Why Andrew Zimmern Believes Miami Is A New Culinary Capital - Exclusive Interview

In an era where food stars emerge seemingly overnight, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more established entertainer in the industry than Andrew Zimmern. Whether you're fond of his work on "Bizarre Foods" or follow his day-to-day adventures on Instagram, it's easy to see why his celebrity status has endured the test of time. His infectious love of cooking — everything from pizza rolls to spinal cords — and impressive breadth of knowledge have made the chef a hit with fans from all walks of life.

And his passion for food doesn't stop there. Off-screen, Zimmern is a fixture of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Food Network's annual gathering of celebrity chefs, culinary experts, and more in Florida's unofficial culinary capital. All net proceeds from the Festival, held from February 22-25, benefit the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. During the four-day-long event, guests can enjoy unique events, including tastings, talks, and even live cooking demonstrations from informative hosts like Zimmern.

If you haven't gathered by now, Zimmern is a walking encyclopedia of culinary wisdom. One moment, he explains how to prepare overlooked organ meat with tantalizing flair. The next, he eloquently details an impromptu Miami restaurant roundup that would put a Fodor's guidebook to shame. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Zimmern shared thoughtful suggestions of the best restaurants in South Beach — plus his personal menu plans for the February holidays and beyond.

How Zimmern spends time at South Beach Wine & Food Fest

We understand that you'll be at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival next month. Can you share any details about your plans there?

I plan to have a raucous few days down there attending other people's events. On Saturday, I'm doing dinner at La Mar, Gaston Acurio's restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. Chef Diego Oka, who is an old friend of mine, and I have been dying to do one of these dinners together for years. Now, we're finally able to do a really fun East-meets-West dinner, all sort of thrown through the Peruvian prism — which is kind of perfectly suited for the type of cooking that I love to do because of the Chiba and Nikkei food that's the result of the influences from Chinese and Japanese cookery. So we're really, really pumped about that.

On Sunday, I'm doing my demo at the Grand Tasting, which is going to be a blast. And then, on Sunday night, I host the closing event — the Bacardi Block Party — that I've been doing for the last 10 years. So I'm really excited. Rev Run, formerly Run of Run DMC, is going to be doing a special set at the party. I just love the Sunday night vibe there. It's fantastic.

One Miami hotspot is a Zimmern family tradition

Are there any dishes that you return to, or drinks that you really like to enjoy there?

Here's the great thing: Miami, over the last, I'll just say 20 years, has gone from being a good food town to an internationally viable culinary leader. It is the unofficial capital of South America, and there's so much influence from Central and South America in that town. Plus, it has the natural advantage. When you say the name Miami, you actually can hear a rhythm in your head.

And I don't think I'm being too cliched or awkwardly poetic here. When you have a town that literally moves to a rhythm, I think it helps the food scene, and vice versa — I think the growing food scene has helped the international music scene down there. It's just an incredible, spirited community. I think the food there reflects that, whether it's Brad Kilgore's food, or Michael Schwartz's food, or grabbing some cushaw at the Palacio de Los Jugos, or stone crab at Joe's. I'll never go to Miami and not stop at Joe's Stone Crab.

What's your go-to order at Joe's?

As much fried chicken and stone crabs as I can stuff into my face, creamed spinach, and chopped salad. Joe's does a really great Italian chopped salad there that they put crispy chickpeas and nuts and stuff into. They do a shredded coleslaw, pour a sweet dressing over, where they put the cured, sliced cabbage, squeezed dry, in the middle of a plate and put some tomato wedges and other things around it. The creamed spinach is classic 100-year-old vintage steakhouse playbook creamed spinach. Joe's has the best stone crab in the world. They have their own boats. The stuff literally is under their control from the time that the traps are set, which I think is why the quality is so good.

My family's been going there for four generations. I'm 62, and my first trip to Joe's Stone Crab was when I was in single digits with my dad. They've always served fried chicken — it was just off the menu. And that was before it was cool to have things that were off the menu; they just had things that were off the menu. Now, fried chicken's on the menu, and it makes me happy because I see it on every table, and you shouldn't keep something that good a secret.

