Andrew Zimmern takes a serious turn with his new MSNBC show

Andrew Zimmern. Photo: www.andrewzimmern.com

For years, Andrew Zimmern, the affable host of the “Bizarre Foods” franchise, had been searching for a place where he could tell stories that would treat food as something more than an adventure to pursue, savor or conquer. He wanted to find a channel where he could connect all the dots and show viewers how food impacts almost everything in their lives, whether climate change or health care.

Zimmern has now found that place, and it’s an unlikely destination for a man whose TV career has been largely dedicated to entertainment: MSNBC, the cable news channel owned by NBCUniversal, has purchased five episodes of Zimmern’s new series, “What’s Eating America,” in which the chef and James Beard Award-winning host looks at some of the country’s most vexing issues through the lens of food. (MSNBC has options for more shows should the initial ones prove successful.) Zimmern’s change of venue echoes a similar move that the late Anthony Bourdain made in 2013, when he left the Travel Channel for CNN.

The two-hour debut of “What’s Eating America” will air Feb. 16 and explore the role immigrants play in feeding people across the land. The show will feature Washington’s José Andrés, the Spanish immigrant who has become a celebrity chef, humanitarian, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a naturalized U.S. citizen. Andrés is the executive producer of the first episode, too, Zimmern said.

“Food and our relationship to it has, like gold in a miner’s pan, been revealed to be something of incredible value. Anthropologically. Sociologically. Civically. Politically. Every which way,” Zimmern said during a telephone interview. “We now see food as a magnifying glass, as a lens, through which to view so many things, learn so many things and interpret so many things.”

About four years ago, Zimmern said he went to MSNBC with an early iteration of “What’s Eating America,” and the network turned him down. But a year ago, Patrick Weiland, the vice president of development for Zimmern’s production company, Intuitive Content, sat down with MSNBC executives again at the Realscreen Summit and found a receptive audience. Times had changed. Food documentaries and series, such as the Netflix shows “Chef’s Table” and “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” have shown there’s a healthy appetite for content that goes deep on food.

The initial episodes of “What’s Eating America” promise to go deep on five subjects: immigration, climate change, addiction, voter suppression and health care.

Zimmern’s debut on MSNBC, in a sense, closes a major chapter of his career: He will produce no more new episodes of “Bizarre Foods” and its spinoffs. Those series were canceled when Discovery, parent of the Travel Channel (now Trvl Channel) shifted its programming to focus on ghosts, monsters and the paranormal. (Older “Bizarre Foods” episodes will continue to air on Discovery platforms such as the Cooking Channel.) Zimmern wants to be clear that the cancellations had nothing to do with his controversial 2018 interview with Fast Company, in which he denigrated Chinese American food and set himself up as the savior of Chinese food in the Midwest. (He later apologized for his “flippant” comments.)

Discovery executives had notified Zimmern about the change of programming “months and months before the Fast Company article came out,” he said.

The move from a lifestyle channel to a news channel has demanded more work, and more employees, on the production end. Zimmern and his production company hired writers, editors and more to work on the shows, which were vigorously fact-checked, the host said.

Zimmern said he hopes the journalistic rigor will resonate, particularly with conservative viewers who may have previously watched “Bizarre Foods” but have never flipped the channel to MSNBC, a reliably left-leaning outlet.

“I think it’s an important year for this show to be premiering,” Zimmern said. “I’m hoping that it influences people . . . to converse about these issues with the candidates, whether it’s someone running for city council or someone running for the president of the United States.”

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