Many people know Andrew Zimmern as an award-winning celebrity chef and restaurateur, and as the creator and host of the popular Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, which has several spinoffs.
Fewer people know that he has been in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction for over a quarter century now. Zimmern started misusing substances in 1974 when he was barely a teenager. That year his mother went into a coma after a routine surgery. He described seeing his mother in an oxygen tent at the hospital as a “very scary experience for a thirteen-year-old” in Second Chances, a 2009 collection of recovery stories compiled by Gary Stromberg and Jane Merrill.
“I had few tools to handle this tragedy,” Zimmern remembered in Second Chances. It was the second major trauma of his youth after his parents had divorced when he was “five or so.” Although his dad, family members, teachers and psychologists did their best to get young Andrew to open up about his pain, he decided it was better “to stay silent in order to stop feeling what I was feeling.”
He started drinking and “fooling around with other drugs.” By the time, Zimmern graduated from high school, he was a “daily cocaine user, pill user, pot smoker and drinker.” By the time he graduated from college, he had a heroin problem as well.
Despite his substance use disorder, Zimmern was able to nurture “a love of food and cooking.” His passion for the food business made him very successful but he was leading a double life. As a chef and entrepreneur he was “hyper-successful” while his “drug problem was progressing.”
Eventually, “things turned really bad, really fast,” Zimmern writes in Second Chances. For about a year, he was homeless in Manhattan, stealing to be able to buy drugs. “I was an everything addict,” Zimmern told Success Magazine in 2015. “And for a long time, my addiction dominated my life and devastated the people around me whom I loved the most.”
Andrew was finally rescued by his best friend from childhood who took him in and organized an intervention. His friends sent him off to a rehab in Minnesota where he spent five weeks and then took up residence at a halfway house nearby — and he started going to 12-Step meetings.
He told me about his first meeting on a snowy March night in1992 in Minnesota. A woman welcomed him at the door with the words “Nice to have you here.”
“I was overwhelmed and burst into tears, because I realized I hadn’t been welcomed anywhere for many years,” Zimmern remembered. He embraced the magic of recovery: “When we get sober, what used to be the worst thing about ourselves becomes our greatest strength, our greatest spiritual resource.”
“Recovery is 100 percent available to anybody who is open to just the idea of it,” Zimmern reminds us in this video message:
After getting sober, Zimmern rediscovered his passion for food. He started working as a dishwasher and busboy in a local restaurant but soon was put in charge of the kitchen.
“Within two months I was chef and hired a whole slew of culinarians I met in halfway houses and 12-Step meetings,” he told me. “The next six years were exciting, cooking and creating a team that was as serious about food as they were about recovery.”
“Everything I do in my career today is an adaptation of principles and learning that have come to me in my sober life,” he says. “Bizarre Foods to me is not a show about a guy who goes around the world eating strange food. For me the show is about practicing patience, power and understanding in a world that doesn’t have enough of it.”
On January 28, 2017, Andrew Zimmern celebrated 25 years of sobriety.