International Man of Mystery You’ve just Gotta hear about Zamir
“We have a pitch, and my partners and I would like to build a show around Zamir. Just give us a budget.”
The Romanian government detests Anthony Bourdain, and in particular, his sidekick Zamir Gotta.
“I’ve been blacklisted from Romania,” Gotta recently told Wine & Dine Magazine, laughing. “The tourism ministry accused me of being an alcoholic and something like a KGB colonel!”
Its been nearly 13 years since Gotta, (known simply as Zamir) the Moscow native with an unquestionable affinity for vodka, burst into the American consciousness as Bourdain’s indispensable friend and alter-ego on "A Cooks Tour" and the beloved Travel Channel’s "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations", which ended last year after a nine-year run.
And it was precisely that 2008 Romania episode that endeared viewers to Zamir. Millions of Americans were fascinated by his prodigious on-camera booze intake and witty one-liners that arguably helped define the show that made Bourdain a household name.
And ultimately pissed off the Romanians.
The episode started off badly. Romanian tourist officials attempted to shake the duo down for money when they tried to film a Vlad the Impalers monument outside Bucharest despite having government permission to do so.
Afterwards, Zamir threw out his back pushing the trashy tin can Romanian sedan the duo rented after it broke down enroute to a pig slaughter to celebrate Zamir’s 50th birthday.
Bourdain and Zamir bummed a ride on a passing farmer’s donkey cart.
To ease the pain, Zamir downed nearly twenty shots of tuica, a potent plum brandy, while a Romanian butcher and his family dressed in medieval garb prepared the pig. Highly intoxicated and nearly immobilized, Zamir was eventually carted off to his hotel in a black SUV while leaving Bourdain to fend for himself.
“In Romania I really collapsed. My mother had died a month before I turned 50, so on that episode it was a combination of her passing away and the weird spirits of Nicolai Ceausescu,” Zamir says, referring to the late Romanian dictator who was executed on Christmas Day in 1989.
No matter. After sleeping it off, Zamir rallied in time for the massive pig feast attended by a dozen guests. During the party, Zamir polished off more tuica and gave toasts to a baffled assemblage of Romanian partygoers.
A spokesman for the Romanian embassy in Washington did not return repeated calls to Wine & Dine for comment.
As for Bourdain, he looks back fondly on their Romanian interlude.
“It was a goat rodeo of epic proportion,” Bourdain says. “You had Zamir with his back problem, drinking the tuica. We were front-page news in Romania for days. It wasn’t Zamir’s finest hour.”
“It was a classic and much loved episode by everybody, except the Romanians,” Bourdain adds.
Zamir and Bourdain first crossed paths in 2001 in St. Petersburg, Russia, during a cold February, when he was hired as a fixer for a two-part episode for Bourdain’s old show A Cooks Tour on the Food Network. They shared more than a drink, but also an interest in Cold War history and Bourdain enjoyed Zamir’s unrelenting sense of humor.
Bourdain vividly, and fondly, remembers the first time they met.
“We were desperate in St. Petersburg, it was winter, and I didn’t have a sidekick to fall back on. And Zamir was our fixer, he wasn’t even supposed to be on camera,” Bourdain says.
Upon being introduced, the two quickly bonded.
“It wasn’t even anticipated that he would be on the show,” Bourdain says. “But Zamir being Zamir, and me getting along with him spur of the moment, it was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.”
During his appearances on No Reservations, Zamir, 56, went on to earn rave reviews and his own celebrity cachet appearing opposite Bourdain in episodes shot in Uzbekistan, Russia, Romania, Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, Ukraine, Kansas City, and finally, Brooklyn. And more often than not, going toe to toe with Bourdain over vodka, beer and whatever else was being served. For Bourdain, part of Zamir’s allure is his ability to identify with a diverse set of characters, from a ranking Russian spy to a sullen bartender at a random joint in the Ukraine.
“He’s a very resourceful and savvy guy. He can sit down with a hipster or a Russian intelligence official,” Bourdain says. “He’s not a clownish figure at all, although he’s happy to play the part.”
