Zamir Gotta is often recognized as the trusty TV sidekick of Anthony Bourdain, but don't feel bad for him. He's gotten to zip across the globe for the screen, whether he's exploring Uzbekistan or upstate New York. The Russian producer and broadcaster is busy with a few ventures of his own, too, ranging from the launch of his self-named vodka label to speaking at next month’s New York Travel Festival. Gotta recently shared with us what he's learned on the road -- including how to become a local -- and what it's like to work with Bourdain.
How did you meet Anthony Bourdain and end up appearing with him on his shows?
It was a very accidental encounter. His producers were looking for someone, like a fixer, to help him set up his first foreign tour for The Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour” series in 2002. I was based in Moscow; by pure luck, my friends who knew Tony’s producers recommended me. After we drank our first bottle of vodka when we were in St. Petersburg, Tony said, “Zamir, I really need you in front of the camera more than behind the camera.” So I said, "Why not?" And that’s how it started.
What have you learned on your travels?
I started to be much more open-minded, learning about other cultures, about other experiences. And I figured out that basically we’re all just the same. We like the same essential things: love, food, and booze.
Tony has a more rebel kind of image, which really helped me to start thinking differently along the lines of what I can do in life -- a man like him, after 25 years in a kitchen, can totally change his path and become a world traveler. And as another compliment to Tony: He’s the type of guy who's perceived as a local no matter where we go. I took him to Uzbekistan. I took him to Romania. Wherever we go, he never says no to what people offer him.
That’s the way that I learned that, if you really want to be treated like other locals, you really need to extend yourself when you travel to other countries. Don't say no to some weird-looking kind of food by saying you’re a vegetarian for a cover story; take it so people aren't hurt. And if they eat with their hands, you eat your their hands.
What other travel tips do you suggest?
Be a traveler, not a tourist. I was formerly involved with different official Soviet tourist organizations, and that included directing a bus filled with people like sheep to this place, to that place. You don’t have your own time or space. Of course, it might be economically viable to be part of a group, but try to get to the places where normally the tourists don’t get to, to meet the local people.
Bring the kids. And they can learn about other cultures and be more tolerant, pick up more of a world outlook. That’s what we need.
You’ve seen many different parts of America. What are your favorite places?
San Francisco really overwhelmed me with its kind freedom and tolerance. I really liked Seattle -- I was there in 1992, and I found it to be very interestingly located by water and on a hill. It was where I was introduced to Japanese food for the first time, too. Boston is one of my favorites, from the standpoint that it’s much more of a European city.
My trip to St. Louis, which I made last November, made me believe that it is so underexposed. Buffalo and the rest of New York State has become my second home. I spend a lot of time there and I have a lot of friends there -- so it wasn’t by accident that I started my vodka from a distillery in that part of the world!
What do you always bring with you when traveling?
My notes; I always make some diaries about interesting people or places. Thanks now to the iPhone, you don’t need to have a big camera like you used to. (Photography is important in helping you reconstruct your explorations after you return.) And definitely my vodka flask -- as long as the vodka is distilled.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.