In 20 years, Andrew Zimmern has evolved from just another addict on a plane to Hazelden to a brand occupying billboards, airwaves, bookshelves, and cyberspace.

He commands big dollars to give a speech, cannot walk through an airport without being mobbed, and is host of one of the most-watched shows on cable television. And he’s on the verge of breaking out of his TV box to helm a diversified conglomerate of businesses.

If food is not your sweet spot or cable TV is not your medium, the longtime host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern may have claimed but a small kernel of your awareness. But if you populate his cultural space, he is an ever-bigger deal. He is without a doubt the most prominent celebrity to call the Twin Cities home. The buzzy social influence website klout.com, which invites users to rate people’s influence in their fields, labeled Zimmern in 2011 as the most influential celebrity chef in the world. He has half a million followers on Twitter and an equivalent number of “likes” on Facebook. New Bizarre Foods episodes draw the largest audiences on Travel Channel, and the show’s ratings are as good or better than at any time in his seven years on the network.

Celebritynetworth.com says Bizarre Foods earns Zimmern more than $35,000 an episode, and he is reported to earn a similar amount to appear on a dais at a corporate event. He was recently featured in People magazine, attended the White House Easter egg hunt with his family (as guests of the Obamas) and stood at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party alongside Bill Clinton and George Clooney. There, rapper LL Cool J asked for a photo with Zimmern for his kids.

To put it mildly, things are moving very fast right now for Zimmern and his St. Louis Park-based company, Food Works, Inc. Ground zero is a small suite of offices off Excelsior Boulevard, where Zimmern is only present a couple of days each month, but is staffed daily by four longtime associates. Zimmern’s taupe office is decorated with ribald photos, strange souvenirs from his travels, bottles of barbecue sauce, and magazines piled everywhere. On office days he comes to work in a flannel shirt, jeans, and shoes with no socks.

Zimmern is not quite the lovable cultural naïf you see on the Travel Channel. Behind his persona of a dapper, well-bred regular-guy explorer lurks the intensity of a persistent and ambitious businessman who has been willing to sacrifice nearly a decade of his life to celebrity and its trappings, good and evil. It’s a heady story, to be sure, but even headier if you know Zimmern’s well-chronicled back story.

Halfway House to Halfway There

Born into privilege on New York’s Upper East Side, a graduate of Vassar College, trained as a professional chef, Zimmern saw his life derailed by drug and alcohol addiction, losing nearly his entire twenties to various bouts of it, hitting bottom when he became homeless for nearly a year on those same Manhattan streets. He arrived in the Twin Cities two decades ago, banished by his loved ones to Hazelden. This time, the cure took.

“My sobriety is now almost 21 years long and is the result of finally cratering my life to the point I was either going to die an alcoholic death or not,” Zimmern explains. “I credit my friends, family, Hazelden, and the 12-step community of the Twin Cities with helping me get and stay sober. I went through the usual wringer of jails/institutions/drunk tanks and several treatment attempts; none lasted—until the one at the beginning of my current sobriety.”

Zimmern’s second job out of Hazelden, in May 1992, was as busboy at the acclaimed café un deux trois in the Foshay Tower under owner Michael Morse. He quickly rose to become its most celebrated executive chef. “We were selling two whole terrines, 40 portions—in Minneapolis—a night,” Zimmern recalls. “I remember telling Michael, ‘We have the hot hand,’ we need to expand into tangential businesses. I thought we could get into catering, a lunch counter—hell, T-shirts.

“Michael didn’t want to push it, but I’m the least risk-averse person in the world,” Zimmern says. “I’m a ‘bright shiny objects’ guy. I’m always looking for what’s next.”

But rather than ride the gravy train to wherever it takes him, Zimmern, 51, and a small group of Twin Cities-based advisers, is taking a different approach, using his celebrity to build a diversified universe of businesses that will insulate him from the mercurial world of cable TV. It’s an approach that has cost Zimmern a great deal of effort, taken a toll on his personal life, and limited his short-term earning potential, in service of more far-reaching goals.

“Andrew is extremely strategic,” says Tom Wiese, Zimmern’s Plymouth-based attorney and deal advisor. “He realizes things he does today may not pay dividends for a long time.”

The Vision Thing

During Zimmern’s years of addiction he lost a budding partnership with one of New York City’s most successful food entrepreneurs, Steve Hanson, founder of B. R. Guest Hospitality, which operates 27 restaurants and bars around the country and was sold to Starwood Capital in 2007 for $150 million.

Zimmern left Hazelden determined to return to the food business, but then left un deux trois in 1998, frustrated. When a boutique hotel/restaurant project with Kieran Folliard at the site of the Local on Nicollet Mall fell through, he opened Lee Lynch’s Backstage at Bravo restaurant/event space concept blocks away at 9th and Hennepin. But, he says, “I realized I couldn’t implement the partners’ vision.