'Too many restaurants and not enough time'

There are some really, really, really great restaurants that have popped up in Miami in the last five years [or so] that have really set a tone for the food in that town. When I went to Miami 15 years ago, there were a bunch of really bad restaurants masquerading as good ones that were just all about show and pomp and circumstance. They weren't about quality of food, right?

We've all been there, yeah.

They were all about giant firecrackers and dessert served in a toilet bowl. And then you look at the casual side, [at] Motek, which is a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant. It has such great food, and in just a matter of three years, it has expanded to multiple locations. I love grabbing lunch there. High-end Japanese food, like Makoto inside the Bal Harbour shops, is just bright and airy and beautiful. 

Thomas Keller's Surf Club, which is oozing with classic '50s Miami stuff. There's a super casual place in North Beach, Taquiza, which I love. I've been going since it opened. They make their own masa, and they have lengua tacos and tacos al pastor. I swoon over it.

There is Zak the Baker's shops, just great bread. There's Cote, the New York City Korean barbecue house. Obviously, Michael's Genuine. Have you been to Miami if you haven't been to Michael's Genuine on the regular? I don't think so. Macchialina, for Italian food, is spectacular. Jeremy Ford, "Top Chef" winner from a couple years ago, has Stubborn Seed that I really love. 

La Mar, where I'm cooking on Saturday, is absolutely fantastic. Major Food Group, the people who own Carbone and all, have Dirty French down there, which is wonderful. So, tons and tons and tons to eat down there — too many restaurants and not enough time.

Miami's best Cuban sandwich, according to Andrew

Where's your favorite place to grab a Cuban sandwich around Miami?

Sanguich. There used to be a lot of places to grab a decent [Cuban sandwich]; nothing that was actually great. In the '70s and '80s, there were a lot of places in Little Havana and up in Hialeah that did a Cuban sandwich. I mean, the traditional Cubano Cuban sandwich, right, with pulled pork and ham and all the rest of that kind of stuff. And the pulled pork was fresh and hot, and it made the difference in the sandwich.

Then the experience became commoditized and they were pulling pork just for those sandwiches and would start out cold. And so there wound up being all these places that were famous for it that, quite honestly, had a mediocre Cuban sandwich. And Sanguich has several variations on it that are absolutely stunning. They do a steak sandwich there where the steak slices are cut super thin, and it comes with onions and a big handful of potato sticks shoved inside. Now, I've been putting homemade potato chips in salads for a long time because I love that combination.

Yeah, it's great.

When I had that steak sandwich with potato sticks in it, my toes curled. And what's really, really important there is they take everything seriously. I do not need to have Michelin-starred experiences. My favorite foods are street foods or sandwich places. But if you're going to have ham on your sandwich, why not make your own ham? They do. They even make their own mustard there.

If you're going to have a Cuban sandwich, you want to have a tropical milkshake. The other thing they have is a batido, which is different than an ice cream shake, but an actual shake that's made with fruit and a little bit of ice cream and milk, but it's a lot of fruit. They do a mamey [sapote] and banana and guanabanana and that whole thing. If you have a tropical fruit batido with that homemade Sanguich Cuban sandwich, I don't think there's a better meal to be had.

The chefs on Zimmern's hypothetical Mount Rushmore

There's going to be a number of marquee chefs at the South Beach Wine & Food Fest, and we want to know: If you were to build, say, a culinary Mount Rushmore inspired by today's top chefs, who would you select?

You're going to get me in so much trouble. No, I'm kidding. There are 300 chefs or more at the festival — I'll just say 500 chefs. I don't know every single person who's going to be there this year. I'm 62, not 22, so I've been around the food block a couple of times, especially in the modern era. And I'll tell you right now, they truly do have the best chefs in the country [at South Beach Wine & Food Fest]. 

On my Mount Rushmore, I'd hope Nancy Silverton is there. She's one of the most unique culinary talents of this or any generation. Thomas Keller should be on anyone's Mount Rushmore. [Both chefs] have a special gift with food. 

