This October, Tasting Table is getting away from it all. Come away with us as we explore the world of travel.
I always worry about where my next meal is coming from. This is in part because worrying is how I like to use my free time, and the rest of it I spend shlepping around the country for work. And as Tasting Table's editor at large, my work is all about food.
Yes, I am thoroughly aware of how lucky I am to get to say that. I travel around the country speaking at conferences and festivals, seeking out new trends and talent, learning each region plate by plate and often picking up interesting dining companions along the way. Plenty of them are food pros.
You might think you're an intrepid eater, drinker, diner—the one who orders the extra item for the table so everyone can try. I thought that about myself for a good decade or so (and was probably . . . OK, definitely a little smug about it). Then some years back in a city far from home, I sat down at a restaurant table with another food writer and half a dozen chefs. After a minimum of consultation, one of them, an executive chef used to taking the lead, nodded to the server and pointed to the menu. "We'll take that and that aaannnnd that. For now. And we'll see where that gets us."
But he wasn't pointing to dishes; he was pointing to entire columns. All the appetizers. All the sides. All the shareable family-size dishes. No one batted an eye. They knew they had sorely limited time in that city and needed to make the most of it—not just for pleasure but for planning and inspiration.
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That was early in my food writing career. Since then I've sat down to countless feasts—memorable and miserable—with fellow writers, bartenders and chefs, and sopped up travel wisdom that I use whether I'm on the road for work, pleasure or just passing through on the way to my next dining adventure. Here's a taste.
Plan, but don't overplan.
Some experiences are so rarefied, they're worth the trip alone. You don't book your trip to Yountville and then hope they can squeeze you in as a walk-in at The French Laundry. If a particular restaurant is dictating your destination, nail down that reservation (which is often taken several months in advance), plan your travel, then breathe a sigh of relief. You unwrapped the golden ticket, so resist the urge to preplan every last breakfast, lunch and snack in the days around it. If you're too fixated on getting from place to place, you may miss out on what's in between. Leave room for recommendations from cab drivers, restaurant servers, local friends and the corner of your own eye, because you may end up feeding a need you didn't even know you had.
Hop, don't stop.
Appetizer. Entrée. Dessert. YAWN. Over the past half decade (and for better or worse), menus have morphed in favor of grazers. Unless a place is tasting menu only, it's generally fine to have a course or a few small things and move on to the next place to get the broadest experience. Chefs may descend on a city and hit half a dozen (or more) places in an evening before wee-hours mescal shots—just check their Instagrams. Tell the staff up front that you're planning a quick visit, so they can turn the table (or just perch at the bar) and tip memorably. It's simply good karma.
Pass it on.
Pros share their food with their dining companions, whether it's Michelin starred or a roadside shack. That's not negotiable; it's only neighborly. Though some people get a little territorial over what they order (or just think it's gross), consider that critics, who eat out most nights for a living, have to taste every single dish on the table as part of their jobs. So you may not get a second bite of that dumpling you thought was so dynamite, but now you have an excuse to return to that restaurant—and that city.
And speaking of sharing, plenty of chefs and food writers Instagram their food. Following along is a great way to learn about local specialties. Some of the greatest dining experiences I've had have been on the social advice of strangers—and this is especially true for Twitter. Even if you don't have a huge following, if you Tweet directly at chefs, bartenders or writers who know a region well and ask them for recommendations, they will almost always oblige, because everyone loves showing off the best of their city. (I personally maintain a list of my Vegas and New Orleans favorites that I send out to chefs and other food writers who ask, and if you Tweet at me, I'll share it with you, too.) Also, plenty of hard-to-get-into restaurants release last-minute tables via social media, so someone else's cancellation might mean your mic-drop meal.
Go with a group.
Chefs often travel in packs. Plenty of that is professional camaraderie, but it also allows them to order more dishes and amortize the cost of doing so. You may even want to consider dining with strangers, weird as it may sound. Since I travel solo for work so much, on more than a few occasions, I've met up with people I'd met only on social media (and totally vetted) and shared some astonishing meals at places I'd never otherwise have known about.
One legendary food writer, who shall remain nameless, was notorious for having a compartment in her purse where she dumped extra food that chefs inevitably sent out, because she was afraid of hurting their feelings. You don't have to go to that extreme. Most of the professional food eaters I know abhor wasting food, so even if they know they're ordering way more than they're ever going to eat at that sitting, they'll get the leftovers boxed to go. They might be breakfast the next day if the hotel has a fridge or given to someone hungry on the street, but they don't tend to go uneaten.
Hit the reset button.
All that intake can take a toll, at least in the short term. Though I've encountered few, if any, chefs who consume like that when they're back in their own hometowns, overindulgence is a real and present job hazard. Some just muscle through and weather the indigestion (and worse), but others swear by a shot of Fernet (which I call the Roto-Rooter of the soul), Underberg bitters, seltzer with a few dashes of Angostura bitters or a cup of mint tea to set their systems right—not to mention plenty of water before bed. And that glossy-eyed chef you think you spy from the corner of your eye on the hotel treadmill—yup, it's him. But be kind. He just got through a marathon.