In 20 years, Andrew Zimmern has evolved from just another addict on a plane to Hazelden to a brand occupying billboards, airwaves, bookshelves, and cyberspace.
He commands big dollars to give a speech, cannot walk through an airport without being mobbed, and is host of one of the most-watched shows on cable television. And he’s on the verge of breaking out of his TV box to helm a diversified conglomerate of businesses.
If food is not your sweet spot or cable TV is not your medium, the longtime host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern may have claimed but a small kernel of your awareness. But if you populate his cultural space, he is an ever-bigger deal. He is without a doubt the most prominent celebrity to call the Twin Cities home. The buzzy social influence website klout.com, which invites users to rate people’s influence in their fields, labeled Zimmern in 2011 as the most influential celebrity chef in the world. He has half a million followers on Twitter and an equivalent number of “likes” on Facebook. New Bizarre Foods episodes draw the largest audiences on Travel Channel, and the show’s ratings are as good or better than at any time in his seven years on the network.
Celebritynetworth.com says Bizarre Foods earns Zimmern more than $35,000 an episode, and he is reported to earn a similar amount to appear on a dais at a corporate event. He was recently featured in People magazine, attended the White House Easter egg hunt with his family (as guests of the Obamas) and stood at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party alongside Bill Clinton and George Clooney. There, rapper LL Cool J asked for a photo with Zimmern for his kids.
To put it mildly, things are moving very fast right now for Zimmern and his St. Louis Park-based company, Food Works, Inc. Ground zero is a small suite of offices off Excelsior Boulevard, where Zimmern is only present a couple of days each month, but is staffed daily by four longtime associates. Zimmern’s taupe office is decorated with ribald photos, strange souvenirs from his travels, bottles of barbecue sauce, and magazines piled everywhere. On office days he comes to work in a flannel shirt, jeans, and shoes with no socks.
Zimmern is not quite the lovable cultural naïf you see on the Travel Channel. Behind his persona of a dapper, well-bred regular-guy explorer lurks the intensity of a persistent and ambitious businessman who has been willing to sacrifice nearly a decade of his life to celebrity and its trappings, good and evil. It’s a heady story, to be sure, but even headier if you know Zimmern’s well-chronicled back story.
Halfway House to Halfway There
Born into privilege on New York’s Upper East Side, a graduate of Vassar College, trained as a professional chef, Zimmern saw his life derailed by drug and alcohol addiction, losing nearly his entire twenties to various bouts of it, hitting bottom when he became homeless for nearly a year on those same Manhattan streets. He arrived in the Twin Cities two decades ago, banished by his loved ones to Hazelden. This time, the cure took.
“My sobriety is now almost 21 years long and is the result of finally cratering my life to the point I was either going to die an alcoholic death or not,” Zimmern explains. “I credit my friends, family, Hazelden, and the 12-step community of the Twin Cities with helping me get and stay sober. I went through the usual wringer of jails/institutions/drunk tanks and several treatment attempts; none lasted—until the one at the beginning of my current sobriety.”
Zimmern’s second job out of Hazelden, in May 1992, was as busboy at the acclaimed café un deux trois in the Foshay Tower under owner Michael Morse. He quickly rose to become its most celebrated executive chef. “We were selling two whole terrines, 40 portions—in Minneapolis—a night,” Zimmern recalls. “I remember telling Michael, ‘We have the hot hand,’ we need to expand into tangential businesses. I thought we could get into catering, a lunch counter—hell, T-shirts.
“Michael didn’t want to push it, but I’m the least risk-averse person in the world,” Zimmern says. “I’m a ‘bright shiny objects’ guy. I’m always looking for what’s next.”
But rather than ride the gravy train to wherever it takes him, Zimmern, 51, and a small group of Twin Cities-based advisers, is taking a different approach, using his celebrity to build a diversified universe of businesses that will insulate him from the mercurial world of cable TV. It’s an approach that has cost Zimmern a great deal of effort, taken a toll on his personal life, and limited his short-term earning potential, in service of more far-reaching goals.
