Zagat: What inspired your partnership with UNO Chicago Grill?
I'm on the board for SUS (Services for the UnderServed), and we do a lot of work within the veteran community. It's something that I have believed very strongly about for many years. I was working for and with SUS before I was on the board, so it's been a great passion of mine - obviously I'm a former homeless person, recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Many of our veterans find reentry very difficult. Along the way, I've met hundreds of very compelling people, none more so than Frank Guidara (Uno CEO). I've talked to Frank at a couple events, and he's a veteran himself; he's in the restaurant business and he's a fantastic, engaging human being and very committed. And I called him up one day and said, "Let's do something together." So, to me, the project is a dream come true. There's no money changing hands - it's not a profit center for myself or Frank, it's just a great way to put money into the coffer for SUS.
Zagat: So unlike many other celebrity food personalities, I assume you don't have a problem then with Chicago-style pizza?
I think it's delicious, but when you say "problem" - for me, I've long gone on the record as not really understanding how it's pizza. It's more of a dinner pie. Taken on its own - I have absolutely no problem with it. Anybody who puts that much money toward my favorite charity, I definitely don't have a problem with [chuckles].
Zagat: Can you trace your love of "bizarre foods" back to one particular moment/time in your life?
Since I was a young child. Growing up in NYC in the '60s, my parents were pretty adventurous. Seeking out how people eat in different parts of the world, from eating in restaurants to spending time in ethnic communities in New York, is something that we did as a family. I went to Europe for the first time when I was seven or eight with my father and ate tiny little snails in Les Halles in Paris and these tiny little eels from the Sargasso Sea in Madrid. A sautéed boneless, skinless chicken breast is boring - I don't think I've eaten one of those in 18 years. Food is great. Food with a story is even better. Food with a story from the fringe that people haven't heard about is the best of all. So as my love of real, authentic, honest cuisine merged with my audience for storytelling, the show was born.
Zagat: Do you think America's recent obsession with all things food was spawned by food TV or just something that happened culturally on its own?
I think they fed each other; it's a chicken-or-the-egg issue. The popularity of shows like mine, like the ones you seen on Bravo, the Cooking Channel or Food Network - those shows keep being created and being invested in because the appetite for them seems to be unquenchable. I think that food is the ultimate equalizer. I'm a student of history first and foremost, and I've never read of a revolution occurring because you take away somebody's math or their music. You take away their food, and they're rioting in the streets. People have a wonderful relationship with food - we eat it many times a day for survival - and at the same time, it tells the story of our culture, our people. The history of our planet is our food. It's the ultimate cultural lens through which you take a look at other people around the world or in our own country.
Zagat: Tell me about the newest season of Bizarre Foods coming up in February.
It's going to have 20 fantastic shows and some great locations. From Denver to Sonoma Valley, from Chicago to Rhode Island, we get to explore some really great stories and some really cool people. I just returned yesterday from a five-day trip to Kentucky - there's a young guy, a third-generation Kentuckian, who has created the world's only natural fermented soy sauce company. The best soybeans, water and wheat come from the area where he lives. He spent time in Japan, and now he's doing it. It's an incredibly vibrant food world out there.
It's a book for children of all ages. I wrote it with a smart-ass 12-year-old in mind. The funny thing is, I sent the book to hundreds of my chef friends, and they all think it's a book for adults. It reads the very same way that a Guinness Book of World Records or a National Lampoon parody might read. Anyone from eight-80 can flip through it, and they might take different things from the book. We have dozens of chapters, each one highlighted by a different food. I have a four-page story arc in which we talk about about actually eating brains and cooking them in the French-style and how much I love them. And then we talk about zombie attacks and talk to the world-leading authority on zombie attacks from the University of Ottawa, a little lecture on Albert Einstein, etc. All done with charticles and listicles.
I shot a pilot called Border Check that will air sometime this winter on Travel Channel. I am expanding my food-truck business into a brick-and-mortar space. I have two new books that we're working on. I have one that's a serialized children's adventures series, and then I have a cookbook that we're going to be putting out to auction pretty soon, probably before the first of the year.
Zagat: Where will you open the brick-and-mortar locations of the food trucks?
Right now we're expanding the number of trucks that we have - it's the perfect concept to put in airports, sports arenas and the like, anywhere you have a 400-sq.-ft. kiosk area. It's the perfect traveler food, it'd be great in neighborhoods with college campuses.
Zagat: What TV show concepts would you like to do next?
I'd love to do something for kids along the lines of what Allen Funt did with Candid Camera. I wish that I had been the host of Around the World in 80 Plates. I think I would have been the perfect person to lead a merry band of chefs around the world and actually engage with them. I would love to do a Sunday morning political roundtable conversation show.
Zagat: One last thing - is there any food that you dislike?
Walnuts. Can't stand them.