In “AZ and the Lost City of Ophir,” the young AZ time-travels to an ancient city of scary crocodiles, mysterious statues and oven-roasted tarantulas. In the process, he and his friends get into a few pickles — and eat some, too. The story comes from a man long schooled in far-flung foodie adventures: Andrew Zimmern, chef and host of Travel Network’s “Bizarre Foods,” wrote this children’s book with H.E. McElhatton. We spoke to Zimmern about why children should travel and other tidbits. This interview was edited for length.
Q: With a name like AZ, it’s easy to assume the main character reflects you, but how much of the book was inspired by your son?
A: It is all inspired by him, but it certainly is an amalgam of the two of us. My co-author and I, Heather McElhatton, really love the lesson-learning that life gives you. I thought it would be great to address the obvious: Kids change. I would go away on a trip when Noah was 7 or 8 and come back and there would be a different kid living in my house. They learn something, they have an experience, and it changes them. So Heather and I chose to have a young kid who comes in at the beginning of the book thinking, feeling and presenting one way and when the first volume of the series concludes, I think he is a much more likable, interesting young fellow. I wanted readers to have that experience and young people should see that. You know, change is possible. Life is fired at point-blank range. We change all the time.
Q: This is the first in a series called “The Alliance of World Explorers.” Where is AZ going next?
A: We had always talked about Venice of the Doges. That is fascinating to me because it was a point in world history when a country — really a principality, a city-state — with the smallest imprint had global reach. As opposed to say, Mongolia of the Khans, which is another place we want the kids to go, where the land mass was massive, so you would understand the desire for global domination and discovery. I want to take the kids back to some really important places in American history. Whether it is the Colonial experience in Boston or Civil War-era America and Reconstruction. I want to take them back to the 1870s and Dodge City, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday showed up.
Q: Why is it important for kids to travel?
A: When adults travel, we become the best versions of ourselves because we’re forced to ask questions, take risks, try a new language. We’re forced to eat foods we don’t eat all the time. We’re forced to alter our schedule — all in a good way. And we learn things when we travel that we never learn when we’re at home. I think young kids want that experience. I think they hunger for it.
I have traveled all over the world with my son during the first 13, 14 years of his life and he gave me the impetus to keep going at times when I wanted to slow down.
I turned 57 last year and I posted a picture on Instagram of my son jumping off a 50-foot cliff into the water. There were three or four ledges, you know, 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and then the top one at 50 feet. I went to Noah, which one do you want to jump off, and he said the biggest one. When we got to the top, he looked to me and he said, “Dad, you go first.” I thought it was going to be the typical, like I’m scared. But he looked at me and said, “Oh, Dad, I just want you to enjoy it first.” And I said, “Why?”
He said, “Well, I don’t want you to chicken out.”
And I said, “Do you think I would chicken out?”
And he said, “Not really, but I know you want to be the 57-year-old who jumped off a 50-foot cliff on his birthday and not the 57-year-old that didn’t jump off the cliff.”
Kids have that wonderful way of thinking and looking at the world that I really wanted to capture and we hope to capture more of in the books to come.
Q: The book has a lot of interesting foods: roasted gazelle, papyrus stalks, tarantula. Have you eaten all that?
A: In most cases yes, or similar. And, yes, I have eaten a lot of tarantulas. The tarantula, despite all the mythology around it, actually tastes like a crab. And they have fangs, but it’s their fur that is actually poisonous. I have caught tarantulas in Cambodia. You defang them and then you scorch the fur off and then you cook them.
Q: Why is food such an important part of travel?
A: Food is way more interesting than math and music, which are the other two cultural constants. Music is very, very close to my heart and I love music and it almost does for us what food does. I just think if you take away someone’s quadratic equation or their favorite radio station, they are going to get pretty upset, but if you take away food, there is blood on the streets. That’s the stuff that revolutions are made of. And what fascinates me about food is that, just like other cultural totems, when you study it long enough — you really can take a snapshot of a meal and tell the story of people through it.
Q: How much of your year do you spend traveling?
A: Two-thirds of the year.
Q: When you vacation, where do you like to go?
A: We love to go to countries where we can have an adventure vacation. My book is all about adventure learning. All of my work is about adventure learning. So we go to places where you can do that. And some of our favorites as a family have been Hawaii, Jamaica, Costa Rica being our favorite. Going to Costa Rica, we flew into one side of the country and trekked across it and did adventures every day: climbing mountains, going to the hot springs, floating down a river, going horseback riding, spending time with local families. We did all that and then wound up on the beach on the southwest corner of the country and spent three or four days just having a seaside couple of days to sort of relax before we came home. That to me was the most successful.
I like to go to Disney World a lot. My son, depending on the day, likes it or loves it. But I never got to go as a child, so when I go there, I’m relentless. I do everything all day long.
Q: What do you always pack?
A: So many things.
A: No. I don’t do anything prophylactic that way. Hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and you won’t have any problem.
I hear a lot of people give travel tips that are quite frankly such B.S. No human being packs the way we all pretend to. No human being puts everything into, you know, just overhead luggage when they go away for a trip of longer than three or four days. What mystery. If I go away for a weekend, I have three bags. I enjoy traveling, and I enjoy traveling with the things that I like: everything from my backgammon-chessboard to enough different kinds of shoes, to making sure I have clothes for every occasion because you never know when you’re going to get invited to dinner somewhere and you wish you had a blazer. So I am one of those people who believes that more is more.
I always have all my spare batteries and all of my wires — because, another bunch of junk that people are fed, especially by travel celebrities, is this idea that when you are away you like to be disconnected. At home, I pick certain days and hours where I choose to be disconnected because that’s healthy for me. When I’m away, I need to be able to plug in at certain times and address certain things. I’m a dad. I need to check in with my family. I’m an employee, I need to check in with my boss. I am an employer, I need to check in with the people who work for me. And I love, I love, being connected. It makes the experience of traveling that much better. It helps me if I’m lost. It allows me to do research on the fly. Yeah, my Wi-Fi-enabled devices are never more than a hand gesture away.
This is the honest-to-gosh truth: I just came back from a nine-day trip, and I think I brought eight pairs of shoes with me, and I’m not embarrassed to admit it.