“Andrew is extremely strategic,” says Tom Wiese, Zimmern’s Plymouth-based attorney and deal advisor. “He realizes things he does today may not pay dividends for a long time.”
The Vision Thing
During Zimmern’s years of addiction he lost a budding partnership with one of New York City’s most successful food entrepreneurs, Steve Hanson, founder of B. R. Guest Hospitality, which operates 27 restaurants and bars around the country and was sold to Starwood Capital in 2007 for $150 million.
Zimmern left Hazelden determined to return to the food business, but then left un deux trois in 1998, frustrated. When a boutique hotel/restaurant project with Kieran Folliard at the site of the Local on Nicollet Mall fell through, he opened Lee Lynch’s Backstage at Bravo restaurant/event space concept blocks away at 9th and Hennepin. But, he says, “I realized I couldn’t implement the partners’ vision.
“I kept trying to change myself to get along,” he continues, “but I eventually realized being in business for other people wasn’t for me.” So he left Bravo and the business of cooking.
“I decided to trust my gut,” Zimmern says. “I see steps ahead. I see food trends two years out. And I saw a media side of food where the doors were still open, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last. I saw the trend of ‘fringe foods’ and created Bizarre Foods. My work isn’t derivative.”
This was prescient stuff more than a decade ago. “Food has evolved from niche content to mainstream culture in a decade,” says AJ Marechal, who covers TV for the entertainment industry trade Variety. “TV and the Internet took food out of the kitchen.”
But the skids were not exactly greased for Zimmern, so he offered himself as a restaurant consultant to earn a paycheck, and his clients at the time say Zimmern’s sense of his instincts is more than hubris. “Andrew did an Irish gastropub menu for me in 1996 or ’97 that was years ahead of its time,” says Folliard, who also founded Kieran’s, the Liffey, and Cooper Pub, and sold his 2 Gingers Whiskey to Beam, Inc., in December. “He had great foresight to see where dining was going, stuff that New York restaurants like the Spotted Pig would do to great acclaim many years later.”
But Zimmern mainly devoted himself to exploiting possibilities in media. He started reviewing restaurants and writing an insider-type column for MplsStPaul Magazine in 2001, a low-return gig that nonetheless had high visibility among the town’s influentials. He began weekly taped food segments for UPN9’s Good Day Minnesota, which became FOX9 Morning News. He was house-chef for HGTV’s TIPical Mary Ellen and Rebecca’s Garden, wrote for the Life Time Fitness magazine, and taught classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill.
“But it was paycheck to paycheck,” Zimmern says. “My credit cards were maxed out. I decided I needed representation.” He consulted with Mendes Napoli, the former KSTP-TV news director who had relocated to California as a talent agent. “He told me I was not salable enough. I knew I was a ‘tweener,’ and it wasn’t going to be simple.”
(Food & Wine magazine Editor in Chief Dana Cowin, who publishes Zimmern’s recipes and writing, says it took her two years to figure out how to use Zimmern after falling in love with his more recent work.)
Zimmern had been introduced to a young entertainment lawyer, Tom Wiese. He knew a local literary agent, John Larson, who was starting his own talent agency. All three were in similar career evolutions. “They said ‘We can grow this thing together,’ ” Zimmern recalls.
“Andrew said he wanted a [close] Jerry Maguire kind of partnership,” says Larson, who now functions as Zimmern’s business manager.
They shot a pilot, Food Freaks, for public TV. “It was OK,” Zimmern says. “But everyone said I had the presence to do commercial TV.” A colleague at channel 9 suggested Zimmern talk to Tremendous Entertainment, helmed by former WCCO anchor Colleen Needles, which had some small successes placing low-profile cable fare. “Colleen liked the idea for Bizarre Foods, so we filmed a 10-minute sample at an elk farm about eating elk testicles and ostrich,” Zimmern says.
