Zach Zamboni was working as the director of photography on Gourmet’s “Diary of a Foodie,” a PBS show, when he got the opportunity in 2006 that would send him on the career path of his dreams.
The company that made “No Reservations,” a Travel Channel show starring chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, approached him one day to ask if he’d like to go to China. Zamboni didn’t know who Bourdain was, but replied “Yeah, OK. Sure.”
Fast forward a decade, and Zamboni, a Maine native, has traveled to more than 60 countries and been nominated for an Emmy six times. (He’s won three.)
He and Bourdain, who will be in Portland for one show on Oct. 9, have become close friends, “very, very close friends,” according to Bourdain. “I probably spend more time with (Zach) than just about anyone, often in faraway places and often, as it happens, dangerous places.”
Zamboni, 39, was born and raised in Milo, and now lives half the year in Granada, where his wife, Fuen Sanchez, grew up, and half the year in Portland, where he keeps a boat for sailing Casco Bay. The couple recently had their first child, a son.
“We try to spend as much of the winter as we can in Spain,” Zamboni said during a recent conversation at the Yordprom coffee shop on Congress Street. “Summers here in Maine. Having seen as many countries as I have, I’ve lost count, but it’s my favorite place. I think it’s the best place in the world to be in the summer. I really do. I don’t think it’s just bias, I think it’s objectively true.”
Zamboni worked on “No Reservations” and Bourdain’s other food/travel show, “The Layover,” until Bourdain jumped ship to CNN in 2012. Now Zamboni is typically away from home two weeks at a time shooting Bourdain’s CNN show “Parts Unknown,” although his next trip will last five to six weeks. He would not say where they are going, only that “we’ll cross the globe twice.”
A CINEMATIC BENT
They may be buddies, but Zamboni is nothing like Bourdain’s no-holds-barred public persona. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Zamboni often speaks in imagery that evokes the landscape, whether he is describing the rolling hills and deep forests of Maine or talking about how when you eat an oyster, you’re tasting the tides. He credits his rural childhood in Maine with helping to prepare him for the life he leads now.
The closest movie theater was a 45-minute drive away. Zamboni’s father, a Navy pilot, ignited his son’s wanderlust by bringing him gifts from around the world. Later, when he became a homicide detective whose job involved taking pictures of dead bodies, he taught Zamboni how to handle a camera. Zamboni’s father was always unplugging the TV and chasing Zamboni and his brother (now a lawyer) and sister (now a doctor) outside to play, winter or summer. The boy spent his free time exploring the woods, rivers and abandoned factories near his family home.
“That had a tremendous impact on the ability to imagine a world, the ability to imagine and create things in your mind and play them out,” Zamboni said. “That is filmmaking.”
Zamboni’s mother was a school teacher who encouraged him to read, paint and develop his creative side. He spent a lot of time with an uncle who was a painter. Once Zamboni asked his uncle what he’d do if he didn’t paint, and his uncle replied that he would be a cinematographer, “somebody who gets to paint with light.”
Zamboni, who speaks Spanish and some French and Italian, concentrated on liberal arts at the University of Maine in Orono, where a teacher told him his writing was “cinematic.”
“That’s when I started thinking ‘hmm, film,’ ” he said.
He studied for a year at Maine Media Workshops, then moved to New York City, where he got jobs on commercials and films. Then came a string of reality TV shows, followed by “Diary of a Foodie.” That’s when Bourdain’s people came calling.
Zamboni traces some of his interest in food to his Italian grandfather, Joseph Zamboni, a chef who was pulled from the gunner school line in World War II to cook for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and “all the generals in France.” The elder Zamboni later worked at famous resorts in West Virginia, the Caribbean and New Hampshire. Zamboni’s father and uncles put themselves through college working for “Grampy Chef,” learning classical French techniques.
When his grandfather, dressed in chef whites, used to come home from work, “he would smell like a kitchen,” Zamboni recalled. “He would have tins of bones from the kitchen.… The dogs would all surround him.”
Sunday dinners were classics, such as salmon with Bearnaise sauce and petit pois, “very much like Escoffier. I grew up eating like that.”
