by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, the conference’s keynote speaker chatted plants, food, and how much Minnesota is missing out on their full farming potential.
We sat down with Zimmern to get the Cliffnotes version of his speech—and of course we had to ask which Twin Cities restaurants he has his eye on.
When APGA approached you to do this, why did you feel it was important?
I think it’s important for people who have a lot of experience on a large platform to have ideas, to think progressively and to take responsibility for their community. There are a lot of people that do what I do that achieve a large amount of notoriety and don’t feel any responsibility for that. I think that’s shameful. I’m really busy; I have more things that I need to devote time to that I don’t have any time to donate to. … This is where I live, so we try to prioritize anything local, and the chance to be able to talk about some big ideas and reorient some mindsets in the room and get on the soap box about some of the issues that I feel very strongly about, I don’t like to pass up those opportunities. I’m a loudmouth. I want everybody to do what I say and think what I think.
I think they’ll listen to you.
I hope so. It’ll help when I run for governor.
I didn’t think that was in the plan—is that in the plan?
… When the TV thing is done and everything runs its course, I believe very strongly in public service. I want to do something here—at least I want to be mayor of Edina or something. I like the management side of it versus the legislative side.
Can you touch base on some of the things you’ll talk about today?
I’m not talking about pretty flowers. I’m not going to spend too much time talking about weird vegetables I’ve eaten, although I’ll probably mention both. I think in America especially, we’ve narrowed our food choices to a point where we’ve become our own worst enemy. We’ve created a food system in this country that hurts us instead of helps us. America’s the only country in the world where 14 ounces of animal protein has to be the center place of every meal. You go to restaurants, it’s the half chicken with a side of mashed potatoes and broccoli; it’s the big steak; it’s the giant pork chop—all that comes with potatoes and veg. We know when we travel around the world and look at other cultures that small amounts of animal protein—lean animal protein—with lots of colorful vegetables, beans, and farinaceous foods is a more healthy way to eat. The sexy story in all the magazines and on TV shows and everything for the last five, six years—including my own—has been, let’s not just eat tuna, salmon, halibut, shrimp and lobster. Let’s eat little fish with the heads on it; let’s eat different things from the ocean so that we’re spreading out our choices. A) It’s healthier and B) it’s more sustainable. Nobody talks about that with plants.
Second big idea I think I’m going to have time to throw out to them: Why doesn’t Minnesota own the word ‘farm’ in the same way Wisconsin owns the word ‘cheese’? … I’d like to see the state of Minnesota develop a NASA Moonshot-type of project to literally make farming in Minnesota a 12-month-a-year thing. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think we should teach the world about that sort of stuff in the same way that countries like the Danish and the Dutch teach us about water management and wind energy. Why shouldn’t Minnesota lead the way with that? I believe our tradition in the state is farming, yet we just farm the same crap. I don’t think that’s right. I think we can speak for diversity when it comes to our plant life.
Now, I’ll give myself a little more credit. We always talk about those types of issues on Bizarre Foods. We don’t just talk about eating fermented dolphin anus; I mean, I’m doing a ton of stuff with plants and plant-based foods in every episode. We insist on it. I insist on it. So I’ll tell some fun stories about things that I’ve seen around the world and where I think it’s important for people to be exploring in terms of food, especially on the Asian side, on sea vegetables, things like that. I’m probably going to wind up my talk by talking about my friend Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek Foods. … He’s mapped the genomes of thousands of plants and is mapping the rest of them—all the ones that exist in the world. He’s a NASA Moonshot kind of thinker. And he’s created a company that creates foods out of plant-based materials to make them safer, to make them less energy dependent—by doing so, and creating increased demand for (things) like sweet potato vine, for example, he can put people to work in the equatorial band that runs around the world where sweet potato vine grows like crazy, so that we can put more people to work in places like Haiti or Guatemala or Indonesia, countries that need it. … He’s the most fascinating person, and it’s the most fascinating food company I know of in the world. … His products just came into town. … Minnesotans can buy his foods (at) Whole Foods, Costco; Compass distributes their food. It’s incredible. He’s destroying Hellman’s market share for his ‘Just Mayo’ product.”
For our community in particular, can you talk about what plants and green spaces are important to our area that will fast forward what you’re envisioning?
Well, I have a hard time understanding with so much arable land, so much agrarian space, why we aren’t developing more innovative ways to do indoor farming, coop housing, all the tried and true methodology, I would like to see the state of Minnesota get behind that and work hand in hand with groups like the Minnesota Farmers Union, for example, and begin to develop global leading technology. We have one of the greatest (agriculture) schools in the world at the University of Minnesota. That is our secret weapon. It’s almost like it’s an unfair advantage, and yet the stories that are coming out of Minnesota are not about that. There are small experiments being done with this; I would like to see us put the gas pedal on that. We have to figure out how to feed this planet; we’re not going to do it with feed-lot cattle. I think devoting time and energy to plants, … that’s extremely valuable and I think it’s worth more of an investment than we’re making. When was the last time you heard a sexy story about the University of Minnesota ag program and something they’re doing … when it comes to innovative work with plants?”
Not ever, probably.
We need one. They need one. The Dakotas could do the same thing. Up here in the central plains, we have an extreme advantage in that farming is in our blood. Everyone can reach out and touch a farmer. In New York, everyone talks about it, but they haven’t had a farmer in their family for three generations. Here, everyone can reach out and touch someone in their family who at least has a connection to the farm. I think marketing our state that way and trying to do the right thing at the same time is extremely valuable. Those things can go hand in hand.
Since this is a food blog, I have to ask: Do you have any favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities since you live here?
Oh god yeah, tons. I think the next big hot place, what Mike DeCamp is doing at Monello is really cool. I think what Jim Christiansen and Gavin Kaysen are doing at Heyday and Spoon & Stable are really pushing the cuisine boundaries in the Twin Cities. I think Paul Berglund at Bachelor Farmer—that restaurant has become so much better than the first day it opened it’s not even funny. It’s fantastic. I’m really excited about Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone who are down in Chicago for the summer cooking at a pop-up restaurant called Intro, but they’re coming back in September to open Brute—really excited about that.
Read more about Andrew Zimmern’s speech at the 75th annual American Public Gardens Association Conference.