THE WASHINGTON POST – Standing in a field of California strawberries, under a curtain of clouds so impenetrable that it has turned the sky gray in the Salinas Valley, Andrew Zimmern looks every inch the TV personality America has come to know and embrace over the past 14 years. Jeans. Blue shirt with an open collar. A white cowboy hat hugging his shaved head. Glasses perched near the tip of his nose.
Yes, Zimmern’s presence is familiar on his new MSNBC series, “What’s Eating America,” which debutedSunday, but his words and actions are not. He quotes statistics. He interviews migrant laborers from Mexico who pick ripe strawberries under the H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers. He parses President Donald Trump’s seemingly contradictory stance on immigrants. He, in short, behaves more like a newsman than an entertainer.
“Studies show that the average American worker doesn’t want to do this kind of work,” Zimmern said to Jackie Vazquez, director of operations for Good Farms, in the first episode on immigration. Zimmern is employing a classic journalism trope: the question presented as a sweeping statement. But the research behind Zimmern’s question is solid.
“I fully agree,” responds Vazquez, knee-deep in strawberry plants, that will remain unpicked without migrant farmworkers. “In my tenure, I have not seen an average American come apply.”
“What’s Eating America,” a five-part series in which the host looks at some of the country’s most pressing problems through the lens of food, presents another side of Zimmern. As the face of the “Bizarre Foods” empire, Zimmern often wore multiple hats: historian, travel guide, cultural anthropologist and surrogate American tourist, registering his disgust and quipping to the camera when confronted with foods that disagreed with his Western palate. But whether he loved the food (roasted guinea pig in Ecuador) or hated it (“old cold toad” in Bangkok), Zimmern was always a good-humored host, sometimes teasing, always playful.
With his new series, Zimmern hasn’t exactly transformed himself into an investigative journalist, but he’s had to adopt some of the rigorous practices of one. And yet: Over the course of the first few episodes of “What’s Eating America” (The Washington Post was able to screen three of the five in advance), Zimmern uses the information that he and his Intuitive Content crew unearth not as a traditional journalist would – merely to inform the public – but to shape public opinion. He has a point of view on each of the subjects he covers: immigration, climate change, addiction, voter suppression and health care.
Call him a journalist-advocate. In a sense, he had to adapt to fit his new home on the cable news channel, but he didn’t have to remake himself completely. Some things carried over from the Travel Channel, Zimmern’s longtime home, which dropped him when the network shifted its programming to focus on the paranormal. Zimmern’s natural affability seems to make people comfortable. They tell him their stories, a key to any journalism enterprise.
“I know how to talk to an audience. I know where the camera is and all that other kind of stuff. So you don’t start over from scratch,” Zimmern said in a phone interview. “But I certainly had to stretch and adapt and do a different kind of storytelling, and I think the place that I had to learn the most … was having conversations with people who were on different sides of the issue than I necessarily was.”
Zimmern is not trying to make himself out to be the next Mike Wallace. But when your topics include immigration and voter suppression in America, you’re bound to have some confrontational interviews. For example, in the voter suppression episode (which is the subject least connected to food, Zimmern notes), the host talks to legislators who have worked to pass bills that could limit voter turnout in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
“I had to make sure that I’m not just sitting there, nodding my head in understanding,” Zimmern says, “and making sure that I am presenting either a set of arguments that are typically made against those people or things that I fervently believe in.”
“And that skill set is one that needs to be practiced, right?” he adds. “I think I was pretty decent at it.”
If a show on MSNBC is something new for Zimmern, then Zimmern’s show is something new for MSNBC, too. “What’s Eating America” is one of only a handful of series that MSNBC has green lit, says Phil Griffin, president of the network, and arguably the first one to be hosted by a full-blown TV personality. The comparisons to Anthony Bourdain are inevitable: Both men cut their teeth with food-oriented travel shows, only to make the jump to news cable networks, Bourdain to CNN.
Griffin will be the first to acknowledge that MSNBC was on the hunt for a big personality to drive a show, but he said he was also impressed by Zimmern’s knowledge and passion and had little concern about Zimmern’s slim résumé as a journalist.
“We went over the fact that we have rigorous fact-checking and everything else in terms of our standards,” Griffin said. “But I had total confidence in him because I think what he’s done has always been legit, and I think he understands this industry about as well as anybody.”
For the series, Zimmern digs deep into his Rolodex (well, OK, his contacts list) for a few high-profile cameos: José Andrés, the chef, restaurateur and humanitarian, shows up in the immigration episode to talk to a former Trump banquet chef, Jesus Lira, who alleges that a Trump Organization accountant coached him on how to secure better fake documents. (The Post published a similar account last year.) Incidentally, Andrés is also executive producer of the first episode. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and restaurateur Stephen Hanson both appear in a latter episode, a painfully raw and often moving hour in which Zimmern lays out his own battle with drugs and alcohol.
“There’s nothing that I won’t talk about in relationship to my sobriety because the honesty has to be complete and total,” said Zimmern, now 28 years sober. “I’ve long since moved past that point where I’m carry shame about things in my past.”
At 58 years old, Zimmern said he wants to make a different kind of statement on television. He doesn’t want to do a game show, talk show or any other type production that network executives seem to crave (though he’s not ruling any out in the future). During the 2016 presidential election, he noticed how little the candidates discussed food, despite the fact that our food (and the price we pay for it and the access we have to it) is affected by many factors, including immigration, climate change, income inequality and more.
“What’s Eating America” is Zimmern’s attempt to rectify the situation and perhaps add some gravitas to his still-evolving legacy, which was complicated in 2018 when he insulted Chinese-American food in an interview with Fast Company.
“When you die, someone’s going to write down, he was a dad. He was a son. He was an employee. He was an employer. He was a chef. He was a writer, etc.,” Zimmern says. “But I’m also hoping somewhere in there it says, ‘He tried to do the right thing, and he provided inspiration and learning.’ The stuff we’d rather be remembered by.”
Zimmern is acutely aware that MSNBC can be polarizing to his more conservative fans. Some have already told him that “that channel doesn’t exist in my house.” But Griffin, who dislikes the “left-leaning” tag often applied to MSNBC, says he doesn’t think Zimmer will be preaching to the converted.
“I disagree with the notion that you’re talking to just the people who want their ideas reflected back at them,” Griffin said. “If the public were that smart, I think we’d be in a lot better place. Most people don’t have the time to study up on any of these topics.”
Regardless, Zimmern is prepared for the blowback. In fact, he’ll be encouraging it. Just the other night, Zimmern says, people were hating on a particular post on his Twitter feed, a timeline generally filled with progressive thought and commentary. His approach to the haters, he says, is to pose questions. “I ask lots of ‘Help me understand this’ from my followers who support the president.”
“Of course, I’m going to engage because I remember the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, seek to understand rather than be understood.”