Andrew Zimmern Pops Up In L.A. to Cook, Learn and Spread the Gospel Of Our "mind-bogglingly spectacular" Food Scene
Another food-centric travel show with a Los Angeles episode tends to leave Angeleno viewers squirming with resentment we're continually depicted as a town of waifs who dine on meager portions of macrobiotic fare, go apeshit over food trucks and cupcakes, and care about where tabloid-famous celebs go to power lunch. So when Andrew Zimmern, host of the new Travel Channel show "Bizarre Foods America" came to L.A., he knew he had to make a really great episode in tribute to what he sees as a premiere food city.
We met up with Zimmern on the side streets of Hollywood just before lunch time in front of the LudoTruck, as the host prepared to film a segment in which he sought advice from vagabond chef Ludo Lefebvre on how to plan for a one-night pop-up restaurant. Why did Zimmern need that kind of intel from the man considered the papa of the present-day pop-up phenom? Because the basis of Zimmern's L.A. visit and episode is just that: He's cheffing a one-night stand at Royal/T (Lefebvre's old LudoBites stomping grounds, no less) and hoping to offer viewers a new way of looking at the culinary scene in Los Angeles.
Zimmern explains that approaching his L.A. episode of his new show means finding a way to say something about a city that hasn't been said a hundred times, and create a show that people will really want to watch. "I make the shows that i think people would find interesting," he says. "I'm a food geek, a travel geek, a pop-culture geek," qualifies the well-known TV persona, which is precisely what legions of fans tune in to see: Zimmern nerding out on a delicacy at a local market, or (shudder) taking an eager bite of some animal's balls or a pile of bugs.
In capturing Los Angeles, the pop-up restaurant seemed like a great way to share with his viewers what Zimmern describes as "the education of Andrew," as he takes viewers—and himself—through the full paces of planning, prepping, and executing, a multi-course meal in a borrowed venue. As he roams L.A., he's doing so with the help of friends new and old, including Lefebvre, as well as Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio, and some top secret chef pals we'll have to wait for the episode to know about.
When it comes to the carefully crafted work of chefs like Lefebvre and Voltaggio, and other local chefs like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of A Gun, and his own menu plan, Zimmern says, "if those guys spend months working on a dish, in spite of its deceptive simplicity, well, I'm fucked."
Okay, Zimmern isn't so much fucked as he is up for a hefty challenge. He acknowledges that there's a unique amount of pressure on high-profile chefs in L.A. to make each plate perfect for the city's discerning diners. And those diners are looking for flaws, with relish: "The 'ohmigod that was delicious' story is less interesting than 'I went to Zimmern's pop up and that guy couldn't carry the Burger King's jock strap,'" he quips.
That guy has an ambitious menu planned, including a sea urchin aspic, a trio of tongue (called, appropriately, "Tongue Tied") and a dessert made with offal, and to see to it each dish goes off without a hitch, well, that's a lot of organizing ahead of time. "Certain dishes come down to that intersection of execution and engineering with cooking," observes Zimmern.
What does Zimmern want to know from Lefebvre? "[I want to ask him] how to create food for the L.A. customer. [Ludo] has his finger on the pulse on what people respond to here."
Zimmern, however, also understands a thing or two about the finicky L.A. diner (dare we say "foodie"?) and how they know, or think they know, about what's on their plates. For one thing, in L.A. "people want to know where their food is sourced from," observes Zimmern. "People [in L.A.] are used to the flavors of Southern California, they're used to the food style," he adds. Maybe it's a mindset of pan or applaud, thanks to our "industry town," but according to Zimmern, L.A. isn't the place where an unsuccessful meal or dish are necessarily taken with a grain of salt by the diner.
For his inventive and quirky menu, Zimmern hoping it just gets done right, despite obvious disadvantages, like the tiny Royal/T kitchen being full of TV cameras. "I'm only concerned about getting the customer their plates the right way."
But there's another concern, maybe even a larger one if you look at Zimmern's Twitter feed during his sojourn in Los Angeles, and that's getting people to see what a great food city L.A. truly is.
"You have so many fantastic chefs in L.A.," says Zimmern. "This has become such a great food city,and such a legitimate food town. I eat all over the world in all the best places—whether it's a jungle market, street food, or restaurants—and I get offended when people put down the food scene in L.A."
Angelenos, specifically savvy food-loving Angelenos, also get offended, which put us back where we came in, sitting on the couch waiting for another TV show about L.A. to get it all wrong. And if it's not TV getting it wrong, it's the magazines, the food critics, the dismissive L.A.-hatin' hand-wavers who are helping make how great L.A.'s food scene is one of the world's biggest secrets. Zimmern is pretty fed up, he tells us (and we nod in enthusiastic agreement):
"I've been eating here 40 years, and there was a time when it was very myopic, there was a time when it was way too pretentious and self-involved, there was a time when it was all about Mediterranean food and it didn't do it as well as some other cities, but ... several things happened over the last ten, fifteen years that have created a food town that is second to none, globally. I don't know how you can make the case that the L.A. food scene isn't mind-bogglingly spectacular these days."
Phew. That's a lot to take on. Add a night in a tiny kitchen with an unfamiliar staff and a dining room full of L.A. eaters ready to drop the hammer, well, Zimmern has his hands full for his visit to L.A. He admits he's "too cuddly" and doesn't have enough tattoos to bring the hammer down in return if a guest starts asking for special modifications to his edgy dishes, and if he goes down in flames, well, so be it—he will still be smiling.
"I'm really excited," he says earnestly. "I think if I give myself credit for one thing, it's being enough of a real person that if it doesn't work out, I'll be just as fine as I will be if all of the dishes work out." And the bottom line is enjoying himself, and that's the message he wants to impart on his viewers. "You gotta try it, you gotta do it...because it's fun! Doing a pop up is so much fun!"
Want to grab a last-minute reservation for Zimmern's L.A. pop-up at Royal/T? Some seatings may still be available for dinner tonight; tickets are $150 each, which includes a donation to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Purchase seats online. And yes, you may end up in the episode!