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The Road to Recovery

How did the star of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods turn his life around?

By Andrew Zimmern, Edina, Minnesota

As appeared in

I sat down on the bed next to Jimmy, this small room at the veterans residential care facility the only thing between him and the streets of New York City. His demeanor was guarded. He smiled, but his eyes were tired.

I knew he thought there was no way I could understand what he was going through, but when I looked at him I saw myself—like I was looking in a mirror.

I get asked to speak to a lot of different groups, one of the best parts of my job hosting a show on the Travel Channel, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I take viewers to the far corners of the globe and introduce them to other cultures by exploring the foods they eat—at times, pretty strange stuff.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned after a lifetime of dining on delicacies like blood pudding, sea squirts and camel kidneys, even folks who wouldn’t come within 100 yards of a Cambodian tarantula want to hear what it’s like to chomp on one!

That, ostensibly, was why I was here. I was speaking at a fund-raising gala for Services for the Underserved. SUS helps people with developmental disabilities, HIV/AIDS , the mentally ill and homeless veterans.

It’s an organization devoted to supplying housing and supportive services to all of the underserved communities of NYC. I’d come into town on the early side so I could tour their residential facilities for veterans.

I’d met Jimmy in the common room. We struck up a conversation and I asked if I could see where he lived.

“I’ve made a mess of my life,” he said. He told me how for years he’d struggled with physical and emotional problems, lost his marriage and his business. “I had nothing to live for. It just seemed so hopeless before I got help here at SUS.”

“I’ve been there,” I said, my voice just a whisper. “And not that long ago.”

I thought back to that day in New York City, early January of 1992. I’d checked into a cheap hotel with a case of vodka in large plastic bottles. “I had a plan. I was going to drink myself to death,” I said. Jimmy looked at me, his eyes wide.

I was 30. Everyone, my friends, my business partners, my family, had wisely turned their backs on me. My once-promising career as a chef and restaurateur was trashed. I’d spent most of the previous year squatting in an abandoned building, living with other drunks and junkies.

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I didn’t believe in anything or anyone, including myself, and least of all in a Higher Power. The only thing I had faith in was the bottle.

I’d dreamed of being in the food business from the moment my globetrotting parents introduced me to the foods of the world during childhood trips to Europe and Asia.

I worked my way up the food chain, beginning with summer jobs in high school, then on to unpaid apprenticeships in restaurants in Italy and France, then to restaurants back home as a cook, then sous chef, executive chef and finally to a partnership in a foodservices development company and consulting group.

I’d worked in some of the best kitchens in the world, with some of the best chefs in the business.

Outside the kitchen my life was spiraling downward. I told myself I was in control, that I wasn’t really addicted at all. I used heroin to come down from coke, alcohol to moderate the pills. I had it all figured out.

But after a decade of this, my friends, people with successful careers and families, no longer wanted to go out when I called. No longer let me crash on their couches. No longer took my calls. More and more the people I hung out with were other drunks and addicts.

Jimmy nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “At first you don’t care. You just want to get high. But then...then it’s too late.” He stood up and walked to a dresser, framed pictures of a smiling family atop it. He pointed to a photo of a handsome young boy.

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“My son,” he said. “He’s a great kid. I didn’t see him for years until I got the new start here.” He looked back at me and wiped a hand across his eyes.

“I know how you feel, Jimmy.” He sat back down and I continued my story.