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Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern puts his foot in his mouth

By Chang Jun | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-12-07 00:13

Never underestimate the wrath of your target audience.

Study cultural subtleties and learn to truly appreciate their implied meanings, otherwise, it could lead to a marketing nightmare and branding catastrophe.

This is probably the most recent hard-learned lesson for Andrew Zimmern, the American TV host who has become a familiar name among Chinese gourmets with his "Bizarre Foods" show.

On Nov 20, Zimmern announced that his new restaurant, the Lucky Cricket, was opening in St Louis Park, Minnesota. The restaurant features a fusion menu offering Midwesterners the cuisines of Sichuan, Xi'an and Hong Kong, he said.

Dishes include spicy toothpick lamb and dandan noodles from Sichuan, chicken-and-waffles and dim sum from Hong Kong, Shanghai-style fried chicken and hand-pulled noodles from Xi'an.

"My life's work has always been about exposing people to different cultures through food, so my goal with Lucky Cricket is to take guests on a journey and showcase the authentic flavors of the Chinese foods that I love," he crowed in a press release.

Regrettably, on the same day, Fast Company released an interview filmed last summer at the Minnesota State Fair in which Zimmern said: "I think I'm saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horse (manure) restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest."

In the same interview he also discredited the co-founder of P.F. Chang Bistro, a long-established Asian-themed American restaurant chain that was founded in 1993 and is headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Zimmern mocked Philip Chiang by suggesting he short-changed his mother, Cecilia Chiang, by creating the P.F. Chang brand.

"I mean, was P. F. Chang's not a rip-off because Cecilia Chiang's kid owned it?" Zimmern says on tape. "Because despite how he looks on the outside, he's a rich American kid on the inside, right?"

Many viewers found Zimmern's remarks controversial, offensive and self-contradictory.

Even though he has claimed that "you don't need to be from a certain place to make a certain food", and given his job is travelling the world over in search of culinary diversity, Zimmern failed to demonstrate the same open mindedness, cultural accommodation and willingness to accept and embrace these established cuisines.

His picking on P.F. Chang and his wisecracks about Chinese restaurants in the Midwest expose just how arrogant and ignorant he really is.

I strongly echo what Hillary Canavan wrote in Eater, that Zimmern's intention of "'translating' on behalf of the presumably white audience — the idea that American diners need to have something unfamiliar 'made more palatable' to get them to the table — has shades of a strange, increasingly outdated form of cultural elitism."

Zimmern needs to understand the saying: "One generation plants the trees in whose shade another generation rests." It is through decades of hard work in those Midwestern "horse (manure) restaurants", as Zimmern calls them, that eventually later generations like Zimmern could carry Chinese cuisine forward in America.

Following the criticism and public outcry, Zimmern wrote an apology in the Star Tribune, admitting that his remarks sounded "arrogant and patronizing."

"Let me start by saying most importantly how awful I feel and how sorry I am for my recent remarks," he wrote.

"The upset that is felt in the Chinese-American community is reasonable, legitimate and understandable, and I regret that I have been the one to cause it.…

"I would never cast aspersions on independent owned and operated Chinese-American food or restaurants…I have done dozens of profiles and stories on the joys of eating in those restaurants. I believe in them, and I support them."

Good luck, Mr. Zimmern. Maybe in the end, it's table manners that matter most.

Contact the writer at junechang@chinadailyusa.com

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