“I think he’s hilarious,” says Nelson Starr, who worked as a fixer on the 2011 No Reservations episode shot in Buffalo.
“Anybody who watches Tony watches Zamir. He can drink tons of vodka, but always holds it together. During the Buffalo episode, it's like he even overshadowed Tony for five minutes,” Starr says.
Like many he meets, Starr and Zamir became friends.
Now that No Reservations has passed into the hangar of retired television (the re-reruns are freely available on YouTube) Zamir has kept busy. He’s a former consultant for the Trident Media Group in New York, and works as a Russian liaison for networks producing shows throughout the former Soviet Union. He is planning to write a memoir at the urging of Bourdain, who suggested the book be titled “Being Zamir.”
“Hell, yeah he needs to write a book,” Bourdain says. “I’d be interested in reading it.”
Zamir’s real first name is Lazamir; in Russian that means “peace.” Born in Moscow, his grandparents originated from the Crimea region on the Black Sea of the former Soviet Union. He was educated at the Moscow Teachers Training School, and upon graduating, was sent to Iraqi Kurdistan as an interpreter on a Soviet hydroelectric project. He is of Turkish and Jewish descent.
These days, Zamir and his family split their time between a condo in Stamford, Connecticut, and a flat in Moscow. He is married to a Russian woman named Kate and has two children, Anton, 11, and a daughter, Anna, 23 (Anton is named after Bourdain).
Because of No Reservations, and MC’ing numerous Bourdain speaking engagements, customs officials at JFK recognize Zamir and fans routinely stop him on the street. Many want to buy him drinks. And of course, this means that when he shows up to a restaurant or bar managers find themselves star-struck, shocked and awed.
“He has groupies,” Bourdain concedes.
Just ask Kelvin Fernandez, the happening young executive chef at New York City’s Strand Hotel. It was last January, and Fernandez was busy in the kitchen preparing for the lunch rush.
“My manager ran in and said ‘Holy shit, Zamir Gotta is in the dining room!’”
“He ordered fried calamari,” Fernandez recalls.
The following day Fernandez, 27, a fan of Zamir, put together a special five-course tasting especially for him. On the menu: iced sweet corn soup with cilantro oil, lemon crusted salmon and a cheesecake spring roll.
Zamir was impressed. He requested that Fernandez come to his table so he could meet the celebrity chef.
“He was really fucking happy. He was blown away. I went out to his table and he asked if I wanted a shot of vodka,” says Fernandez, who was working, and had to decline the offer.
After the meal, Zamir sent out a Tweet trumpeting the well-documented skills of the Harlem-bred chef and later stopped by with an autographed No Reservations cardboard cut-out. Since that meeting, the two have remained in touch, and Zamir routinely steers clients, many of them star chefs and wealthy Russians to the Strand.
Zamir’s love affair with America began on his first visit in 1990. In New York, he purchased a $50 Greyhound ticket to Seattle, a front and center cross-country perspective of the States not visible from the air. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says.
“People thought I was crazy. That was the time when Gorbachev opened the borders for the ex-Soviet slaves. The next day I was at JFK,” Zamir says.
It’s not just Zamir’s drinking skills that have won the hearts of his American friends, says Mike Andrzejewski, an American chef and successful restaurateur in Buffalo who met Zamir and Bourdain when the duo showed up to film the No Reservations “Rust Belt” series two years ago.
Andrzejewski, 54, owns the popular Buffalo eateries Seabar, Cantina Loco and the Pan-American Grill and Brewery at the Lafayette Hotel.
Zamir’s time in Buffalo solidified his “near legendary status around here in the food service industry, kind of like Tony,” Andrzejewski says.
“He’s accepting and very non-judgmental. We spent hours discussing his growing up in the Soviet Union. He’s so open and honest about the reality of the world.”
In fact, Andrzejewski compares Zamir to the ubiquitous, bearded traveler in the Dos Equis commercials, aka the “most interesting man in the world.”
Bourdain readily agrees.
“People says he’s like this international man of mystery, but it’s actually true,” Bourdain says.
