Roaming chefs follow their noses

By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY

Next to a good sauté pan, a sharp knife and a bottle of sipping sherry, the most essential tool in a restaurant kitchen today is a thick, meaty atlas.

Increasingly, chefs say they must hit the road periodically to absorb the latest food trends, spark their creative fire, check out suppliers and monitor their competitors. At least that's what they tell their accountants, who moan about the cost, and restaurant critics, who question their time spent away from the stove.

But the need to wander is real and growing, chefs say, because customers are better traveled than ever, more aware of the culinary cutting edge and more likely to ask pointed questions about the pedigree of ingredients.

"People expect us to travel," says Kathy Cary of Lilly's in Louisville. "They ask where you're going next, and they anticipate the changes you'll make to your menu when you return. You try to beat them to the next destination."

A year ago, Cary spent a "life-changing" week in Barcelona. Upon returning, she overhauled 75% of her menu to reflect the small-plates approach she had experienced. While her customers have been enjoying the resulting rabbit croquettes with bourbon sauce, Cary has been planning a fall journey to Italy's Piedmont region.

"I'll wind up writing menus and ideas on the flight home. You're sort of reborn again and ready to face a hot, sweaty kitchen."

Food Network star and New York chef/restaurateur Mario Batali takes eight to 10 trips a year in search of both the offbeat and the deep aspects of the native culture. "I scour, I look for details," says Batali, who recently visited Seattle and Asia. "When you travel, you find people using things that they assume everyone uses, but to you they're totally unexpected."

In Spain, for example, he discovered saffron-scented honey. "Just seeing that opened a whole new planet for me. I now use honey in sweet and savory ways."

Next up for Batali, who schedules his trips 16 months in advance, is an eight-day trip in July to Bologna, Italy, to pick up ideas for the Del Posto restaurant he'll open this fall in New York.

"A lot of travel is about developing relationships with the people making or growing the ingredients," he says. "Once you develop a personal connection with the product, then you move into their minds. You may find a pistachio grower, but that might also lead to pistachio oil and then wine paste ... and you think, 'Holy moley, what a web of beauty.' "

Tasty travels: Chef Kevin Rathburn takes his team to N.Y. to explore culinary options such as this dish served at his Texas restaurant

Sometimes the web is interwoven. Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun's in Atlanta flew to New York twice recently to check out several of Batali's restaurants and a few other places for ideas for Krog Bar, a tapas-style eatery he'll open in July.

"I went with my guys, and we got off the plane at 10:15 a.m. and were back on it at 9 p.m. In that 12-hour span they had to widen the seats on Delta! We didn't get a hotel, we didn't take bags, we just fit in five places to the schedule: Go in, pick and choose, and eat. We'd order all appetizers at one place, all desserts in another."

Even though many trips can have a bacchanalian or serendipitous flavor, some involve in-depth research. New Orleans-based chef/restaurateur Emeril Lagasse and his staff frequently visit suppliers so they can relay detailed information to the waiters at his nine restaurants. Some vendors are credited on his menus, and that brings questions from diners.

"It's our philosophy that (waiters) have to have all of the tools we can give them so that they can educate the consumer," says Lagasse, who visited Spain and France recently and is considering a trip to Australia. "They get asked all the time about 'Why are you using soft-shell crabs at this time of year, and why are they from Louisiana instead of the Chesapeake?' "

Washington, D.C., chef Jeff Tunks, a partner in DC Coast, Ceiba and TenPenh, took eight staff members on a 10-day blitz of Louisiana recently to study production techniques and line up suppliers for Acadiana, a Louisiana-style fish house he'll launch this fall. They visited up to eight places a day, including breweries, boudin sausage producers, po-boy bread bakeries, oyster bars, farmers markets, rice millers, crawfish farmers and restaurants.

"I gained 7 pounds," he says. "But we got a feel for the culture and the lifestyle so that we could do as good a job as possible to re-create it."

Tunks' excursion was a business expense, but established chefs often are invited on subsidized junkets by vendors or travel boards hoping to strike up cultural or business relationships. The government of Nicaragua and representatives from the coffee industry sponsored a visit recently by a group of Washington, D.C., chefs (including Tunks) who use Nicaraguan beans.

"They wanted us to see single-vineyard production, and I gained a lot of respect for their process," he says. "You're only as good as your products."

In addition to exposing chefs to ingredients and techniques, travel allows them to explore broader questions.

"Travel helps remind you that so many cultures celebrate the idea of sitting down to the table, which is not the case in America," says Bart Hosmer, executive chef of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara, Calif. Visits to Spain and Italy reinforced the idea of simplicity. And in Japan, the obsession was with quality. "The amount of money they'll spend for the perfect mango or piece of tuna is unbelievable."

No matter how far one travels, however, one thing is inescapable. Says Hosmer: "It's disappointing to go to Hong Kong or Japan and see a McDonald's or a Ruth's Chris Steak House. The Western influence permeates everywhere. You just have to tell them you want to see the mom-and-pop places."