How chefs find restaurants when they travel
Michelin star chefs doesn't bumble into a tourist-trap bistro next to the Eiffel Tower when he's in Paris, and you shouldn't either, as chefs tend to have better restaurant radars than the average traveller.
We spoke with chefs Éric Ripert, Jenny Gao, Andy Ricker and Kris Yenbamroong about how they find the best food on the road, no matter where they are in the world.
We live to eat. We travel to eat. And often, trips will happen around restaurant reservations," says Jenny Gao, a chef-turned founder and CEO of the Sichuan spice company Fly By Jing. "I'm pretty obsessive about finding the right places to eat."
For Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin in New York City, travel is about the culture and discovering another part of the world. What that translates to: "I would say 80% of the time, it's strictly about food."
Find the right research tools
Yenbamroong, chef of Night+Market in Los Angeles, says he was late to the internet party.
He held on to his flip-phone long into the age of the smartphone. He used to value hitting the road with a physical map, stopping to talk to locals along the way to his points of interest.
"Honestly, that's how I've met some of our best buddies overseas," he says. But times change, and Yenbamroong now finds value in being online. He follows fellow chefs and food writers and food travelers on Instagram and saves posts of theirs that pique his interest. "I create a bank of screenshots of these places," he says.
New York's Pok Pok's Ricker also finds places to eat from Instagram.
"You find people that you like or trust their taste - even though that may be completely arbitrary - and just go for it," he says. And an account's number of followers does not equate to reliable taste. "Just because somebody who's got 50,000 or 100,000 followers on Instagram says it's good doesn't mean it's good."
Map out your goals
You can spend an eternity figuring out where to eat; don't waste those efforts by letting logistics get in the way.
Figure out restaurant locations, when they're open and whether you need a reservation.
"When I'm visiting a country or discovering a city, I organize myself pretty well so I don't make mistakes," Ripert says. "I make my reservations ahead of time, and I give myself a bit of space to explore." For his next trip, to Singapore, he's saved room in his structured dining schedule to explore hawker stalls and booked anchor reservations at hard-to-get-into places, like Odette.
Put yourself out there
Ricker, however, usually shows up to a new place without a plan. "I like to just get out on the street and start walking," he says. "I'd rather walk around where I am and find a place that looks good. I find pleasure in doing that."
Get yourself out and about, and take in the lay of the land. See where people are congregating, what seems to be popular. Talk to people. "Once you show up, look up from your phone," Yenbamroong says. "I'm looking up, I'm taking in the whole vibe and atmosphere of a place and trying to talk to as many people as I can and make friends."
Most chefs are going to have helpful chef connections to recommend places to eat, but local strangers can be just as useful.
It's not always about the food
Yes, your time is limited, and yes, you want to eat something delicious. But don't focus so hard finding the best possible meal that you miss the parts that make eating special. "How good is the steak tartare isn't the point," Yenbamroong says.
"It's about everything around it. Maybe it's the cooking situation, the setup, the equipment, or the context where people are enjoying the food."
Ricker sees many travelers get fixated on trying to find the best place for a certain dish.
That's not what he's looking for, most of the time.
"I'm looking for having an experience. That may be good or may be bad or may be mediocre. Doesn't matter to me," Ricker says.
"Really, I want to try something that I haven't tried before and learn something."The Washington Post