Zack Lemann thinks eating bugs is about to be the next big foodie trend. Why trust him on this? Well, when he started his career as an entomologist in the ’90s, he had no idea he’d find himself gaining international fame as a Bug Chef. But what began as a one-time fling with bug cuisine has since taken off big time.
Today, he’s the chief entomologist and chef for the Audubon Nature Institute’s Insectarium in New Orleans. Visitors of all ages now enjoy offerings such as chocolate “chirp” cookies, hors d’oeuvres topped with queen ants, or chips and six-legged salsa at the institution’s Bug Appetit cafe cart.
And it’s not just Audubon visitors who’ve been tempted by Lemann’s culinary imaginings. His leggy creations have crossed the lips of eaters as varied as Jay Leno, who featured the Bug Chef on the Tonight Show, to our very own Kate Sackman, who recently enjoyed one of his colleagues take on crispy Cajun crickets in the Brookfield Zoo’s Xtreme Bugs exhibition.
So just who is the man beneath the famous Bug Chef’s hat? We decided to track him down for a little tete-a-tete–and of course, we had to get one of his recipes while we were at it.
EcoMyths: So how long have you been eating bugs?
Zack Lemann: Since 1997. The director of the Louisiana Nature Center at the time called me and said ‘hey, we’re doing an edible insect event’…there was a pregnant pause on the phone, and she said, ‘You are the bug guy, right?’ Basically I was asked to expand my area of expertise to include cooking insects. I called a couple of colleagues who had been doing that for 20 years and got a primer in insect cooking 101.
EM: How often do you eat them these days?
ZL: We serve bugs everyday. I go back there all the time—whether duty calls or not—to sample whatever is being served. I’d say I eat them five days a week for sure.
EM: Is it strictly a professional habit, or do you also eat them at home?
ZL: For the sake of variety, when I’m at home I eat other things…because I do like other dishes as much as the next guy. You know, by the time I’ve had crickets and waxworms at work, there’s no great cause to make them as the main dish at night. But some people are very serious about incorporating insects into their diets even more regularly than I do. It’s definitely taken off in the last year, and lots of us involved in entomology are wondering if it might not run the same course as sushi. If you offered people raw fish 40 years ago, 99 out of 100 people would have looked at you funny. That’s where we are with insects.
EM: What’s the biggest misconception people have about eating bugs?
ZL: Well I think that even though we eat crustaceans, which are basically bugs in the water, the primary issue is of culturation, what one is used to. To me, the real question is not ‘why should we eat bugs?’ It’s ‘why shouldn’t we eat bugs?’ Most people don’t have a good answer. ‘They’re small, creepy, and have lots of legs.’ But what about crustaceans? Or they say, ‘but they’ll taste bad?’ How do you know if you haven’t tried it? And I have my city’s reputation as a phenomenal food town to uphold! Even if something is unusual, it can still be good. Unfortunately, people still just find it icky and are worried about it, because of the societal and cultural effect of things like reality TV shows that have contestants eating them live. That’s not how we do it—we cook it and season it, not just eat it in some unpleasant condition that’s completely designed to gross you out.
EM: How many kinds have you eaten, and what are your favorites?
ZL: Oh gosh…hang on a second, I’m counting…Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty or two dozen. As common as they are because we raise them commercially, I very much like the house crickets. They’re very versatile in cooking and serving. I like them plain…With most animal matter you have to season it with something, whereas crickets you can eat right out of the oven and they taste good. One that’s less common that I enjoy is dragonflies. Fried dragonflies taste like soft-shelled crab. Third would be honeypot ants. They all live in dry environments, but when they get moisture, the sugar is fed to workers that stay under ground, so the repletes are fat. If you grab and eat repletes, it’s like having the stuff you put on a snow-cone without the ice. Just really sugary—and I’m a big sweet tooth.
EM: Would you please share one of your favorite recipes?
ZL: One I’m best known for is my dragonfly dish. First, stick in wax paper so it freezes with the legs over the body, then run it through a wash of raw egg and fish fry seasoning. Fry it in veggie oil for half an hour on each side. You can stop here—I want people to taste the dragonfly so not overpowering it with other flavors can be good. Or, take a thin slice of portobello and sautee it with butter and garlic powder. The dragonfly goes on the slice of mushroom, then you drizzle Dijon soy and butter over it—a little goes a long way, so just use the tiniest tip from the spoon. Add rosemary or fennel for garnish to make it visually more elegant. It’s a really tasty dish.