Tremendous pitched the idea to Travel Channel, which funded a longer test segment filmed in rural Louisiana. That led to two full-fledged pilots, Bizarre Foods Asia and Ballpark Eats, airing regularly in random reruns to strong ratings. Still, Tremendous and Zimmern spent three years in limbo, through 9/11, ownership and management changes at Travel Channel (which moved from Discovery to Cox to current owner Scripps), and negotiations with other networks.
“I talked to Food Network,” Zimmern says, “but I thought I’d get lost there, with Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck. I wanted to be the food guy at Travel Channel.”
Eventually the network bit with an order for six episodes of Bizarre Foods.
Word got out, “and the phone started ringing,” Zimmern says. “I had to fight for a live truck at FOX9, and now they were offering me a weekend anchor role and a syndicated show.” He began a daily radio show on FM107 but quickly departed once the realities of travel for Bizarre Foods hit home.
Today Bizarre Foods is in its seventh year, and a new season of episodes debuts February 11. In 2012 Zimmern spent 35 weeks on the road taping content. In between, he has been building a brand intended to grow businesses. “We have 45 different deals in play today,” Zimmern said last summer.
“A TV show is a terrific commercial for a brand,” explains Zimmern’s New York-based agent, Josh Bider of WME (William Morris Endeavor). The nature of that brand, though, is often prisoner to the TV show.
Not Just the Bug Guy
As Bizarre Foods’ ratings rose and it became one of Travel Channel’s most lucrative properties, Zimmern and his team faced a dilemma. Their talent, a Vassar-educated, globally trained chef and food entrepreneur, was becoming known less as the cultural connector that he fancied himself, and more for eating mealworms out of the dirt, drinking animal blood, and tucking into hunks of rotting meat.
Larson and Wiese wanted to grow Zimmern’s brand, but faced the challenge of losing control of it. The network and producers inevitably emphasized sensational elements of the TV show. There were warnings from friends and advisers that Zimmern was headed into a typecasting box: bizarre.
CNN’s Anthony Bourdain “says ‘TV is a vile mistress,’” Zimmern says. “‘You never know what the future holds, and the leverage wheel goes round and round.’”
Fortunately, the wheel was spinning in Zimmern’s favor, and good fortune came in several forms. One was a disappointing response to a Bizarre Foods spinoff called Bizarre World. Zimmern’s take is the show was not embraced by audiences because they saw Zimmern’s brand as food, not freak. Another was Zimmern’s second contract with the network, which gave him more control over outside ventures, which had been tightly restricted in his first deal.
Zimmern was chafing at the bit. “If you’re not out testing what’s complementary to your brand, you’re not making the most of your income potential,” he says.
The visibility was there. “If you understand how brands are launched,” says Larson, “Travel Channel has been amazing for us. Each show repeats 20 to 30 times [averaging 75,000 viewers per airing] after premiere night.”
But the brand needed to be broader—“not Fear Factor but ‘sharing culture,’ ” explains Larson.
Early on in the Travel Channel era, Larson and Wiese met with Zimmern for a daylong visioning session. “It had a profound accelerating impact on Andrew’s career,” Wiese says. They distilled five pages of thoughts into five values: authenticity, exploration, making a difference, family, sobriety. The goal was to educate in an entertaining fashion. “It was not enough to be the bug guy,” says Larson, referring to Zimmern’s early notoriety.
The vision that was Zimmern’s begat a plan. “Our idea is not to be the best, but be the only one,” says Wiese. “Not to be in a battle with 40 other cooking shows, but to be unique.”
It was a shrewd decision and one that paved the way for future success. “He’s somewhat apart from that set of chefs,” says Cowin. “It’s to his benefit.”
Job one was, after years of absence, to “return Andrew into the culinary world. He was known to the nation as an eater, but not a chef,” says WME’s Bider. “That world is crowded, but it is full of brand extensions—cookbooks, tabletop, pots and pans, food products, food festivals.
Food festivals were key. “They build credibility in the food universe,” explains Bider. “It is an opportunity to be amongst his peers and connect with fans.” By placing Zimmern among the nation’s biggest celebrity chefs without putting him into competition with them, Zimmern was able to reorient his brand in a way that broadened his business horizons.
