Summer means road trips and road trips mean snacks — well, sure, also destinations, but mostly snacks. On a recent long and winding adventure, between chugging a Starbucks Doubleshot, scarfing kettle corn and singing with a little too much earnestness to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” I found myself wondering this: What do chefs pack for road trips?
So I polled culinary professionals around the country, and learned that it’s not all Wendy’s french fries and Frosties on the road. (In hindsight, no one even mentioned that mind-blowing road-trip combo.) Rather, by and large, road-tripping chefs love gummies, nostalgia — and jerky. Here’s what the gourmands will be eating behind the wheel this summer.
Yes, one of the most popular road-trip picks, judging from our limited poll, is snackable meat. The reason? It’s portable, easy to eat, low-mess and generally demands no refrigeration.
Joe Carroll, the restaurateur behind Casino Clam Bar in Brooklyn and a number of other concepts, makes jerky himself when possible, although he says he has made some outstanding gas station finds. “Often, it covers both sweet and savory cravings, depending on the marinade, and it takes a while to chew so you can’t eat it all up too fast,” he says.
Lisa Marie White, executive pastry chef at Marsh House, L.A. Jackson and Killebrew (all in the Thompson Nashville hotel in Tennessee), goes for a particular type of jerky: Cattaneo Bros. Black Pepper Thick-Cut Beef Jerky. Friends worked for the company while she was growing up in California, so each bite comes with nostalgia. “The jerky reminds me of home and friends, happy memories around campfires in Big Sur, time spent out at the beach and even up in the mountains from Sequoia National Forest to the trails of the Camino de Santiago in France. I have taken that beef jerky everywhere,” she says.
Angie Rito, chef and partner at Don Angie in New York, also finds solace in snack meat. “Slim Jims are my guilty pleasure,” Rito says. “I used to eat them during the summertime as a kid, when I played Little League in Cleveland. It isn’t the most wholesome product, but I love the spicy, salty, tangy flavor of it. You can find them at almost every gas station, and there’s something oddly exciting about buying gas station snacks on a road trip when you spend your entire life without a car in New York City.” (Scott Tacinelli, who is also chef and partner at Don Angie, opts for peach or watermelon Sour Patch Kids candies, scoring a point for Team Gummy.)
For Thomas Lents, chef at the Apparatus Room and Chef’s Table in Detroit — who was the chef at the now-closed Sixteen in Chicago, which earned two Michelin stars while he was there — jerky is a nod to his Michigan roots. In his youth, he would hunt and preserve meat. “Learning to make my own jerky and its connection through hunting to the source of the food has always been important to me,” he says. Plus, he adds, it’s energizing on long drives.
It’s not all about salt licks for carnivores, though. A number of chefs prefer to eat primarily light and healthy on the road — with a sugary indulgence tossed in here and there.
Frank Pellegrino Jr., co-owner of Rao’s Restaurant Group, makes regular road trips between his Italian joints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles (not to mention the original Rao’s in Harlem, which opened in 1896) and he sticks to the basics: fresh fruit, such as watermelon and cantaloupe, cut into bite-size pieces and sometimes frozen, along with nuts and sparkling and flat water. “The fruit and nuts are refreshing, and most importantly, healthy and digest well, and won’t interfere with all the dishes I have to taste upon my arrival in L.A. at Rao’s,” Pellegrino says.
Peter Serpico, chef and owner of Serpico in Philadelphia, packs salted seaweed for road trips. “It’s crispy seaweed, sesame oil and salt,” he says. “My wife grew up on seaweed snacks and I love that my daughter is now growing up on them.”
Chef Shane Solomon of Pizzeria Stella in Philadelphia opts for a different kind of crispy crunch: oven-roasted chickpeas. “They’re a triple threat of convenience, flavor and nutrients,” he says. “My favorite preparation is to coat them in olive oil with lemon zest, chile flakes, shaved garlic and a little finely chopped tomato. We roast them slowly until the garlic and tomato become sticky sweet and toss in a little sea salt and chopped parsley.”
When Jen Jasinski — chef and owner of a group of restaurants in Denver that includes Stoic & Genuine — hits the road, she always takes trail mix made by her husband, Max, who is also a chef. “He makes these lime nuts and seeds that he lightly candies and puts dried lime on so they are tart and sweet. He puts cashews, almonds, peanuts and pepitas all together,” she says. For good measure, he mixes in a little indulgence in the form of Reese’s Pieces. “Super yummy, salty and sweet,” Jasinski says.
