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The world is their platter

To relax, to research, chefs travel the globe to dine out

September 01, 2012|S. Irene Virbila
  • Santos Uy arrived in Paris with no reservations and no plans and managed to talk his way into booked-up bistros.
Santos Uy arrived in Paris with no reservations and no plans and managed… (Santos Uy )

I remember the stories -- L.A. chefs renting fast cars 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 it has 3,000 kinds of potatoes?

Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market favors funky little places where you get just a few specialties, 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, Tenn.

Evan Funke is a road trip aficionado, too, just back from zigzagging all over Spain, including Santiago de Compostela, where he enjoyed baby cockles steamed with an espresso wand, and the Basque countryside for an astonishing meal at Asador Etxebarri.

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. "The food there blew us away. That far south, you start getting South American influences. The seafood 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."



Mezze Cape Cod

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 farm stands, grab corn, tomatoes, peas and whatever happens to be around."



Night + Market

Cross-country U.S.

Before 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, 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."



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