The appearances with the nation’s elite chefs, the relationships formed with them, and the bonhomie tweeted among them brought Zimmern renown and credibility by association. “Everyone wants to be there to network with their peers,” says New York and South Beach Wine & Food Festival Director Lee Schrager.
“He’s highly regarded in the culinary world,” says Mathew Baxt, senior director of program development at TruTV, who worked with Zimmern on his Appetite for Life videos for Toyota. “These are not people impressed easily.”
Festivals also provide an outlet for fan engagement. “The venues we are most interested in are ones that provide for direct engagement with Andrew’s audience,” says Wiese. “By talking to your audience, you discover what your fans want and how they see you. It’s intentional and it makes the TV show better by extension.”
One of the few areas Zimmern had no shackles was social media—little understood at the network level but which Team Zimmern saw as the ultimate equalizer. “Social media allows you to control your brand,” says Bider.
“The Internet has democratized content, and the gatekeepers are no longer in control,” Zimmern says. “That democracy is wonderful for entrepreneurs. I have half a million Twitter followers. In cable, that’s a really good ratings night. What if I can mobilize half those people to do, watch, or experience something?”
Zimmern’s Twitter feed is an insight into his persona and brand—a mix of product placement, self-promotion, fan engagement, name dropping, complimenting favorite chefs and restaurateurs, and occasional bits of social commentary. Zimmern offers his sympathies when natural disasters strike, his condolences when celebrities die, his political opinion on major issues of the day.
The Tipping Point
Zimmern’s celebrity reached critical mass just recently, in his estimation. Until that point, despite all the hard work and strategizing, his brand was only as strong as his ratings.
“Three years ago,” Zimmern notes, “if the show had a bad six months, I might have sunk and returned to doing local TV or who knows what. But if you survive long enough, you become part of the fabric of pop culture.”
The consensus is he has reached that point. “He has done a good job of branding himself,” says Variety’s Marechal. “There comes a point where your visibility rises enough to be seen as an expert and your status grows exponentially.”
“His brand is incredibly durable,” says Food & Wine’s Cowin. “Travel, communication, taste, skills. It’s a unique package and quite exceptional.”
His team’s belief is that his brand is now bigger than Bizarre Foods and could survive without it, which gives him leverage and opportunity. Early on, Larson and Wiese established ties with the advertising division of Travel Channel, who said Zimmern would be easy to sell.
That’s what Wiese has been doing for several years now. “In general, you can make a great living on TV,” says Wiese, “but you can put a huge multiplier on it with endorsements.” Zimmern is bombarded with opportunity, but says no more often than yes.
“What you don’t do is as important as what you do,” Wiese explains. “We ask several questions: Is it profitable work, factoring in not just money but exposure and relationships we build? Does it fit with Andrew’s core competencies? Is this a partner we want?
One of Zimmern’s earliest deals was with Toyota. “We like to create content with our endorsements” says John Larson. Zimmern’s four seasons of Appetite for Life webisodes explored America’s food culture on road trips in a Toyota. AFL led to a broadcast commercial for the 2012 Camry where Zimmern sat in a Toyota with singer Kelly Clarkson, Bravo’s James Lipton, and ESPN’s Chris Berman.
“If Toyota had proposed to have him eating bugs, it would have been a different conversation,” Larson insists.
The other food celebrity to emerge from Travel Channel is Anthony Bourdain, who, along with Zimmern, was the face of the network for most of the last decade. Bourdain made the atypical decision to try to preserve his credibility by not doing corporate or endorsement work. Zimmern, who sees himself as a truth-teller and who values credibility, says he had no reluctance about doing the opposite.
“Tony is blessed at being the best at what he does,” says Zimmern. “I am not so lucky. And corporations are not going away. Look, the minute you sign a TV deal, you are someone’s bitch,” he says undefensively. “Ads are sold into my show by the hundreds.
