Andrew Zimmern, the affable smooth-headed fellow who hosts the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," has eaten indigenous and often oddball ingredients in the course of his popular show, but there would be none of that on his plate during his recent visit to Harper College in Palatine.
Before Zimmern took the stage to regale an audience with stories from his worldwide travels and share his culinary ramblings and philosophies, he sat down to dinner with more than a dozen students in the college's culinary program who, not coincidentally, prepared the meal.
"I'm sure he'll appreciate something normal; no monkey brains here," said second-year student Francisco Sanchez as he removed Chinese steamed cakes from their foil molds.
The students took their charge to prepare dinner for the food celebrity quite seriously. They started in the morning putting beef chunks in an herby marinade and kneading bread dough. Things kicked into high gear shortly before Zimmern's anticipated 3:30 p.m. arrival. Pots clanked, carrots caramelized in a brown sugar glaze, beef kebabs sizzled on the grill, bite-sized orbs of polenta-coated feta crisped in the fryer before being tossed into the Unorthodox Greek Salad. And then Zimmern walked into the room and the chatter stopped as the students nervously continued their meal prep with the celebrity in their midst.
Zimmern broke the ice as he watched beef kebabs hit the hot grates.
"You couldn't find muskrat or something else we could have pulled out from under a bush," Zimmern joked. "I hear the raccoons around here are pretty dicey."
As the students wrapped up their work, Zimmern donned an apron and started his. As a couple of students debearded a few pounds of mussels, Zimmern deftly chopped parsley, onion, tomato and garlic and crushed peppercorns that would infuse an aromatic bath for the mussels, a reminder that he trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked as a chef before his life in television. After a squeeze of lemon and a couple glugs of white wine, the mussels went into the pot. Minutes later the shells opened and they were passed around the table at the family-style meal.
In between bites of lamb stew, Israeli couscous and the rest, conversation touched on Zimmern's culinary training and work in New York, his substance abuse and return to the kitchen, his evolution into a food reporter for print, TV and radio, the spike in students emerging from culinary schools across the country ("There are more talented chefs in the food business in the last 10 years than from the previous 40 years"), his thoughts on food competition shows (he likes "Top Chef" and old episodes of "Iron Chef America") and how he landed the "Bizarre Foods" gig (he bugged Travel Channel execs for three years).
He praised the meal and laid-back start to his time on campus and encouraged the students to cook for each other, and for others, more often.
"Something unique happens when you share a meal with people," Zimmern said, picking a glazed carrot right from the serving bowl.
The students around the table heartily agreed.
"Of course it was a great experience; it's the first time I've gotten to meet a great guy like him," said Evelin Estrada, 20, from Des Plaines. "He gives me inspiration, that if we work hard we will get somewhere some day."
Anna Woinska, 37, of Schaumburg, was equally inspired.
"He was a real person who is doing what we want to do," Woinska said.
What did she take away from their time together? "That you have to have a goal and work toward it," she said. "I feel reassured that my dreams will come true."