What Makes Austin's Food Scene Great: A Conversation with Andrew Zimmern
Andrew Zimmern, the host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods (where he's made a name for himself eating exotic things like fermented beetle anus), heaped some praise on the local food scene at the Austin Food Festival this weekend. But while Zimmern is fond of many Austin chefs, farmers and restaurants, he saves the highest praise for Austinites themselves.
KUT: So tell us why you're here at this food festival in Austin.
Andrew Zimmern: "I think Austin has a very special food community in terms of diners. It's the diners and the Austinites that have created the atmosphere for all this amazing food here to flourish.
Every single person I've spoken to here at this festival, I think, gets it all wrong about Austin. Everybody puts the food and chefs first, and I think it's not chicken or egg, it's very matter-of-fact: the audience here in Austin is unique. They are willing to be experimented at, and they do not hold grudges against chefs that make mistakes or have failures, as long as that chef is willing to get back on their bicycle and start pedaling again.
So, they'll go to a restaurant, a place like Barley Swine, or Foreign and Domestic, or Congress, or Uchi or a food truck like Pig Vicious or whatever, and have something that's maybe fun, or have elements that were great, and some that were less great, and they never say the words: 'That was not very good, I’m never going back.' In New York, or L.A. or Chicago, as great as those food towns are, you can turn away customers with a bad dish.
Everyone says it’s the competition, it’s this, it’s that. No. It’s the diners. The food community here – like Portland, Maine, like San Francisco – the dining community here is willing to suffer a few duds in pursuit of the fun of dining. And they understand that not everything works. It doesn't have to be perfect for them. They're there for the experience. They're not score-carding. And I think that's really unique, and people need to acknowledge that about this town."
KUT: But if the diners are that forgiving, don't you lose a bit of the competitiveness?
Andrew Zimmern: "Absolutely not. They know food and they know good food. The places that serve crappy food consistently disappear here. [Austinites] are willing to get a couple of duds, or something that doesn’t quite work. And if you talk to Bryce Gilmore, and if you talk to Ned and his wife at Foreign & Domestic, and if you talk to Paul [Qui] and Tyson [Cole] and all the people who have been here for a while, they will tell you the same thing: They're allowed to experiment at their customer. They're allowed to get it 90 percent right. That’s a lot better than other people who are like, ‘I had a great fish dish, my wife had a great pasta but my kid had a bad burger, we’re not going back.' That’s what a New Yorker customer will say; they are not as forgiving."
KUT: Why is that?
Andrew Zimmern: "I think it's the culture. It's the rest of what makes Austin special. The same diner or food-lover here, because a lot of the eating is not done in restaurants, a lot of that same spirit is also why the music scene is so vibrant here. It’s the same kind of thing. This is place that understands and nurtures that part of the creative process."