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Interview with Zack Lemann, the Bug Chef


Insect enthusiast Zack Lemann loves everything about bugs; he loves hunting them, he loves studying them, and most of all, he loves eating them.

That’s right. Eating them.

Hailing from New Orleans, a region famous for its serious Cajun cookery, Zack spends most of his days surrounded by all different kinds of critters, cooking up new recipes and introducing them to those fearless enough to taste his crawly delicacies. He has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Today Show and The Maury Povich Show to demonstrate his insect expertise. I caught up with Zack on his recent stop at Bug Fest at the Academy of Natural Sciences and discovered a little more about the man who eats bugs for a living.

Photo courtesy of Karly HamburgWhat exactly is your culinary background?

My culinary background is goofing off in the kitchen. I have no practical experience and I like to tell people during my shows that there are two kinds of bug chefs. There are people with culinary training who have learned how to incorporate insects into what they already know how to do, and there are bug guys who know how to turn the stove on, and I fall into the second of those two camps.

How did you get into that camp?

In 1997, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, which is a facility operated by the company I work for, had an education director who wanted to do an edible insect event. He called me and I said I was flattered, but I was a bug guy, not a bug chef. He said to me, “You’re the guy.” So, I called some folks who had been doing insect cooking for many years more than I had and they sort of gave me a primer, and I went from there. The simplest rule to follow is that, if you want to add bugs to a dish rather than just eat the bug all by itself is, if you have a recipe that calls for small pieces or chopped bits of fruit, vegetables, nuts or meat, you can add or substitute insects. It doesn’t matter whether its peas in your pasta, ok, peas and crickets in your pasta. Or, little bits of carrots in your soup, fine, add some meal worms to your soup. It’s pretty easy.

What do you mean when you say you were a “bug guy” before a “bug chef”?

At our zoo, and now at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, my main job has been things like coordinating an outreach vehicle that brought insects and other arthropods to local schools, working in a butterfly exhibit, and ultimately setting up insect exhibits, acquiring animals and raising them. All of the animals have all been arthropods.

What do you recommend as the secret to really bringing out the full potential of an insect?

That’s really a good question because you can cook different bugs different ways, and you can add a certain amount of flavor that ultimately covers up whatever the bug is really like. Or, you can try to let people taste the bug. There are certain bugs that are so darn good you don’t need to do anything to them. I had the great pleasure a couple of weeks ago of having honeypot ants for the first time. They have some workers whose abdomens become engorged with a sweet fluid, and they will leech some of it out to feed everyone else in the colony. Or, you can dig them up and eat them yourself. Live, raw ants. Fantastic.

But to answer your question, I would say experimentation is your best bet. The best way to cook a certain kind of caterpillar and make it taste really nice may not be the very best thing to do with a grasshopper. One you might want to parboil, the other one you might want to stir fry. I’ll give you a good example. A friend of mine and I cooked a certain type of scarab beetle for the first time ever last summer, and we simultaneously boiled, sautéed in a skillet, and toasted them. We all liked the toasted ones best.

Photo courtesy of Karly HamburgSo you take the same approach as a regular culinary chef where it’s less doing something by the book and more experimentation, knowing flavors and spices and seeing which ones really compliment each other?

Yes, you want to do that, and you don’t have to because fortunately there are some insect cook books out there. So you can follow a recipe and say, “Well this person has probably don it more than I have and if they say this is the nicest way to cook a tarantula or a scorpion, I’ll try that.” But, anyone who is the least bit adventurous or curious in the kitchen ought to go ahead and experiment and try to match spices and flavors. And it’s worth it to try the bug plain first, to see what it’s like without anything on it.

Can you recommend any particular culinary insect books?

Yes I can. The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook by David George Gordon is terrific, and Creepy Crawly Cuisine by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy is also very good.

Do you have a favorite bug dish?

My favorite one to fix is one I just did here at Bug Fest at the Academy of Natural Sciences which is called Odonate Hors d'œuvre. It’s a dragon fly that I fry and put on top of a sautéed slice of mushroom and then I add a dijon soy butter to it.

What is your approach for catching these dragonflies?

You can go to a place where there are species of dragonflies that fly all the time or always stay over water, but those aren’t going to be the ones to catch. The ones that I find often out in marshy or swampy areas of Louisiana tend to land often and on the ground, so I will approach them with an aerial net and, getting as close as I can without scaring them off, I’ll slam that net down on the ground where the dragonflies rest. Doing that, if you’re good, you can get about one a minute, and you sweat your head off.

The other thing I’ll do is I’ll set up a UV light and a mercury vapor light at night and tie a white sheet behind it. This is a very common way for entomologists to collect moths and beetles at night. Dragonflies fly in also, and when they land on the sheet, they’re as easy to pick up as any other bug that gets caught.

What can you tell me about the nutritional value of insects?

Crickets are a particularly good food source for humans and I can tell you this by citing a couple of examples of statistics that are of interest. Beef has more protein than we need and a lot more fat than we need and virtually no carbohydrates. Fish have a pretty good amount of protein but no fat and no carbohydrates. We need certain amounts of all three of these things. Crickets, per 100 grams, have about thirteen grams of protein, five grams of carbs and five grams of fat. Nutritionally, that is really good for humans.

Of course, not all insects are created equal. Termites eat wood, they’re going to be more fatty, because wood is mainly cellulose. Dragonflies eat other animals, so they’re probably going to have a higher protein content than something that eats vegetable matter like a cricket. The other thing is, according to a study that was done a long time ago with weenling rats. If you take rats off of mother’s milk and you give one group soy protein and one group crickets, you’ll find that the ones that eat crickets do better in every growth category that’ s measured. Muscle mass, speed of growth, strength of tissue, everything.

How do your children feel about eating bugs?

They like eating bugs. In fact, when I was here last year, they helped me cook and I had to stop them from eating stuff that they were fixing. To a certain extent, it depends on the dish. Everybody loves chocolate chirp cookies, because it’s a chocolate chip cookie and it just has a couple of crickets in it. But the short answer is, my kids like eating bugs.

Are there any bugs you recommend eating raw?

Honeypot ants and termites.

How often do you eat insects?

Well, I eat them every day. We have a station at work called Bug Appétit where we serve insects to people. There’s a little quality control issue there. I’ve got somebody cooking whose done it a lot but I’ll come by and talk to visitors and say, “let’s see how Elise did her food today,” or “let’s make sure Michael did a nice job,” so I’ll end snacking on bugs every day. I don’t usually cook them at my home, but there are occasions where we’ll have people over and do something fun with insects.

Is there a tastiest bug that you really enjoy eating?

I think the honeypot ants are my favorite for sure. The dragonflies are a close second, but it’s different. The dragonflies taste kind of like softshell crab, which is not at all like the nectary, slightly citrus flavor that you get out of the honeypot ants. Beyond those two, I like wax worms a lot. When we fry them at work, there’s almost nothing you can’t do with a wax worm. You can put taco seasoning and chili powder on it and make it taste like a hot fry, you can put cinnamon sugar and powder sugar on it and make it taste like cinnamon toast crunch, I just really like wax worms a lot.