“I kept trying to change myself to get along,” he continues, “but I eventually realized being in business for other people wasn’t for me.” So he left Bravo and the business of cooking.

0213_andrewz_pic1.jpgZimmern’s posse (left to right): attorney Tom Wiese, talent agent Josh Bider, Zimmern, manager John Larson.

“I decided to trust my gut,” Zimmern says. “I see steps ahead. I see food trends two years out. And I saw a media side of food where the doors were still open, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last. I saw the trend of ‘fringe foods’ and created Bizarre Foods. My work isn’t derivative.”

This was prescient stuff more than a decade ago. “Food has evolved from niche content to mainstream culture in a decade,” says AJ Marechal, who covers TV for the entertainment industry trade Variety. “TV and the Internet took food out of the kitchen.”

But the skids were not exactly greased for Zimmern, so he offered himself as a restaurant consultant to earn a paycheck, and his clients at the time say Zimmern’s sense of his instincts is more than hubris. “Andrew did an Irish gastropub menu for me in 1996 or ’97 that was years ahead of its time,” says Folliard, who also founded Kieran’s, the Liffey, and Cooper Pub, and sold his 2 Gingers Whiskey to Beam, Inc., in December. “He had great foresight to see where dining was going, stuff that New York restaurants like the Spotted Pig would do to great acclaim many years later.”

But Zimmern mainly devoted himself to exploiting possibilities in media. He started reviewing restaurants and writing an insider-type column for MplsStPaul Magazine in 2001, a low-return gig that nonetheless had high visibility among the town’s influentials. He began weekly taped food segments for UPN9’s Good Day Minnesota, which became FOX9 Morning News. He was house-chef for HGTV’s TIPical Mary Ellen and Rebecca’s Garden, wrote for the Life Time Fitness magazine, and taught classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill.

“But it was paycheck to paycheck,” Zimmern says. “My credit cards were maxed out. I decided I needed representation.” He consulted with Mendes Napoli, the former KSTP-TV news director who had relocated to California as a talent agent. “He told me I was not salable enough. I knew I was a ‘tweener,’ and it wasn’t going to be simple.”

(Food & Wine magazine Editor in Chief Dana Cowin, who publishes Zimmern’s recipes and writing, says it took her two years to figure out how to use Zimmern after falling in love with his more recent work.)

Zimmern had been introduced to a young entertainment lawyer, Tom Wiese. He knew a local literary agent, John Larson, who was starting his own talent agency. All three were in similar career evolutions. “They said ‘We can grow this thing together,’ ” Zimmern recalls.

“Andrew said he wanted a [close] Jerry Maguire kind of partnership,” says Larson, who now functions as Zimmern’s business manager.

They shot a pilot, Food Freaks, for public TV. “It was OK,” Zimmern says. “But everyone said I had the presence to do commercial TV.” A colleague at channel 9 suggested Zimmern talk to Tremendous Entertainment, helmed by former WCCO anchor Colleen Needles, which had some small successes placing low-profile cable fare. “Colleen liked the idea for Bizarre Foods, so we filmed a 10-minute sample at an elk farm about eating elk testicles and ostrich,” Zimmern says.

Tremendous pitched the idea to Travel Channel, which funded a longer test segment filmed in rural Louisiana. That led to two full-fledged pilots, Bizarre Foods Asia and Ballpark Eats, airing regularly in random reruns to strong ratings. Still, Tremendous and Zimmern spent three years in limbo, through 9/11, ownership and management changes at Travel Channel (which moved from Discovery to Cox to current owner Scripps), and negotiations with other networks.

“I talked to Food Network,” Zimmern says, “but I thought I’d get lost there, with Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck. I wanted to be the food guy at Travel Channel.”

Eventually the network bit with an order for six episodes of Bizarre Foods.

Word got out, “and the phone started ringing,” Zimmern says. “I had to fight for a live truck at FOX9, and now they were offering me a weekend anchor role and a syndicated show.” He began a daily radio show on FM107 but quickly departed once the realities of travel for Bizarre Foods hit home.

Today Bizarre Foods is in its seventh year, and a new season of episodes debuts February 11. In 2012 Zimmern spent 35 weeks on the road taping content. In between, he has been building a brand intended to grow businesses. “We have 45 different deals in play today,” Zimmern said last summer.

“A TV show is a terrific commercial for a brand,” explains Zimmern’s New York-based agent, Josh Bider of WME (William Morris Endeavor). The nature of that brand, though, is often prisoner to the TV show.

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