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