For Zimmern, Guy Fieri deserves a spot on Mount Rushmore, too

All of these great chefs who participate may not be at some of these big, over-the-top events that are dominated by those of us who also do television, but I don't know how you can talk about the modern food era and not talk about the influence of someone like Guy Fieri.


I think he's universally loved, but there are people who look at him and say, "Well, he's a guy on TV. He's a host. He's not really a chef." I don't care how you define him; he has done more for the food world in terms of giving it that sort of rockstar status than anyone that you could name. 

So he's got to be up there all the way to someone who's the exact opposite. One of the greatest chefs of all time in terms of strict skill sets in the kitchen, José Andrés, started at El Bulli with Ferran Adrià. Obviously, [Andrés] now has 36, 38 restaurants around the world, including several in Miami, that are delicious and amazing, but he also founded World Central Kitchen. He should win the Nobel Peace Prize. So how do you have a Mount Rushmore and not put him up there?

So, there are four chefs off the top of my head. I'm not sure how you take any of them off, but look at all the people from Bobby Flay to Giada De Laurentiis to any James Beard Award winner. I mean, there are 100 chefs that also have a really good argument about why they should be up there as well.

How Zimmern crafts a stellar Lunar New Year menu

We know you're a big fan of cooking with ingredients from various Asian cuisines. With the Lunar New Year coming up, do you have any special culinary traditions or treats that you bring out?

We celebrate it in our home because I think it's important. The kids are older now, but when they were younger, it was really important to celebrate holidays from lots of different cultures so they didn't grow up thinking that the only people who mattered had blonde hair cut in bangs. It was really important to me that my son be a globalist, that respect for culture went beyond pandering to actually experiencing it — and the easiest way to do that is through food. 

I love to cook Chinese food, Thai food, Korean food. It's actually the majority of what we cook at home. I just did the menu, and it's been a couple of years since the main course was a Chengdu-style hot pot. So we're doing a Chengdu-style hot pot with, I think, 40 different ingredients to dip into it.

Wow, that's awesome.

It sounds like a lot, but it's actually not because there's cabbage, onions, carrots, tofu, bean sprouts, and three different types of Chinese greens. We're going to have shrimp, chicken, beef, fish balls, [and] king crab. So all of a sudden, you're up to 20. And then the rest of the stuff is mushrooms and pickles, and there's a lot of that. It's not that hard, but I get it, 40 sounds like a lot. 

That's why I love a hot pot. You just put piles of things on wooden sticks. I do it the way they do it in Chengdu, where you go into restaurants, and you pick, and then they pile your ingredients on a tray, everything's on the skewer, and then you dip it in.

And we'll have a seasoned chili and cumin salt to dip into a few liquid dipping sauces. We'll have some really fiery hot chili condiments, some chili bean paste, and a miso dipping sauce. We'll definitely be doing homemade sheng jian bao, which is a bready soup dumpling. It's very popular in Shanghai; one of my favorite types of dumplings. We'll do a cold sesame noodle dish. My son has requested Singapore rice noodles. And then we'll probably have cold, marinated, spicy cucumbers, the hot pot, and big piles of fruit for dessert.

What kind of fruit do you serve?

The day beforehand, I'll go over to United Noodle, which is our big Asian market here in town. I've already left them a message saying, "If you're running out of pomelo, champagne mangoes, [or] Asian pears, put some aside." So I know I've got my favorites there, and then we'll just plug in with other stuff. Usually lychee is there, rambutan if they're in decent shape. I happen to be a huge pomelo lover. It's so acidic. It's perfect to have after a big meal like that.

The key to his heart on Valentine's Day

Speaking of holidays, Valentine's Day is right around the corner. What's your favorite way to prepare organ meat, like heart?

Well, interestingly enough, that's typically what I serve. I prefer if there's someone in my life, that they cook for me that night because I typically will do all the cooking in any relationship that I'm in. So can we just have one night where I don't? And I don't like to go out. Everyone says, "What's an aphrodisiac?" And I always say, "Dinner at home."

