Andrew Zimmern is a chef, writer and host of "Bizarre Foods America" on the Travel Channel.
The dirty word in the restaurant business is that it is a business. I do it myself – I run food companies and I take money in exchange for cooking food for people. As a restaurant and food service professional, I have to make sure I’m balancing the art, which is introducing people to new food, keeping them curious and sharing my viewpoint of the things I love, and balancing that with commerce and keeping my business afloat.
There are many foods that are strange or unusual to most Americans, that while they could be served in restaurants, they’re not served in restaurants – even though they’re eaten by enough people to support them. This includes foods such as raccoon or certain types of game meat. It’s hard enough for some of these game farms, based on the dollars involved and the amount they have to charge, to pass the cost on to the consumer and get high-quality venison in our restaurants, let alone some of the more exotic meats.
But what I’ve seen over the last 10 years is that thanks to a broad range of influences, people are more curious than ever about expanding their diets. There’s a fascinating movement afoot that combines the passion for a more robust food life with the idea that life has to be sustainable, and we have to eat sustainably. To eat sustainably, you have to broaden your choices. You can’t rely on factory farms to supply all of your product.
There’s a tremendous chef-driven contribution to this movement. It’s why chefs like Kevin Pemoulie at Thirty Acres in Jersey City, N.J., has grilled duck hearts on his menu. When I had it there this summer, it was served with pickled green strawberries and it was exquisite. It’s why there’s an izakaya I was at in San Jose, Calif., called Gaku, and it’s the last time I ate chicken liver, chicken intestine and chicken keel bone – traditional yakitori style, grilled over Binchotan charcoal at $3-$4 a skewer, and they were on every table in the restaurant.
People want to collect experiences and say they’ve eaten these things the same way people can say they’ve eaten a Cronut. Here are examples of foods that are starting to cross over into our mainstream restaurant world (and read through to the end to see the one food I won’t eat):
Elk tongue: There’s a company out of Oregon called Nicky USA. They’re a meat purveyor and are driving a lot of interest in game meats in the Pacific Northwest. They’re selling elk regularly to their client base, and Portland’s become quite a fascinating restaurant city. So you can go to Lincoln, one of my favorite restaurants in Portland, and chef Jenn Lewis will have elk tongue ragu over gnocchi on the menu for $12 to $14, and they can’t keep it in the restaurant.
Frog’s legs: In Louisville, there’s a restaurant called 610 Magnolia that’s one of my favorites. They’re doing more stuff with frog’s legs there than any restaurant I know of that isn’t Vietnamese or Thai. Here is one of Louisville’s “fine-dining” restaurants with more than one frog’s-legs dish at all times. They’re doing it with watercress pistou and a 63 degree (Celsius) egg. When I was there a couple of months ago I had it with celery, toasted wheat nuts, brown butter and chili, and it was just extraordinary.
Bugs: Last year the U.N. famously included increasing awareness of bug eating around the world in its charter mission. I consider it a part of my mission as well. There are Mexican restaurants around the country that are starting to serve crickets because they’re popular in Oaxaca, which is the region that has some of the greatest Mexican food. There’s a restaurant in New York on Spring Street called Antojeria La Popular that has a cricket tostada for $7. There’s a food cart in the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market in San Francisco that has a business called Don Bugito. They’re actually selling coffee-flavor mealworms and all kinds of bug stuff. That’s a huge sign of acceptance when you have a place that’s in a big tourist zone like that.
High-tech truffles: There is an ingredient that is so hot and so new, most people don’t know they exist. At the University of Georgia, they’ve been researching ways over the past decade to explore an ingredient that is conventionally called a pecan truffle. These are spore-like white truffles of Alba or black Périgord truffles that grow on the roots of pecan trees. Because there’s no tradition in this country of training dogs and pigs to root them out, farmers have been tilling up soil around their trees and using rakes to find truffles that are there.
Fascinatingly, university research is isolating genetics so that people can take a limb or leaf from the tree, do some processing and find out if there are truffles on that tree, because apparently there are genetic markers for when a tree matures and is able to support truffle life. There are farmers who are finding enough truffles to sell them and get them into market. At one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Husk, both in their Nashville and Charleston locations, they’re doing dishes with pecan truffles. The Nashville restaurant has an appetizer there for celeriac that’s cooked in the embers and charred, served with curds and whey and trumpet mushrooms and finished with Georgia pecan truffles. Now, these truffles are going wholesale to chefs for $300 to $400 a pound. They obviously haven’t captivated the hearts and imaginations of everyone, but that’s the kind of bizarre innovation I’m seeing in restaurants.
Sea squirts: They’re often confused as a soft-shelled oyster. They’re invertebrates, like sea cucumbers. They’re the darlings of ethnic eateries, especially Japanese and Korean sushi bars, and I see a huge growth in this industry. Now people are doing commercial fishing for them in Alaska and Maine, and there’s finally a domestic market for them. I was at a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles called Hwal A Kwang Jang. This is a tiny little Korean seafood restaurant with a one man kitchen and a dozen fish tanks, and there’s always a wait. You can get live octopus – the Sannakji – that you dip in sesame and salt. But more important are the sea squirts in their tank. They slice them and dress them simply with soy sauce and lemon juice – it’s absolutely incredible. They can do this with a tiny restaurant, but you’re starting to see these types of dishes pop up in more mainstream Japanese and Korean restaurants, which shows you that despite the cost – $10 to $12 for a little bowl – there’s tremendous interest in them.
Coming soon, squirrel and horse: I try to eat horse and donkey whenever I see it overseas because nobody is selling it here. I put that on my list because I’m just now hearing when I’m talking to chef friends around the country, them asking me to keep them up to date on two things: horse and squirrel. There’s a farm in California that’s now selling squirrel, and a couple of processing facilities in the Southwest that are processing horse to ship overseas. So I think it’s just a matter of time before you see squirrel and horse pop up on menus. Horse is a great source of protein. There are a hundred chefs that would cook squirrel if there were a reliable resource for it. I published a squirrel recipe for people who have hunters in the family on my website, and it got a huge amount of traffic.
I’m not sure that readers are going to run out and try a restaurant because there’s a sea squirt on the menu. But these places, both fancy tablecloth restaurants and little ethnic eateries, are offering diverse ranges of food for people when they’re out spending their dollar. Remember, this is not eating born of necessity. Poverty has been the greatest driver for food creation in world history, and hunger will put you in position to say yes to foods you wouldn’t say yes to under other conditions. The fact that there are restaurants making this a part of their art and their commerce says more about how we’re eating in America than food game shows you see on television.
Is there any food I won’t eat? No … except for walnuts.