This interview appears as part of our innovators, influencers and renegades article. To learn more about the other folks doing their own thing in the Minnesota business scene, click here.
Think of Andrew Zimmern as your personal dining docent. Through his show Bizarre Foods, we’ve vicariously (thankfully) sampled grasshoppers in Phuket, bear in St. Petersburg and tarantulas in Cambodia. On The Zimmern List, he’s introduced us to his favorite spots to chow down in Seattle, Chicago and Branson, Missouri. And here in Minnesota, he’s shared with us his favorite state fair fare (hint: think cheese and more cheese).
A native New Yorker, he made Minnesota his home nearly three decades ago, and we couldn’t be happier to call him one of our own.
A.Z.: Lucky Cricket is my attempt to bring good Chinese food to the mass markets. All the Chinese chain restaurants I know of are stale and unexciting. They lack a real modern beverage program with a point of view, and their service is middling or nonexistent. Our concept is being designed to scale quickly. We aren’t creating a one-off here. It’s not chef-driven either.
We are aiming to capture the customer who doesn’t know about congee or Szechuan wontons in house-made chile oil. I think today’s average restaurant goer, the true average restaurant goer, disconnects from a lot of food-forward restaurants that dominate the headlines. Playing off the familiar — think shrimp toast reimagined or a luxurious skirted pot sticker — Lucky Cricket is going to be an everyday spot that happens to serve good honest Chinese food…with the largest collection of rums in the upper Midwest anchoring our Tiki experience.
My book, on the other hand, is the first in a series of Alliance of World Explorer books featuring a protagonist who is part me, part my son, designed for young grade level readers (ages 8-12). Twelve-year-old AZ dreams of becoming the world’s greatest explorer. Instead, he’s stuck in summer school with just Odd Uncle Arthur for company. Little does AZ know that this summer will be his most thrilling — and dangerous — adventure yet. After a time-traveling mishap, AZ finds himself in Ophir, a lost city full of wonder, secrets and cursed tombs.
AZ must rely on his new friends and his gut to get him home. But first, he must summon the courage to guard magic artifacts from a repulsive villain. Will blood-thirsty crocodiles, turbulent rapids and a stomach-churning feast stand in his way? Or does he have what it takes to join the Alliance of World Explorers? I’m really excited to get into the business of bringing rollicking fun fiction to young readers, all based on adventure-learning models. I want kids to learn something and be excited about it.
Turns out good leaders listen more, put themselves at the end of the line, process all opinions, take their time making decisions, and practice transparency.
MN BIZ: You said that you wanted to bring good Chinese food to the mass market. Is that because it’s your favorite cuisine? Or is it because you feel Chinese cuisine is most misinterpreted in the U.S.?
A.Z.: All food goes into other cultures and takes a turn of some kind. Chinese food came to America in the early 19th century, and over the last 170 years, became a very valid cuisine of its own. It’s the Chinese/American food you know: chop suey, egg foo young and chicken chow mein. Here in the Midwest, it took an even crazier turn — think about cream cheese wontons. There’s nothing wrong with that.…I’m not an authenticity stickler. I think first and foremost food needs to taste good.
The same thing happened thousands of years ago on the Silk Road route, where dishes came out of China and made their way to central Asia, where they were cooked with techniques and ingredients that were more available there, and they lost some of the ingredients that were more readily available in the China of that era. And they’re delicious. There are spicy noodle dishes in Kazakhstan that arrived there courtesy of the Uzbekistanis that are delicious and recognizable to anyone who is Chinese. So there’s all kinds of different ways culture and travel and time and the movement of people and geography change food.
I adore Chinese food. And one of the things that I realized over the last 20 years is that I was always seeking Chinese food that had great flavors and was cooked well. I realized that the majority of people here in Minnesota thought that Chinese food was what was prepared at PF Chang’s and fast food mall restaurants, such as Pei Wei and Express Wok.
So, because I loved it, and because you cook what’s in your heart, I wanted to cook Chinese food. And I thought that the time was right for people in this market to have a modern, fun restaurant with a big beverage program, cool music and still eat what I think of as some of my favorite dishes when it comes to Chinese food. We decided to go with small, shareable portions to encourage people to share more while they’re together for a different sort of dining experience.
MN BIZ: What is your take on the food scene in Minnesota?
A.Z.: Never been better, and what used to be a fly-over state is now a national trendsetter. We don’t have the depth to compete with the big cities, but we now have the breadth. From Hai Hai to Martina, from Young Joni to the brilliant work Gavin Kaysen does at Bellecour and Spoon & Stable, Minnesota restaurants are a superb example of what makes for a great eating town. From Steven Brown to Alex Roberts, Jim Christenson, Michelle Gayer, Tim McKee, Mike DeCamp, Diane Yang and about 20 others, this town has a chef community that is based on elevating the whole dining scene, not just pieces of it.
MN BIZ: Do you have any tips for aspiring restaurateurs?
A.Z.: Aim to be the best, but design to be the ‘only.’ It’s a hard enough business but look at Ann Kim for example. Or Christina Nguyen at Hai Hai. Their concepts are built around the concept of singularity while striving for excellence. I admire that.