“I wanted to engage with corporate America,” he says. “I love making deals but I want to leverage them to change our food culture. I like to cash the checks, but we pass up a lot of money.”
Zimmern says he’s been asked to do endorsements in the liquor industry, as well as “pharma stuff” and diet plans, “and we pass on them all the time because the fit is wrong and it’s a sellout in many cases. Some of these deals are very large, $500K potentially, but we say no before the talks get substantive.” Zimmern says contractual strictures make it impossible for him to discuss his endorsement earnings.
“Here’s the lines I draw: I never say something I don’t believe—ever, ever, ever; and I won’t endorse a product I don’t like and use,” he says. “When the cameras are off, we are who we are when they’re on.”
Endorsements are the tip of Zimmern’s business pyramid. Beyond the food festivals, he is a modest presence on the lecture circuit, and continues to write a monthly column for MplsStPaul, while also authoring articles and web content for Delta Air Lines’ Sky, as well as Food & Wine. His website, andrewzimmern.com, is full of original recipes, cooking demos, and interviews with leaders in food and cooking.
Zimmern has written three books—a 2009 Bizarre Foods memoir, a 2011 adaptation of that title for young adults, and 2012’s Andrew Zimmern’s Field Guide, a youth-oriented title, the first salvo in a major push into children’s entertainment.
That move is more natural that it may seem. Zimmern’s path into many adult universes has been through their kids, who were early adopters of Bizarre Foods, drawn in by the gross-out factor and Zimmern’s welcoming demeanor. Zimmern believes that the family viewing that the show encourages creates a deep bond with his audience: “The things you share as a family are special.”
The push starts with a book. “We want to be in the publishing space,” explains Wiese. “Doing this kids’ book has been a lot of work. You don’t do it for the payoff, but for the entrée into the children’s entertainment space.”
And there is the Babson College connection, where Zimmern teaches several days each year in a role of “entrepreneur in residence.” The gig came about thanks to attorney Wiese’s partnership with the Wellesley, Massachusetts, institution on a separate venture. The relationship works for Zimmern because it places him, uniquely among his peers, in a “thought leadership” universe and allows him to work toward his goal to effect change.
The change Zimmern favors seeks to upset the established order of how we raise and produce food in the U.S. and takes aim at very established interests. “He doesn’t need to do passion projects,” says Cowin. “It takes nerve.”
Speaking to a group of Babson faculty last August, he explained: “I am a spoiled rich kid who became a drug addict and lived on the streets and relied on handouts. I’ve become fortunate again and I believe from those who are given much, much is expected.”
Zimmern is attracted to Babson’s focus on action creating understanding rather than vice versa, a perspective atypical for an academic institution. “The food life in this country has never been better for a select few,” he explains, “but it has never been worse for many. If I can help figure out a way to profitably decentralize our food system it would be the most important contribution I could make.”
The Wages of Success
Zimmern and his advisers are circumspect about his earnings, net worth (rated online at $5 million), or assets. He did not show up on Forbes’ list of the 20 wealthiest chefs (a list Zimmern said was highly inaccurate) but probably doesn’t belong there. The author of that list, Forbes’ Los Angeles Bureau Chief Dorothy Pomerantz, describes Zimmern’s brand as “solid.”
“But it’s not enough to be talented,” she says. “If you want to make big bucks in this business, you have to diversify, combining work that is low-margin but builds your brand” with high-margin work that pays.
Zimmern and his advisers get that, and are happy to discuss the challenges and choices they have made trying to balance Zimmern’s short- and long-term economic interests.
“We used to split a $240 commission check, me and Tom,” says John Larson. Today it is much larger, but not as large as it might have been.
“Nobody gets rich in cable,” says Zimmern. “The talent and producers do not own the content. You sign an initial contract, which gives the network a big piece of everything you make for five years and near-total control of your outside ventures.” “The talent are paid a fee, the production company is paid a fee, but they don’t share in the revenue,” adds Wiese.
