I remember the stories -- L.A. chefs renting fast cars and and doing a Michelin three-star restaurant blitz through France. Ten restaurants in five days. Wallowing in foie gras, truffles, baby lamb, Brittany lobsters and newborn vegetables. Not to mention the phenomenal wines that the merry bunch put away at considerable expense. It was indulgence and luxe all the way. Posh country hotels and on occasion the Ritz.
That kind of trip is definitely not the modus operandi of the current crop of younger chefs. Most are incredibly busy, constantly multi-tasking as they balance the demands of two or more restaurants, new projects in the works, appearances at food and wine festivals, and on television cooking shows. And then there’s writing cookbooks and creating new menus.
All that doesn’t leave much time for travel, but when they do have the chance to get away, even for a few days, they savor the experience all the more because they’re so hungry for it.
Some, like Casey Lane of the Tasting Kitchen, Roy Choi of A-Frame and Micah Wexler of Mezze, just want to chill, lazing by the beach (one with great seafood) or going fishing for striped bass off Cape Cod. Others, namely Josef Centeno, turn any vacation into a giant research trip, making even those Michelin trenchermen of yore look like mingy eaters. He claims to eat six meals a day when he’s traveling. “I want to taste everything.”
Ricardo Zarate is intent on exploring every nook and cranny of Peru and bringing back the dishes and ingredients he finds in the Andes or the Amazon. His mission? Introducing America to Peru and its cuisine and astonishing biodiversity. Can you believe they have 3,000 kinds of potatoes?
Kris Yenbamroong of Night Market favors funky little places where you get just a few specialities, maybe served up on a counter at the front of a little dry goods store similar to what he’s familiar with in northern Thailand. A meandering road trip recently took him across the U.S. with stops in Nashville and Memphis.
Evan Funke is a road trip aficionado, too, just back from zigzagging all over Spain, including Santiago de Compestela where he enjoyed baby cockles steamed with an espresso wand, and the Basque countryside for an astonishing meal at Asador Etxevarri.
Santos Uy arrived in Paris with no reservations and no plans and managed to talk his way into booked-up bistros.
Michael Voltaggio looks to the Twittersphere for tips on where to eat in a new city. But all this technology has its disadvantages, he says. Because you know everything before you go, you have less sense of discovery.
Among the chefs I talked to, there’s a surprising consensus on where they want to go next — Mexico and San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country figured on most wish lists. Peru and Southeast Asia, too. France? Much less. Only one chef had Marseille on his list.
One thing’s for sure, none of them are making pilgrimages to every three-star restaurant along their route. These chefs love to mix it up -- dining one night at a cutting-edge temple of molecular gastronomy, the next at a modest cafe with simple regional cooking and a grandma in the kitchen.
Tasting Kitchen, Parish
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Mexico is close by and answers his requirements for beautiful beaches and spectacular seafood. His most recent getaway was Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun, because it was affordable and beautiful. “The food there blew us away. That far south, you start getting South American influences. The seafood from Caribbean waters tasted so sweet and pure.” Once he started talking to the fishermen and found out everything is fished within a 4-mile perimeter, he didn’t hesitate. As long as he has “a beach, a good margarita and some amazing seafood, it feels like you’re at the heart of what’s good and true.”
Wexler likes to spend four or five days every year or so with college buddies in Cape Cod. Each trip they seek out the same boat captain and catch as much wild striped bass as they can eat. And then they spend the next few days cooking it every possible way. “We start with crudo, then move through the different parts of the fish — livers, cheeks, head and so on. It’s all about relaxation. Everybody knows how to cook pretty well. We’ll hit a few farmstands, grab corn, tomatoes, peas and whatever happens to be around.”
Uy landed without having made any plans or done much research. Too busy. Instead, he checked former Mozza sommelier Aaron Ayscough’s blog “Not Drinking Poison in Paris” for addresses of wine bars and bistros. What he hadn’t figured is that these sometimes require a reservation two months in advance. So he scoped out which bistro or wine bar was near his sightseeing destination for that day, wandered by around 6 or whenever they opened and asked what the chances were of getting in that night. They could usually fit him in at the bar. What surprised him on the trip? “The price/quality and the number of places that were very, very good. These are small places, but they’re basically using Michelin-starred restaurant techniques, making stocks from scratch, cooking vegetables perfectly. And you could get a three-course meal for 30 euros.”
