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“Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern on his shift to a plant-based diet

On a 2013 episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, the titular host visits the headquarters of Eat Just, a plant-based company that had developed vegan eggs from mung bean protein. When the episode aired, the products from Eat Just (then called Hampton Creek Foods) fit snugly under a “bizarre” rubric, using the show’s definition as unique and interesting. Only nine years later, Zimmern says the concept is no longer bizarre. Now, he tells me, a fellow carnivore: “You and I are the weirdos.”

Chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern spent 12 years and 147 episodes exploring the world and trying the quirkiest of grub, from coral worms in Samoa to tarantulas in Cambodia. While food was the focus, he says the show was about promoting cultural tolerance. He extends that same worldview to his current move to more sustainable foods. Just as he’s joining as “culinary advisor” of plant-based chicken company Tindle, he’s trying to reduce the amount of meat he consumes, in order to do his part for the climate and all the interrelated issues of unsustainable food production.

Andrew Zimmern [Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for TiNDLE]

To say Zimmern has dabbled in meat would be an understatement. He’s eaten fermented shark in Iceland and horse-rectum sausage in Kazakhstan; he’s sampled reindeer liver, camel kidney, and snake penis. But when he turned 60 last July, he had somewhat of an epiphany, having read that even reducing meat could add up to nine years to his life. But changing your lifestyle is hard; he admits he can’t propel himself headfirst into veganism. “If I tried to go all in on this, I’m never going to make it,” he says. “I’m going to relapse on meat tonight.” For Zimmern, it’s going to be a slow-and-steady, flexitarian route.

There’s now a whole category of plant-based foods that strive to replicate meat, aimed at carnivores who suffer hunger pangs as they wean off beef burgers and chicken wings. One such brand is Tindle. Launched in Singapore in 2021 by Next Gen Foods, which received record investments, the product is now in more than 200 restaurants in Asia and entered the U.S. market in February. Earlier this month, Zimmern signed on as culinary advisor, a loosely-defined role that will include devising recipes and promoting the protein.

[Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for TiNDLE]

Zimmern says he didn’t feel that any other plant-based brand he’d tasted replicated the flavor, aroma, or texture of meat. “They shall remain nameless,” he says. “I didn’t like any of them.” The happy outlier for him was Tindle, made from soy protein, oat fiber, coconut oil, wheat gluten, and a proprietary emulsion called Lipi, which aims to impersonate poultry fat, primarily by employing sunflower oil. The company dubs its product “Chef’s Play-Doh” for its supposed versatility, claiming you can grill, stew, or deep-fry it, and features recipes for Tindle schwarma, gyoza, and pot pie. At this year’s SXSW, Zimmern showcased the product with two concoctions: a Tindle parm slider and crispy Tindle and waffles, topped with hot-honey ice cream.

The humanitarian angle has swayed Zimmern to reduce his meat intake as much as his age-related epiphany. Like the late Anthony Bourdain, Zimmern used food as a vehicle to promote cultural richness and acceptance at a time when the War on Terror had ushered in an era of divisiveness. “I sold a Trojan horse to Travel Channel at the time,” Zimmern says, explaining that the network declined a straight-up culture show but agreed to “80% entertainment and 20% smarts,” he says. “It was kind of a Faustian bargain, but it turned out to be the best deal I’ve ever been given in my life.”

Visiting and living with tribes of Indigenous people, like the Kake in Alaska and the Ju/’Hoansi tribe of Botswana, taught him the perils of modernization to the natural world. Now, he says, “We can’t take the horse and buggy back, we can’t take fossil fuels back, but we’re smart enough to make a difference.” That difference can, and should, be in the form of reducing the consumption of animal meat, which is becoming less and less sustainable to eat. Meat accounts for nearly 60% of all carbon emissions from food production; and the equivalent of 3 billion annual metric tonnes of CO2 originate from farming beef.

[Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for TiNDLE]

The climate crisis also doesn’t exist in a silo; it’s an ecosystem of interrelated problems. “If you jump into the climate crisis, you’ll bump into hunger and food waste,” he says, as well as racial justice, immigration, and healthcare. Overall, his mentality—just as it was with Bizarre Foods—is focused on considering other human beings around the world in his decisions. “We have to start thinking of our fellows,” he says. “And I think we’ve done a really shitty job of that as of late.” For Zimmern, plant-based proteins are part of the solution.

Zimmern sees a societal shift already happening, from a time when vegetarianism in America was stigmatized and options were limited to green salads and grilled vegetables. Now, restaurants that pride themselves on “monstrous pieces of meat” are playing to a shrinking crowd. “When I was growing up, if meat was not the centerpiece of every plate at every meal, something was wrong,” he said. Now, his son doesn’t think twice if an evening meal is meatless.

What’s so endearing to Zimmern is that this shift echoes meal practices in some of his favorite places visited with Bizarre Foods, like mezze-style meals in the Levant and Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, where he could go days without meat and never miss it. “I’m thrilled that we’re looking at a new age,” he says, “that we’re adopting things from other countries.”