By comparison, his meals on the road with Bourdain are often unconventional: Brains, testicles, eyes (chopped up) and a variety of strange bugs and larvae. Drinking raw blood was “intense,” he said. “I’ve eaten rotten birds – literally birds left out to rot. That was the curing process, I guess.”
Testicles and brains are fairly commonly eaten in other cultures around the world, Zamboni said: “But for me, it’s important to remember that it’s generally not weird to them. This is their food.” And they are very generous with it, too, he added. “We’ve had people bring out their last chicken for us.”
Only once was he unable to stomach a food he was offered: a big cockroach in Vietnam that had been soaked in a substance containing menthol.
Despite the eclectic diet, the only time Zamboni has ever gotten “seriously sick” while traveling was in a hotel. Paradoxically, it’s often more dangerous to eat at a hotel than from a street vendor, he said. The vendors, who have no refrigeration, bring only enough for one day of sales, he said, and they cook the food fresh right in front of you.
JOKES AND JAMON
Bourdain says he knew right from the start that Zamboni belonged on his crew. It’s “one of the joys of my life” working with him, Bourdain said, “because I know always we’re going to get a great show and a great-looking show.”
Early on, Zamboni “distinguished himself … as a perfectionist, as a creative person, somebody who was always pushing to do better work than the week before, no matter how good that work might have been,” Bourdain continued. “I just recognized a perfect creative partner right away, and somebody who has a lot of passion for cinematography and film who is excited by off-the-wall crazy challenges.”
Despite the hard work all around, Bourdain, Zamboni and the crew still make time for fun, including practical jokes.
“Zach was shooting knee deep in the water out in the South Pacific on one of our earliest shows,” Bourdain recalled. “He was shooting underwater footage of what was said to be harmless sharks, but they looked pretty vicious when we were throwing fish heads in at them and they were tearing them apart in front of his legs. He was getting very, very into looking through his lens, and one of the other camera guys, Tod, crept up behind him quietly and sunk his fingernails into his ankles and everybody’s comment was something like ‘Sh-sh-sh-shark!’ ” Bourdain laughed remembering the scene.
Twice, Bourdain has put Zamboni in front of the camera. Once he dedicated an episode of “No Reservations” to Maine and made Zamboni his tour guide. More recently, Zamboni was featured prominently in an episode of “Parts Unknown” about Spain.
“He lives there, so he’s much more intimately tuned in with the rhythm of the place,” Bourdain said. “I may have had jamon before, or tapas before, but not in the setting and atmosphere that he was able to show me.”
There’s a spot in the Spain episode where Bourdain teases Zamboni about his Maine roots. “Not to publicly embarrass you,” Bourdain says, “but Maine is not exactly the Mediterranean of America, let’s put it that way.”
Mainers don’t know how to relax like the good citizens of Granada, Zamboni concedes.
“A two-hour lunch?” Zamboni said. “That’s not really a part of our culture (in Maine).”
Zamboni’s life, going from Myanmar to Punjab, Madagascar to Uruguay, might strike some like having a year-round vacation. So when he’s not traveling, Zamboni’s idea of a vacation is, well, not traveling.
“Vacation for me is being on my porch, or on my boat” in Maine, he said. “Or in Spain and going to my little local bar and having a glass of wine with my wife.”
When he’s in Maine, he likes to cook at home. It’s relaxing. If he and his wife want to go out to dinner, they’ll walk to Woodford F&B, their favorite neighborhood restaurant. Zamboni also likes J’s Oyster, Scales, Boda and Eventide Oyster Bar.
He thinks Maine oysters are the best in the world, and he’s eager to see the industry grow. He’s also glad that people are eating sardines and herring again, “an important development for our economy, our way of life here and the way we eat.”
Zamboni says eating well has become so important in his life that he couldn’t live in Portland without its thriving restaurant scene.
Food – and family – will continue to draw him back to Maine in between his adventures with Bourdain. And he hopes it’s a long assignment.
“I’ll go until he says quit,” Zamboni said.