Night + Market
Before taking a road trip from New York to L.A. with his girlfriend, Yenbamroong asked around (mostly foodies and friends who come into Night + Market) for authentic traditional places along the route. Some of the finds? Payne’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis, which he describes as a revelation. “Totally run down, with a leaky ceiling” but “great pork sandwiches, beans, ribs, really good slaw — and grandma still in the kitchen.” In Nashville, he hit Loveless Cafe, something of a tourist destination but with the best fried chicken he’s had outside of Thailand, plus decadent mac ‘n’ cheese and fried catfish. “I’m big on very so-called simple food done well -- fried chicken, pork sandwiches, pastrami.”
Picca and Mo-Chica
Zarate has been going back to Peru every few months on research and exploration trips. He grew up outside Lima, so he knows that scene. His passion now is traveling in the Andes, searching out small villages, indigenous ingredients and dishes. “This time in Cuzco, I went to this little market that had 38 kinds of potatoes! Crazy!” He goes to the Amazon too, where there’s “this amazing fish,” the paiche, which he’s now serving at Mo-Chica. He’s got a farmer north of Los Angeles growing the native yellow chile aji amarillo. The first crop is coming in soon. Now that he has the momentum, Zarate has made it his mission to introduce Peru and its cuisine to America and the world by bringing back products, tastes and dishes that he’s found in exploring the far reaches of the country.
Centeno says he must have hit 25 restaurants in 2 1/2 days. The only way he could do it was to take family members with him in shifts to do the heavy eating. He had to go to the two rival places serving “puffy tacos” (fresh corn masa deep-fried and folded and then filled), Ray’s Drive Inn and Henry’s Puffy Tacos. “I had as many different types of menudo as I could, also cabrito [baby goat], which is something I grew up with. And breakfast tacos. They’re amazing, made with warm fresh-made flour tortillas with carne guisada [meat braised in tomato and onion],” he explains. All research for Bar Ama, which he’s opening soon downtown. At the end, he says, “everybody was happy for me to leave because they didn’t want to eat anymore.”
The former Rustic Canyon chef who will be opening his own place in the old Beacon space at the end of the year, just came back from a 21-day road trip to Spain that covered 2,500 miles. One of the highlights: Asador Etxevarri in the Basque countryside. That was “mindboggling and beautiful, so simple and beautifully presented.” Along the way, he mostly ate country fare. “I went out of my way to find small family-run eateries and found some amazing places.” He also appreciated the stark contrast between the molecular gastronomy of Michelin-starred Arzak in San Sebastian and a cafe in Santiago di Compostela in Galicia where “an 80-year-old woman just stuck the espresso wand into the cockles and steamed them in their own sea water, dumped them in a bowl and squeezed lemon over them.”
Ink and Inksack
Mumbai and Copenhagen
Voltaggio hasn’t had much time to travel lately. He did go to Copenhagen for the MAD symposium organized by Rene Redzepi of Noma. “It’s funny being halfway across the planet and bumping into the same guys I’d bump into in L.A.” When he hits a strange town, he usually goes to Twitter for recommendations. “Because of technology, you don’t really have to travel as much or don’t have to put as much work into researching. But in a way, “the adventure is taken out of travel because you can Google up an image of a place and almost go there before you’ve been there.” Same thing with restaurants. “You can eat in a restaurant virtually before you ever go there by going online. You don’t really discover as much as you maybe would have in the past.”
Kogi, A-Frame, Chego and Sunny Spot
“It’s one of the most important places in my life, truly a place for me to refill my well and reset my whole perspective.” In Hawaii, “everything that works for me on the mainland doesn’t work here. In my restaurants, I’m always the boss, the one making the decisions, and what I love about Hawaii is that I’m not in control. The island forces me to work another muscle, another part of my soul. No one is in a rush, and by not being in a rush, I’m able to see a whole other way of being and connect to the magic of life.” He usually goes to the west side of Oahu, which he describes as very country. “It’s not cerebral cooking. I like to let go and not think about it so much and just eat.”