Obsession drives it
It takes a true love for food to find the best of it.
“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.”
That innate passion will make spending hours researching eating opportunities seem like a mandatory pre-travel activity. “It’s very time-consuming, but at the end, it’s worth it,” Gao says.
For Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin, travel is about the culture and discovering another part of the world. What that translates to: “I would say 80 percent 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.
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.”
Although Yelp doesn’t have the best reputation among chefs in the United States, finding a Yelp-equivalent abroad can be a helpful tool when traveling. Yenbamroong finds the most popular or reliable site in the place he’s visiting and does his digging there. In Thailand, that’s Wongnai. In France, it’s Le Fooding. “Every country has their own thing. That’s a big tool,” Yenbamroong says. Gao uses Dianping in China.
As helpful as Instagram and apps can be, some chefs still turn to classic methods of discovery. “If you are at a nice hotel, ask the concierge,” Ripert says. He also refers to the Michelin Guide, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants brand, magazines and newspapers. Lately, Ripert has turned to La Liste, which aggregates information from different media sources to provide restaurant ratings.
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.
On a three-day trip to Taiwan, Gao managed to squeeze in visits to 30 food spots. The feat took as much strategic planning as it did dedication.
“I definitely map everything out on Google before I go,” Gao says. “When you’re traveling, you don’t really know the geography, and your time is finite.” If you’re doing food research ahead of your trip, take the few extra seconds to star their locations in Google Maps. Download that map so it’s available offline, particularly if you’re traveling internationally with limited Internet access. Once you’re on the ground, you’ll be able to easily see where you are in relation to your food goals at all times by opening up your map.
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. If Yenbamroong and his wife show up at restaurants that are too full to take them as a walk-in, he’ll ask for its employees to recommend the next best thing, or something comparable. When they’re visiting wineries in Europe, they’ll ask winemakers to point them to favorite spots in the area.
There are some places you won’t be able to navigate without local help. Take Chengdu, China, Gao’s hometown, for example. “People in Chengdu are so obsessed with food and so obsessed with flavor,” she says. “The best part about dining in Chengdu is these restaurants known as ‘fly restaurants’ — hole-in-the-wall, pretty rundown and dirty.”
Everyone in Chengdu has their favorite fly restaurant. They can be hard to find but offer more than meets the eye. “They’re so good that despite how rundown and grungy they are, people still flock to them like flies,” Gao says. “That’s why they’re called ‘fly restaurants.’ It’s a unique thing to Chengdu.”
You’re going to have a difficult time navigating this world of fly restaurants if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t speak Sichuanese Mandarin or Mandarin. Most people find fly restaurants by word of mouth or Dianping, China’s answer to Yelp. Buying Gao’s Chengdu guidebook can help, too. “It’s really tough, because there’s not much in English,” Gao says. “You really have to find a friend who speaks Chinese. Or seek out an expert for a guide.”
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.”
Eating, especially when you’re traveling, is about joy. It’s a gift to be able to explore food away from home.
“Don’t worry about authenticity or if it’s the best or not,” Ricker says. “It’s supposed to be fun.”