Chefs, they’re just like us! Except maybe when it comes to eating on their travels.
Chefs tend to have better restaurant radars than the average civilian. René Redzepi does not bumble into a tourist-trap bistro next to the Eiffel Tower when he’s in Paris, and you shouldn’t have to, either.
We spoke with chefs Éric Ripert, Jenny Gao, Andy Ricker and Kris Yenbamroong about how they find the best food on the road, no matter where they are in the world.
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 in New York City, travel is about the culture and discovering another part of the world. What that translates to: “I would say 80% 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.
New York’s 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.
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.”
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,” he says.