That phase of Zimmern’s career is only recently past. “Now is my time to monetize,” he says. “We’ve worked hard to make a platform that’s as stable and diverse as possible so I can grow this by five or 10 times.”
To that end, Zimmern plows much of his earnings back into Food Works, “choosing not to live as well so we can make it sustainable rather than riding it up, then down,” says Wiese.
Zimmern says it is too early in the life of his new businesses to know return-on-investment metrics, but his five-year plan has Food Works generating 10 times current revenue. That revenue pie is currently 55 percent Travel Channel work, 30 percent endorsements, 10 percent appearances, and 5 percent books and miscellaneous.
For a celebrity of his caliber, Zimmern, 51, has few trappings of fame besides a taste for gadgets and a BMW. He lives in a modest home in the west suburbs, flies commercial, and travels without a handler or assistant. He doesn’t own a second house, and for vacation, takes trips to Disney World with wife Rishia and son Noah.
Though living in New York or L.A. would streamline his life, he chooses to remain in the Twin Cities to protect his personal life. “If you live in New York or L.A.,” he says, “you can’t turn it off.”
He, like most celebrities, is most struck by his loss of privacy. “You spend five days taping in the woods of Arkansas, you’re in a small airport, wearing a hoodie, facing the corner, and you turn around and there are 15 people ringed around you,” Zimmern says. “I’ve been followed in hospitals with a camera phone through an oncology ward. People have trampled my wife and kid to get to me.”
The cost to his family has “been far worse than I imagined,” he says. “They are victims of my popularity. The speaking engagements, the marketing commitments, the TV talk shows all require travel. I’m sure more days than not they would say it’s not worth it, but I have this business to support.”
How atypical is his life? “It’s been years since I called a friend and said, ‘What are you doing? Let’s go hang out.’ ”
Fresh Bandwidth & the Big Win
Zimmern is under contract with Travel Channel until spring 2014. With the network having just lost Bourdain to CNN, his leverage is powerful. “I have no plans to leave,” Zimmern says, but “it’s a business relationship.” He does covet a reset. “I have to start shedding stuff. To be on the road 35 weeks a year is unmanageable.”
Travel Channel, rumored to again be for sale, remains invested in Zimmern. “Bizarre Foods and Andrew will always exist in one form or another at Travel Channel,” says Laureen Ong, the network’s president. “It is one of the cornerstones of this network.”
Larson and Wiese say they have many ideas about how Zimmern can maintain an ongoing commitment to Bizarre Foods yet reclaim more of his “bandwidth.” He has shot two pilots for the network (notably not in conjunction with Tremendous Productions), both of which would presumably be more efficient to produce.
The first, Border Check, explores food and culture in places “where one place ends and another begins,” Zimmern says. It will have its initial airing in spring. The second, “busting myths about places,” says Zimmern, has yet to be named or scheduled for broadcast.
Zimmern expects a subsequent contract with Travel Channel to allow him to move forward on the many endeavors he has planned.
The list is audacious. Control and ownership are watchwords. “My son is nearly eight. When he goes to college, I want to be working only when the spirit moves me. I will always be working, but I’d like to be sitting on a beach with my wife and some good books,” Zimmern says. He describes the 10-year plan as “instead of doing 48 things to earn X, let’s do 15 things and earn 10x.” The path contains several initiatives:
Food production Last summer saw the debut of AZ Canteen, a Zimmern-branded food truck that is to be the test-bed for a spinoff business of six to eight food trucks roaming the country and the globe. Zimmern and two longtime friends made an initial investment of around $60,000 to equip and brand a truck selling an array of foodstuffs, employing the lessons Zimmern has learned traveling the world. The truck’s most popular dishes employ goat meat, which is the world’s most widely consumed red meat and also has the lowest impact on the environment.
“We saw it as a low-cost entry point to get back in the food production biz [that he left more than a decade ago],” Zimmern explains. “You can’t make money with one truck, not with our start-up costs and top-heavy organization. But we will build two or three more this year. We’re trading on my notoriety and allowing me to spread the gospel.” AZ Canteen is spending the winter in south Florida and is expected to be at the Super Bowl. It will return to the Twin Cities for part of next summer, and Zimmern is in negotiations with Delaware North Sportservice to bring its products to Target Field and other arenas the company handles.