The heart is something that I'm a big fan of. One year I did chicken hearts, marinated them in soy sauce, ginger, a little bit of mirin, garlic, and put them on skewers. Then you just lay them in the fire on the hot coals, and just let them char in one side, and eat them medium rare. I happen to think eating lightly that night is more fun than creating a situation where you're comatose, but a lot of people have gotten into calves' hearts and things like that.

So, if you have a larger heart, just cut it halfway through on one side and open it up like a book. Then just trim out all those tendons there, and you'll actually have a six or eight-ounce piece of steak with some curved edges. It's got very little fat, so just sear it rare, with a hard, crusty sear, and a rare, warm, red center, and slice it thin. All it needs to be dressed with is salt, olive oil, and a little bit of lemon. I take rosemary, a few sprigs, and just char [it] in an open fire. Then, take those charred rosemary leaves, strip them off, and use them as a seasoning.

Zimmern's must-have Super Bowl menu picks

If you're entertaining a crowd for Super Bowl LVIII this year, what would be your go-to appetizer spread?

You have to have food in three or four categories. You have to have a hot dip. I do a hot artichoke and crab dip with chips. I'll roast meat, a ham, a turkey, a pork shoulder, something like that so that you can just slice it and people can make sandwiches. Put out lots of fixings; let people help themselves.

I always like to do something that's served in a mug. So my grandmother's Tailgating Pot of Love, which is her pea soup, with big pieces of kielbasa or andouille in it. Gumbo is another good one. Oyster stew — something that's hearty and delicious. You have to have chips and guacamole. And you have to have some kind of chicken wing dish, and my sticky, spicy chicken wings are the best wings there are. So those five things are always there.

Bizarrely, Zimmern's yet to try these fast food staples

We noticed you recently tried a Wendy's Frosty for the first time. Are there any other fast food favorites that you'd like to cross off your list this year?

I don't have a lot of experience in traditional fast food places. I'm scared. I'll give you an example. I have eaten at Cane's — which people classify as fast food, right? But all they do is serve chicken tenders. There's nothing else on the menu. It's chicken tenders, they do them really well. I like Cane's and people tell me that's fast food. So I've eaten there, but I've never eaten a chicken McNugget.

Oh, wow. Never?

I'm scared. No, I've seen them, and I've broken one open.

I don't want to tell you to try one because once you do, you might not want to stop.

That's what I'm saying. I mean, let's go with the chicken McNugget. I've never had a Hardee's roast beef sandwich, but I've looked at the meat that goes on one, and it doesn't look right. But here's the thing. We've had such success [trying fast food online,] and it's been accidental. 

I'm in an airport [saying,] "Well, I've never tried that before. I should record this and put it on my social media." You've made me realize that there are people who see this, and it gives them amusement to see me try it. Well, I love food — and I'm not a food snob — but I was kind of surprised at how great the Frosty was. I thought the burger was like, eh. So we'll see.

I'm in love with Culver's. My friends have told me, "You love Culver's so much, you will not like other fast food places," because Culver's cooks everything to order. But I'm going to give some of these things a shot.

We'd definitely love to see it. There are even limited-edition flavors, so they could be fun to try if you liked the Frosty. They have strawberry that comes around once in a while.

I had this argument with someone because I said, "No, I only saw chocolate and vanilla." And they're like, "No, there's strawberry." And then someone else said that's a seasonal flavor. I love it.

Aside from the fast food videos — which we're looking forward to — we'd love to know what's next for you in 2024.

Well, we have some really incredible stuff happening. But probably the biggest thing that's going to happen for me is on June 19, 2024 — a three-part documentary series that I am executive producing airs on PBS. It's called "Hope in the Water." It's about how we can protect our oceans but at the same time produce from them, and I am so excited about it.

South Beach Wine & Food Festival runs February 22-25. You can purchase tickets here. To learn more about Andrew Zimmern's recipes and the upcoming docuseries, "Hope in the Water," visit www.andrewzimmern.com

This interview has been edited for clarity.