Chef Natsume Aoi, executive pastry chef at Morimoto in Manhattan, loads up on dried fruit for long drives, especially coconut shards and purple yam, which reminds her of her childhood in Japan. “Purple yam is grown locally all over in Okinawa. Whether in fresh or dried form, they remind me fondly of home and of the times when my father and I took long drives to the beach for diving when school was on recess in the summer,” she says. She punctuates the mix with sour gummy bears from Haribo and says the sweet and the sour helps keep her awake and alert behind the wheel.
Ellen Kassoff Gray, who co-owns Equinox Restaurant in the District with her husband, Todd Gray, says a road trip is a good excuse to clean out the fridge. “We generally make all kinds of dips — bean dip, hummus, salsas and then put them in to-go containers and pack crudités and a big bag of Fritos scoops to eat them with,” she says. She says the approach helps cut down on food waste and encourages culinary creativity. Plus, she adds, “you don’t end up coming home to a bad-smelling fridge.”
But really — healthy snacking on a road trip? Anyone who’s ever been on a cross-country odyssey knows the open road is a pass on the whole calorie-counting thing.
Bird is the word for Paul Wahlberg, chef and owner of Wahlburgers, a fast-casual joint with locations around the country. “My favorite road trip snack to pack is cold fried chicken because it tastes equally as good cold as it does hot,” he says.
Wahlberg remembers road trips with his siblings (including celebrity bros and fellow Wahlburgers owners Mark and Donnie Wahlberg) could be pretty tight as kids. “We’d pile into mom and dad’s car like a clown car — there were nine of us kids,” he says. “We’d eat Cheez-Its because my dad always had Cheez-Its; packages of peanut butter crackers; messy, juicy, summer fruit like peaches and cherries. Where do you spit the cherry pits when you’re in the car?”
Craig Koketsu, chef and partner at Quality Meats in Manhattan, goes for the bold: Cool Ranch Doritos. Beyond the zippy, zesty flavor, he says he loves that he can eat them without getting too messy. “I’m a little OCD when I get behind the wheel. I never take my eyes off the road, and I hate to drive with greasy fingers,” he says. “The perfect-bite size of Cool Ranch Doritos allows my wife to feed me them one by one without sacrificing road safety or cleanliness,” he says.
The open road coaxes out memories of childhood drives, and snacks from youth are a way for chefs to reconnect the dots.
For Molly Yeh, a cookbook author, food blogger and host of Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm” who is based in East Grand Forks, Minn., that snack is a Lunchable. The lunch combo was a treat growing up, so now she makes her own little boxes. “I live for the process of assembling cute little snacks into cute individual compartments. It’s creatively fulfilling and appeals to my affinity for nostalgia. I’d plan road trips just for the opportunity to make road snacks if I could,” she says. Yeh makes her own crackers, cookies and even bologna.
When Dan Jacobs was a kid, his mom would make a special treat for long car rides: BLT flour tortilla pinwheel rollups with cream cheese, bacon, turkey, lettuce and tomato. Now, the chef and owner at DanDan and other restaurants in Milwaukee makes the bite-size pinwheels for his wife. “They are really easy to make and even easier to eat,” he says.
For Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef and partner of GT Fish & Oyster, GT Prime and Boka Catering Group in Chicago, a road trip is really an excuse to eat a childhood favorite. “I had to stop eating gummy bears at home because I liked them too much, so they are my go-to road trip candy and make driving for hours in the car feel like a real treat,” he says.
Greg Vernick, executive chef and owner of Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia, heads straight to the nearest Wawa to grab a soft pretzel for the road. “I’ve been eating them my entire life and now my young daughter is eating and loving them too,” he says. He craves them for their simplicity: “Salty, sweet and doughy goodness,” he says.
Inspired to ante up your culinary car-trip game? While we won’t be making our own bologna anytime soon, the idea of cutting food into tiny, Lunchable-like pieces and admiring its cuteness on the open road does have some appeal. Then again, there’s always that french-fry-and-Frosty combo, which sounds like a lot less work.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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