Ask Chef Emily: Food & Travel

Got travel plans? Chef Emily’s got tips—from how to find great, authentic food to which edible items make the best souvenirs.

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I was wondering how to get the most out of food traveling and learning from food experiences? – Logan S., via Facebook

I’m a firm believer in travel to refill one’s creative cup, and by the looks of Instagram, many of you are taking the opportunity this summer to do just that!

You can spend thousands of dollars to travel around the globe, slightly less to rent Julia Child’s home in France on Airbnb (or spend a month as its caretaker), or just head a few miles out of your way to experience an immersive Chinatown experience. It’s not the distance per se, but the intention going in. If your intention is to absorb Flemish portraits of food (my current point of curiosity) or the history of shoes, or maybe interview for a job or attend a conference in a new city, or just sit on a beach and relax, you’ll have to eat. You have the option of mapping out the Chipotles and LPQs and knowing that you’ll have calories enough to walk through ancient alleyways, but by approaching every meal as an opportunity rather than an obligation instead, you can invest a little time in research and a little investment in souvenirs and you’ll have doubled up on your exotic experience.

Before You Go

In the age of the internet, we have access to the best resources in every city (and most towns and villages) around the world. The key is sifting through the massive amount of information available.

In the final episode of Master of None, Dev spends so much time finding the “best” tacos in New York City that by the time he gets to the truck, they’ve run out of tortillas. Let this be a cautionary tale. There is no “best” because the “best” is so subjective.

This effectively rules out Yelp as a resource. Because amateur and enthusiast reviewers are prone to hyperbole, its challenging to know if the review that reads, “I’D GIVE THIS ZERO STARS IF I COULD!!!!” is reflective of the experience at a particular establishment or an under-managed personality disorder.

Instead, seek out cookbooks on particular places and then see if the author has a blog, column or website dedicated to that city. The book will become a reminder of your trip complete with recipes, the accompanying website will be up to date.

The best example of this is the incomparable Yotem Ottolenghi. His books are required reading for any serious home cook, his column in the Guardian never disappoints and keeps bringing fresh, seasonal ideas to international readers, and his restaurants in London are affordable and worth a trip across the pond all by themselves. While you’re there, one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten was the pumpkin curry at Palms of Goa. If I had a private jet I might make a monthly trip.

If you are headed to another city, check out the local Eater & of course Edible Community, if available. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Parts Unknown and The Layover are all looks at less-trod locales. The tried-and-true outlets such as Condé Nast Traveler and Budget Travel are still around for a reason. In addition to their guidebooks, Lonely Planet has begun publishing a quarterly magazine that I’ve been enjoying, if only for the chutzpah of launching a new print endeavor. If you truly prefer the writings of your peers, I’d suggest Trip Advisor as the reviews seem less hysterical than the aforementioned Yelp.

Finally, don’t forget to ask your network for recommendations. Post to your social media channels your intent to travel and friends of friends will share with you their favorite spot to get chiles rellanos in Quintana Roo or snow frog jelly in Hong Kong.

While You Are There

As important as research and planning is letting go. One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten was lunch in Savannah, Georgia. After hours of wandering around, my husband and I were getting hungry and I saw a mail carrier. I had a lightbulb moment: that person knows this place like the back of their hand. We were sent to a luncheonette off the beaten path and had an amazing southern meal that we never would have found online or on the main street.

Its easy to stay glued to your device and fear wandering too far astray, but follow your wanderlust and know your phone is in your pocket if you get too hungry or the sun drops too far in the sky. I was once terribly lost in Rome (back before smart phones) and I had a moment of feeling like I’d never find my way back and, paradoxically, like I was completely free. And you know what? I found my way back and lived to tell the tale. Use common sense, ask the locals for advice and enjoy feeling out of place. That’s what brought you on this trip to begin with.

Coming Home

The best way to extend your immersion is to bring home some goodies. A particular pack of chips/crisps or cookies/biscuits, a few bars of chocolate, a bag of cornmeal or hazelnut flour, these are all things that travel well and (at last check) are allowed through customs. I’ve gotten baggage off the carousel to find it dripping with olive oil and rum (twice!) and have learned my lesson about packing liquids: don’t.

In addition to consumables, a kitchen utensil or side towel, a butter dish or an egg cup, these things are daily reminders of a trip well taken. One of my favorite finds is an egg pick I got in Germany. I’ve never seen one here and it revolutionized my breakfast game. And I think fondly of that trip every single time I soft boil an egg.

Cookbooks from a particularly loved restaurant or chef, or iconic of a region are all excellent additions to a personal library, as are well-chosen photographs of meals. I’m fond of the umbrella drink on the beach as personal mementos.

Whatever the method you choose, remember to enjoy yourself! Like the summer season itself, travel is ephemeral and temporary, intended to shore up your senses and make life at home more informed and exciting. Get hung up on doing it “the best” and you’ll be on your way home all too soon.

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Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.