Andrew Zimmern could be just another guy in your home game. He’s a husband, a father, and makes his home in Minneapolis. He loves the great outdoors and enjoys the occasional fine cigar. But who else in your home game earns a living traveling the world and seeking out quirky delicacies like goat testicles, calf blood, and braided intestines?
As the host of the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, his culinary curiosity has taken him around the globe several times over, from the beaches of Goa and Phuket, to the grasslands of Ethiopia, to the streets of Buenos Aires. When this James Beard Award winner is not chowing down on duck embryos or fish head curry, he can often be found unwinding in a poker game, either at home with friends or on the road with colleagues. This week, Zimmern was kind enough to rub the jet lag from his eyes (we can relate) and chat about one of his favorite pastimes.
Hi Andrew, I heard you just got back from quite a trip.
Yeah, I just got back from three weeks in Africa. We did Madagascar and Namibia for the new season that starts in December.
How did you catch the poker bug?
I’ve played my whole life. I play in a regular game at home and I play in a regular game on the road. If you spend a lot of time in airports it’s pretty darn easy to whip out a deck of cards. I have a couple of friends who like to play in tournaments and it’s a big part of my social life. I’m a married father of a five-and-a-half-year-old who is out of the country 30 weeks a year so the best way to see my four or five friends is to be in someone’s office from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. playing cards.
How did you learn to play? Was it more the recent TV explosion or did you learn when you were younger?
I learned from my dad. My father was the captain of the University of Wisconsin bridge team back in 1949, 1950, right after he got out of the Navy. My father is just a fantastic card player. We’d go on family vacations with his best friend and his family. There were always eight or nine of us traveling in this group. We always had cards. I learned how to play poker when I was about five years old sitting in my dad’s lap with rolls of pennies in front of us out at our summer home sitting up late at night, just stud and draw poker. Now I have a serious game with my friends where we’re basically playing hold’em for hours and hours. But the other half of the time, I’m playing in more casual games where we’ll have a dealer’s choice — no crazy games, nothing a ten-year-old would find fascinating, but stud and draw poker is still pretty darn awesome.
You spend a lot of time abroad. Are there any weird variants you’ve learned in far corners of the world?
No, but Western Europeans are obsessed with wild cards, I can tell you that! You get into a game in the waiting lounge of an airport in some Western European capital and you learn right away that Western European poker players think there’s nothing more fun than having one-eyed jacks, suicide kings, deuces, and the ten of clubs all wild. It’s a fascinating thing. I think the same people who love defensive baseball enjoy poker without wild cards. I like nothing better than a 1-0 baseball game. I don’t need to see a lot of home runs. I’d rather have a two-hour and fifteen minute pitchers’ duel. And it’s the same thing with poker.
If you could conjure up your dream six-handed home game, who would play in it?
Me and five people? Can I invite dead people?
Sure, you can invite dead people.
I want Jackie Gleason at that game. And Ricky Jay, Paul Newman, and Teddy Roosevelt. I’m a big outdoorsman and I want to hear his stories. Plus he’s pro-cigar! And the fifth one, you’re going to think it’s out of left field, but Brian Ferry, the English rock star. I don’t know if Brian Ferry plays cards but he’ll bring a limo full of Dutch supermodels.
How would you describe your playing style?
I think I’m a very easy read because I’m very aggressive. I have a hard time being patient. I have a hard time setting people up. I also would say I’m enough of a card player and I watch enough serious card games to know that there’s a big difference between real players and high-end amateurs like myself. The difference is patience and I do think that’s bred by how much skin you have in the game.
When you’re sitting at a table for hours and hours and hours, then a game has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and several story arcs in between and you can set another player up better. You have enough time on your hands. I’m never sitting at a table long enough to do that. I suffer from being a little overly aggressive. The tape that is always playing in my head is trying to make sure that I don’t scream at the top of my lungs that I’ve got a great hand. Whether by betting or the shit-eating grin on my face, it’s everything I can do to contain myself.
What would get your heart racing faster, drinking some fresh, warm animal blood or running a huge bluff?
Definitely running a bluff. I’m more excited by the latter because I don’t get to do it that often.
Have you ever considered playing in the World Series of Poker or another big live tournament?
I would love to, but right now it’s a time issue. I’m not around enough. I have a friend who plays and he took me to an English card club the last time we were in London. I had never been in one before and we went in and played. Any chance that I get to, I would and if I was free and was in the right city I’d love to play in a tournament. The fact of the matter is that I’m on the road 30 weeks a year and maybe when the TV stuff is over and done with then maybe I will.
It shouldn’t be too hard. There are major tournaments all over the world now. In three weeks, I have to fly to Argentina to cover a tournament.
That’s great! Where are you eating?
I don’t know, I thought maybe you could tell me?
There are two places that you must eat at. The first one is called Obrero and it’s over in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires. Some people call it a dicey neighborhood; I don’t find it that way. It is one of the most fun restaurants with the most fantastic food. Everything comes off the grill, but there is great fish and vegetables, too. Actually, if you go to just one great meal, go there. It’s fantastic.
I read in my research that you once tasted donkey meat in China. I think poker players would love to hear first-hand what donkeys taste like.
It’s one of my favorite meats! It tastes like veal, it’s very delicate and has a mild beefy flavor. If I served a high-quality seared donkey steak or some other replication of a western dish using donkey meat and served it, 20 out of 20 people would say, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Where can I get some of that?”
But most Americans would go ballistic when you told them it was donkey meat.
You know, in China outside of Beijing, there was a small city that actually bred all the donkeys. It’s a specific type, a small, black-skinned donkey a little bigger than a Shetland pony. It’s a fantastic, fantastic meat and there are hundreds of donkey restaurants out there, in what is like, a fifth-ring suburb of Beijing now. It’s just remarkable.
The new season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern premieres in December on the Travel Channel. In the meantime, you can catch up on all his culinary adventures Monday nights at 9 p.m. or on andrewzimmern.com.
*Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel.