Bringing out the ‘Bizarre’ in Jerusalem

While filming his show in Jerusalem, TV host and traveling chef Andrew Zimmern talks about bugs, couscous and his emotional connection to Israel.

ANDREW ZIMMERN (left) and Uri Navon, chef at the Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem, pose for a photo in the capital on Tuesday. (Amy Spiro) (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
ANDREW ZIMMERN (left) and Uri Navon, chef at the Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem, pose for a photo in the capital on Tuesday. (Amy Spiro)
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Andrew Zimmern sure gets around. With more than 200 episodes of his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods under his belt, the chef and host has dined everywhere from Taiwan to Iceland, Syria, Bolivia, Madagascar and Finland – plus a whole lot in between.
But when the Jewish New York native arrived in Israel for the first time in his life earlier this week, “the plane hadn’t even hit the ground and I started crying,” he said.
“You can’t be Jewish and not feel like...
a rain drop entering the river coming to Israel,” Zimmern told The Jerusalem Post as he took a break from filming in the capital on Tuesday. “This to me is one of the most special places in the world for that reason.”
The affable 54-year-old Zimmern spent three days shooting in and around Jerusalem for an episode of Bizarre Foods that is scheduled to air later this year. He dined at Machneyuda next to the shuk, met workers at a women’s couscous co-op in Jericho and ate an iftar meal marking the end of Ramadan with a Palestinian chef and his family in the Old City.
“As a cultural anthropologist and storyteller,” he said, “to be able to share that with our viewers, who don’t quite understand how the three main groups here in the city operate and coexist together – however you define that... those are the kind of things that make our show special.”
Zimmern said he tried more than once several years ago to schedule a film shoot in Israel, but had to cancel each time for “scheduling issues, insurance issues and geopolitical issues.”
Now that he arrived, however, he’s all set to come back and film another episode in Tel Aviv – and even a third exploring the rest of the country.
“The air here is a little more electric,” said the well-seasoned traveler, “and it’s electric with the history – so much has happened on five square miles that you can’t help but come here and feel goosebumply, and to start thinking about my grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents and all of our relationship to this place.”
In such a contentious corner of the world, where even food gets politicized on a regular basis, Zimmern said he had no qualms about tackling the region.
“My goal is not to try and solve some of the more discussed issues. My job here is to show the similarities between all the different communities that coexist here and their love of food and hope that maybe, in some small way, one or two people find a way to get a long a little better.”
He works with locals on the ground to uncover some of the more unexplored stops in town, in addition to conducting months of research before arriving.
“I think there are some shows that would be content to take what certainly would have been the simpler take on Israel and focus on Tel Aviv,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think the reason that this show is as genuine as it is, is it’s actually an expression of the stuff that I’m interested in.”
Zimmern also said he found Israel “much more peaceful than I imagined.”
“I’ll get the same question 100 times when I return from here – ‘Wasn’t it dangerous?’” he said. “There has not been a moment where I have felt a whisper of that. I’ve been to concerts at Madison Square Garden where I’ve felt like I was in greater danger.”
While Zimmern is known for his enthusiastic and intrepid approach to sampling local cuisine – he’s eaten shark meat, squirrel brains and dung beetles in the past – there was nothing too bizarre in Jerusalem, and that’s how he likes it these days.
“It was never my intention to have the show be about bugs and pickled dolphin rectums,” he said. “People remember those moments but I’ve worked very hard to use that as a way to get in. I needed a hook, and the moment the hook was set and the show was popular, I’ve done everything I can, every year, to go further and further away from something that represents shock value, and more toward adventure and learning through food.”
Ultimately, Zimmern is hoping to produce a show that will showcase the city through the eyes of its residents.
“I’m successful when the people who live here full time – who put their head on a pillow every night in this city – watch the show and say wow he really got it. That’s the only goal I have. Because if I’ve done that, then to all the people in 70 countries around the world that are watching this show, I know I’m representing the city the right way.”