Bourdain points to the Rust Belt series as some of Zamir’s finest hours on No Reservations. Bourdain says he decided to show Zamir a cross section of economically depressed cities the Russian hadn’t previously known. Indeed, an informal Zamir Gotta fan club was established in Buffalo after the two had moved on.
The Rust Belt segment, Bourdain says, was “Zamir at his most fascinating.”
Zamir readily gives credit to Bourdain for much of his popular success and introducing him to a brand of America and its people he hadn’t previously known.
Bourdain has since moved on from the Travel Channel with a new show on ABC and a No Reservations-style program with CNN currently in production.
So, with the ending of No Reservations, does this mean the end of Zamir’s television career? Probably not.
Zamir and a producer at Bourdain’s Zero Point Zero production company in New York were slated to do a show called Comrade whose thrust was similar to No Reservations. It would feature Zamir and a female co-host drinking and chatting their way across the US. After filming a commercial, but no pilot, the project was dropped.
Zamir says the Travel Channel pulled the plug with no explanation.
To his fans, the failure thus far to bequest Zamir his own adventure program amounts to a travesty.
“Everyone who watches Tony watches Zamir. They’d be foolish not to give him a show,” Starr says.
“Everyone,” he adds, “wants to follow the trajectory of Zamir!”
Indeed, Bourdain and his management team at Zero Point Zero are actively meeting with networks and looking for a deal. The idea, says Bourdain, is to produce a Zamir hosted show in which the Moscovite travels the U.S. and enjoys, “BBQ’s, dude ranches, just pure Americana.”
“We have a pitch, and my partners and I would like to build a show around him. Just give us a budget,” Bourdain says.
As for all the booze he consumes on air and in private, Zamir readily admits the drinking is real. It’s part of who he is. And that, yes, he really likes Vodka, a drink, he says, that rarely gets the best of him.
But that isn’t always the case.
Take the Ukranian 2011 No Reservations episode. It began with Bourdain meeting Zamir outside the entrance to Balaklava Bay, a once secret underground nuclear submarine base cut into the side of a granite hillside on the Black Sea. It was here the Soviets kept a fleet of nuclear tipped submarines to protect them in the event of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the US. The complex is now a museum.
The underground warren of narrow water channels and latticework of pipes was impressive, and Zamir explained to Bourdain he wanted to use the space to open a strip club and bar. Perhaps even a distillery.
After the tour the duo retired to a quaint bayside restaurant where they promptly, over soup and shellfish, consumed what Zamir says was 3.5 liters of vodka in a single setting.
“After the fourth bottle it was time to go,” he says. He remembers little after that. “I think they carried me to my room!”
Eddie Huang, owner of New York City’s mega-popular BaoHaus, an East Village Taiwanese bun shop who just released his memoir about growing up as a Tawainese immigrant in a predominantly white Florida suburb, met Zamir in Manhattan’s Koreatown last year. The two hit it off immediately. Over drinks, of course. They have since become friends.
“Zamir is very excited to be around people. He’s high-energy, and he never seems drunk. Its like the more he drinks, he gets more and more Zamir,” says Huang, who formerly hosted "Cheap Bites" on the Cooking Channel.
“He’s like one of the most visible people on Tony’s shows and speaking engagements,” Huang says.
For now, Zamir is content spending six months out of the year in Stamford, CT and the rest in Moscow. He holds a U.S. Green Card. Family, for him, is everything. That’s a side you don’t see on No Reservations. The duality of two-continent living suits him, and he’s constantly pursuing his interest with his first passion—film. And, Zamir continues his never-ending mission to meet new people.
“I’m comfortable straddling both worlds,” he says.
As for all the booze he and Bourdain polished off over the years, Zamir says all of it was true.
“The drinking on the show was never faked,” Zamir insists.
Between shepherding TV and documentary film crews in the Ural Mountains or the deep Arctic recesses of Siberia, raising a family, and pursuing filmmaking and side deals, Zamir says one of his other priorities is finding investors to help him realize one of his dreams: Zamir Vodka.
“If you know of anybody interested, call me,” he says.
His own vodka company?
“He’s led an extraordinary life,” Bourdain says.
“He’s the type of person who, when he offers to sell you a de-commissioned Russian submarine, you wonder if it’s true.”