Andrew Zimmern, the Minneapolis-based television star and traveling foodie who just opened a Chinese restaurant and tiki bar in St. Louis Park, is apologizing for remarks that got him labeled culturally insensitive by national media over the holiday weekend — remarks he admits sounded “arrogant and patronizing.”
“I am completely responsible for what I said and I want to apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by those sound bites,” Zimmern wrote in a statement to the Star Tribune. “The upset that is felt in the Chinese American community is reasonable, legitimate and understandable, and I regret that I have been the one to cause it. That is the very last thing I would ever want to do.” (Read Zimmern’s full statement below.)
The firestorm around Zimmern ignited last week when Fast Company posted a video interview with the “Bizarre Foods” host. In the video, which was filmed last summer at the Minnesota State Fair, Zimmern made some controversial statements about his role as a restaurateur to introduce Chinese cuisine to Midwestern diners. (His restaurant, Lucky Cricket, opened last Monday at the West End. Zimmern hopes to turn it into a national chain.)
“How do you justify putting 200 restaurants across Middle America?” Zimmern said in the video. “Well, number 1, I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these [expletive] restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.”
Zimmern also put down P.F. Chang’s and its co-founder Philip Chiang, calling the chain restaurant “a rip-off.”
In Eater, writer Hillary Dixler Canavan went hard at Zimmern, saying that his intent of “‘translating’ on behalf of the presumably white audience — the idea that American diners need to have something unfamiliar ‘made more palatable’ to get them to the table — has shades of a strange, increasingly outdated form of cultural elitism.”
The Washington Post wasn’t too kind, either. In an op-ed titled “Andrew Zimmern missed an opportunity — to honor, rather than insult, Chinese cooks,” contributor Ruth Tam wrote: “ ... the Midwest’s ‘horses--- restaurants’ are what paved the way for Zimmern’s venture and more broadly, Chinese cuisine in America.”
She added, “When Chinese people make Americanized Chinese food for white people, Zimmern calls it ‘horses---.’ But when he does it, it’s ‘unique.’”
In his statement, Zimmern aimed to clarify his remarks about Chinese food in the Midwest and the people he wants to reach with Lucky Cricket, saying that despite the abundance of Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities, “For many diners here the only Chinese food they know is what they see in airport fast food kiosks and malls. For those folks, I hope to open their eyes to the greatness of Chinese and Chinese-American cuisines and the people who put it on the plate.”
Zimmern also said some of his words were “taken out of context” in the video interview. “I would never cast aspersions on independent owner operated Chinese American food or restaurants,” Zimmern said. “I have done dozens of profiles and stories on the joys of eating in those restaurants. I believe in them, and I support them, and I will continue to promote stories about food and culture everywhere and anywhere I can.”
Here is Zimmern’s full statement to the Star Tribune:
Let me start by saying most importantly how awful I feel and how sorry I am for my recent remarks. I am completely responsible for what I said and I want to apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by those sound bites. Food should be for everyone, and yet culturally there is a terrible and centuries old history of white people profiting off of other cultures, in food, music, and elsewhere. The upset that is felt in the Chinese American community is reasonable, legitimate and understandable, and I regret that I have been the one to cause it. That is the very last thing I would ever want to do. And in this case neither intentions nor context matter. Feelings matter.
Anyone who knows me, is familiar with my career, or has even seen a few of my shows knows I am wildly passionate about Chinese food and culture. I have made a career of making invisible communities, cultures, tribes and businesses visible. That’s another reason I feel terrible that in my remarks I came across as arrogant and patronizing because it’s simply not who I am. It was never my intention to set myself up as the arbiter of quality Chinese or Chinese American food or culture. Some of my words and point of view were taken out of context in some recent interviews and in some video segments, but I don’t blame those media entities.
I have championed Chinese American culture and cooking for decades, and tried to do the same with establishing the importance of Italian American, Chilango and Tex Mex cultures. And I understand that the question of ‘who gets to cook what? And why?’ is vitally important and one that we should all consider. It’s a crucial issue of our time and needs to have more conversation take place around it. There was another point that I made in a recent interview that was also taken out of context. I would never cast aspersions on independent owner operated Chinese American food or restaurants. I have done dozens of profiles and stories on the joys of eating in those restaurants. I believe in them, and I support them, and I will continue to promote stories about food and culture everywhere and anywhere I can. I was commenting on the commodification of Chinese and Chinese American cuisine and cultures in venues such as airports and some malls where I feel the food could be a lot better.
Here in Minnesota we have some of the most underrated Asian foods in the country all around us. Just in the Twin Cities alone there is some spectacular Lao, Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese foods, but a fair percentage of Midwesterners sadly ignore many of those restaurants in favor of chains who’s food is simply not half as good. For many diners here the only Chinese food they know is what they see in airport fast food kiosks and malls. For those folks, I hope to open their eyes to the greatness of Chinese and Chinese-American cuisines and the people who put it on the plate. And hopefully, since Americans in general inhale other cultures first through their mouths, if they can love the food they can become more accepting and understanding of the people. We need more acceptance, patience and tolerance in this world. I think food is a great cultural accelerator in achieving those goals and this honest belief has fueled everything I do.
As for me and my goals with Lucky Cricket, “chain” is not a dirty word. At Lucky Cricket, once we get our first store in order, we are looking to expand wherever appropriate and when appropriate. This concept was designed to grow and that has been our intention since day one. Food entrepreneurship is an amazing social lever, providing jobs, expanding cultural understanding and accelerating ideas and thought leadership, so we look forward to growing the brand.