For many chefs, the most powerful tools of inspiration aren’t specific ingredients or culinary training — they are experiences. Traveling, whether it’s a hundred miles away or a thousand, is an opportunity to expand your horizons, discover a new cuisine, and live within a different culture. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone, as a chef, gives way to the kind of creativity and innovation that has produced some of the country’s top restaurants. As we continue to celebrate culinary tourism with our #WillFlyForFood contest, we spoke to chefs and restaurateurs about the trips that had the biggest influence on their spots.
“Our first trip to Japan together was in the early 2000s, and the most memorable part of that experience was a visit to a restaurant called Kitcho, which is located outside of Kyoto. It’s hundreds of years old, in this old house with only a few rooms. It was the most ethereal hospitality experience — we felt like we were in this whole other world. The service in Japan anticipates so graciously what you need without feeling overwhelming or overbearing. The way you feel taken care of and how thoughtful everything is. And it started from when we pulled in — the staff greeted us at the gate! The attention to detail is the other thing — at that restaurant, it was the small details that made up the entire experience — the chopstick holders, the sake cups. That restaurant really influenced how we try to do service at o ya: we have unique chopstick holders for each guest, and we offer up a fork and knife so that people don’t have to be embarrassed if they can’t use chopsticks (we saw this in Japan). We sit in each of our chairs before we start using them to make sure you can cross your legs underneath the table. Sake cups change depending on which type you are drinking. What we learned in Japan is that these are all simple things, but you notice them when they are not there.” — Nancy and Tim Cushman, o ya, New York/Boston
“When we were getting ready to open up Grand Café, we did a Mediterranean trip through Spain, Italy, and the south of France. The highlight was Monaco. Yes, Monaco is ridiculous and luxurious, but that’s not the side of it that we fell for. In just wandering the streets, ducking into bakeries and eating barbajuan, we saw how everything there is really old but still so cared for and loved. The architecture may be imperfect, but it still feels incredibly relevant and fresh. The way that Monaco has these yachts on one side, and then these old bakeries run by families for hundreds of years on the other was just so inspiring to us. When we were creating Grand Café, we knew we wanted to celebrate that juxtaposition between old and new. The space we were in had been in operation for 70 years as a restaurant and bakery — it had this amazing soul and history vibrating through it. We realized we needed to embrace what was there in that it wasn’t all perfect, and to let the history shine through. We mirror this notion in the food — pulling recipes that we haven’t visited in a while and presenting them in our style, like our ham two ways, which incorporates this old-school Bayonne ham from France, alongside a cured ham that our friend makes in Tennessee. In the end, the restaurant is one that is old and funky yet very modern.” —Jamie Malone & Erik Anderson, Grand Café, Minneapolis
“Our restaurant, Renata, is rooted in the authenticity of Italy — and Sicily is a big part of that, in the bounty of the produce, the preparation of seafood. Also, our chef is Sicilian, and we have so many wines from the region. So we decided to travel there — to experience the food culture first hand. The most poignant experience was at a restaurant in Brucoli — the place had an open hearth, and served the simplest grilled seafood, dressed with local lemon and olive oil. Of course, the bounty of the Mediterranean is very different from that of the Pacific Northwest, but it made me think about how important it is to preserve the integrity of the ingredients and to work with what you have. Sicily is such a special place — everyone is so friendly and inviting. The food is so simple. Sometimes, in our restaurant, we overthink things. Sometimes we get too creative. Being in Sicily has been a reminder of the importance of stepping back, going the classic route, and not overly messing with a dish.” —Nick Arnerich, Renata, Portland
“My father is the son of Lebanese immigrants, but he never actually made it to Lebanon. So I surprised him earlier this month with a trip to Lebanon — it was as much for him as it was for me and my restaurant, Salum. Lebanese food culture is so wholesome, focusing so heavily on vegetables and fruits. The variety and the pride that people have in their food, and the way they use spices and herbs: mint, oregano, sumac, za’atar — it is just extraordinary. I had this one dish that was slices of squash, zucchini, and eggplant, stacked on their sides, and roasted in tomato sauce; and another one of zucchini stuffed with lamb and sesame sauce. For dessert, loquats, a small citrus fruit, are served with every meal. In Texas, chefs tend toward heavier dishes — we are in many ways a meat and potato city. But studying Lebanese cuisine reminded me of the beauty of eating lighter, and more balanced, and how important it is for me to bring that to the menu at Salum.” —Abraham Salum, Salum, Dallas
Have a favorite picture of a food you flew to try? Share with us to enter OpenTable’s #WillFlyforFood social media contest; for full details, click here. Prize includes dinner for two at the legendary Pujol restaurant in Mexico City, a walking culinary tour of Mexico City, round-trip airfare and three nights of hotel accommodations for two. To enter, share a photo of a delicious dish you flew for. Post it on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or visit our blog for more options and tell us where else you dream of flying for your next culinary adventure. And, if entering on Instagram or Twitter, be sure to follow and tag @OpenTable and use the hashtag #willflyforfood so your entry is visible.
Priya Krishna is a food writer and the author of Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks. Follow her @PKgourmet.
Photo credits: Jess Nash (o ya).