Zimmern is in discussions with OTG Management to bring a version of AZ Canteen to airports. (An airport food service concessionaire, OTG has already rolled out Zimmern’s MinniBar sandwich shops in several airports, including MSP.) OTG pays Zimmern a licensing fee in exchange for his recipes and limited oversight.
“OTG gets it,” says WME’s Bider, “and Andrew was willing to put in the work to make sure it was to the quality level he wanted.”
Zimmern developed his goat sausage in partnership with New Jersey-based meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda as part of a line of Zimmern/LaFrieda-branded “alternative” proteins that will appear in grocery stores in the first half of 2013.
“He’s hit on a nexus between hipsters and butchers. It’s on its way,” says Dana Cowin. “The mainstream public is ready and very curious.”
Finally, there is a plan for a quick-service Zimmern-branded restaurant concept that would be located on or near college campuses, which may see the light of day in 2014.
AZ Bad Boy Zimmern’s team has invested several hundred thousand dollars creating a branded children’s entertainment platform that is being pitched to potential partners as this issue of TCB goes to press. Called AZ Bad Boy, a character Zimmern created, it currently lives on an iPad presentation created by local design house Spunk Design Machine. The first component, a book, has already been written and illustrated.
“It’s a children’s franchise,” says Wiese. “We’ve been working on it two years. It consists of books, online components, merchandise, TV, perhaps film and amusement parks. We’re going to be talking to the big players—Nick, Viacom, Disney.”
In a previous career phase, Zimmern might have sold the idea to a partner for a fee or percentage of earnings. Not now. “If we don’t own it, we won’t do it,” Zimmern says.
So Food Works bankrolled the project, backed by a private investor, “to retain control,” says Larson. “If Disney wants the package, we’ve got a deal. If they want to give us $20K for the book, we’ll do it ourselves.”
“It’s very important to us how this is marketed, and we don’t want to be at the mercy of a partner,” says Wiese. Zimmern’s team also believes the project is potentially more lucrative packaged this way.
“We’re not unrealistic,” says Zimmern. “This is 2013, not 1995. There’s not as much money out there. Our goal is a partnership with a major children’s entertainment company.”
Broadcast TV Zimmern’s deal with Travel Channel has a carve-out for broadcast (non-cable) TV. Many cable food celebrities have made the transition, from Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay to Guy Fieri and Tyler Florence. “I was [contractually] able to do network TV two years ago,” says Zimmern, “but I’m not sure they were interested in me.”
That’s changed. Zimmern says he’s turned down two major broadcast productions (which he won’t name), the more recent because his Bizarre Foods filming schedule made it impossible. Another chef got the job.
Zimmern’s advisers are certain that unshackled from a travel schedule of 35 weeks a year, Zimmern will be on broadcast TV.
Competitively speaking, these ventures have limited overlap with Zimmern’s TV food peers. The exception is broadcast TV, where Zimmern is in competition with everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Mario Batali.
“He’s playing chess,” says Food & Wine’s Cowin. “He will grow and shape-shift, but he stays in his lane. He has a very rare skill set: High and low tastes, global palate. He’s got a great sense of what’s coming and what’s good. ”
In the end, there are no regrets about the nights in the wilds of the Third World, the often unpalatable food, and the frequent exhaustion that comes with global shooting. “We’ve come to an important understanding,” says Tom Wiese. “Great ideas come from connecting the known world with the unknown world, and we’re going at that hard.” And no TV food celebrity knows the unknown world like Zimmern.
The ensuing half-decade will tell the tale. “We’re entering into a five-year period where people that don’t know about me are going to know,” says Zimmern. “The world is my oyster.”
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor. He was Zimmern’s editor at MplsStPaul magazine from 2001 to 2010.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.