You’ve decided where you want to go. You’ve purchased the tickets and booked a hotel. And now for the most important part... what are you going to eat? And where will you find the best stuff?
As food and travel photographers, it’s important that we have an eatinerary, an itinerary just for eating, set prior to arrival. We’ve never stepped off a plane wondering where our first meal would be. There’s nothing worse than wasting precious time, standing on a corner looking up a guidebook’s recommendations for often touristy institutions. With all the resources online, those days are truly long gone. Remember this: the best tips are from locals and the people you meet along the way. Traveling is more than what you can find in a book, it’s all the interactions you’ve made. The more you interact with locals, the richer the experience. And more often than not, you’ll make new friends.
Just a note that when we travel, we eat everything – from white paper plates to white tablecloths. If the food’s good, then that’s all that matters. It’s a good way to experience a range of what a city, country, or culture has to offer. Not every city will have an amazing street food or fine dining scene, so it’s important to know this before arrival. Here are some tips on eating the most out of your trip.
1. Connect. Contact friends who live or have been to your destination. Not just anyone though, try and contact those with similar lifestyles and eating habits/addictions. Ask them to compile a list for you or if they can recommend someone else that is more knowledgeable in the food department.
2. Seek consensus. Dylan and I peruse sites like Chowhound, Yelp, food blogs to get a feel for what the locals are into. Your goal is to seek a consensus and from there you can compile your list. We also search for local specialties, farmers markets, seafood markets, etc. Farmer’s markets and seafood markets are the best way to see what’s in season and native to your destination.
3. The White Cloth. If you’re into the restaurant scene, particularly in the United States, look up James Beard award past/present winners and nominees. In our opinion, some of the city’s best chefs are not necessarily listed on the celebrity chef tier and most of them prefer it that way too. For international trips, the Michelin guide and San Pellegrino’s "The World’s Best 50" lists are also a good way to seek the fine dining scene. It is here where you’ll find information about restaurants with the same style and focus on food.
4. Your friend, social media. Twitter is a forum for asking questions freely. Many times we’ve had Twitter friends redirect our message to others to be answered. Instagram is probably our favorite tool as well. There you can simply do a hashtag search on a city, country and learn about their food specialties. It’s also a great way to follow people from all around the world. And in some cases, we’ve been able to meet up with Instagram friends. It’s typically a safe and fun way to meet up with people since you’ve already been following them based on their interests – but use your best judgment.
5. Be flexible. Don’t plan your whole itinerary. Pick 3 to 4 places that you’re most interested in and book a couple of reservations at some of the nicer restaurants. More often than not, our eatinerary changes entirely because of locals and restaurant industry people we meet. We have seldom been let down!
You're Here — Now What?
1. Interact. Talk to everyone. The taxi driver, bartenders/servers (industry people), the local sitting right next to you. If you can get the chef, bingo! Traveling is all about interacting and as we stated before, the more you interact the richer the experience will be. Don’t be annoying though!
2. You have a brain and an opinion. Use your guide book as a reference, not as your decision maker. A map won’t change very often, but the food scene will, so don’t rely on the guide book's recommendations. The problem with listing restaurants in a guidebook is that the information becomes obsolete the second a chef has either left or the business has closed. Also, that informatio won’t be updated for another few years.
3. What do locals like? Once you find out the local specialties, start asking each person you meet where their favorite ___________ is. If locals spot visitors, culinary pride comes out and they’ll inevitably try to impress you with their best food recommendations. From there, you’ll be able to take a consensus. It’s actually fun to do a “mini-hop” and compare 3 or 5 different taco stands, for instance. Also, if you see 50 people at one street vendor and 0 at the one next to it, chances are the busy one serves the best food. Can't tell you how many times we've opted for the less busy one because we were impatient and ended up regretting it.
4. Know your stomach! Bourdain has successfully inspired people all over the world to eat with an open mind and "open stomach". But not everyone has a stomach like he does. Be aware of your limitations and location as health standards/conditions vary around the world. Mentally you may think you're ready for Thailand's diet of tasty, deep fried insects or chicken sashimi in Japan, but your body may not. If you are in an adventurous mood, know that it's safer to eat fried foods vs. raw, uncooked foods. After some bad incidents, we've learned to always carry charcoal pills/immodium AD with us and take it before we eat any street food just in case. On the flip side, eating a culture's food regardless of how foreign it may be to your diet is the best compliment you can give.
4. Industry people. This is key for us. Ask industry people where they like to eat, where they take their friends and where they eat when they’re off work. Servers/bartenders LOVE food and seldom have we met someone that disliked food. They have to be biased about the food that’s served in their restaurants but they’ll almost always have a list of places they want you to check out. Tip them for their generosity. If you can lure the chef out of his/her kitchen, you’ve hit the goldmine of food recommendations. But be respectful of their time.
5. Less is best – more the merrier. What do we mean by that? The best way to experience a city/culture’s food scene is to taste as many as dishes you’re stomach will allow. If you’re traveling with someone, share the meal. There’s no point in everyone ordering a whole slab of Texas BBQ brisket, when you can divide that up into four and order a few more things off the menu. Don’t feel obligated to finish the dish. Simply explain to the restaurant you’re doing a hop and that you’ll take it to go. There have been instances where we’ve over-ordered for photo opportunities and given it to nearby diners who gladly accepted.
Dylan and Jeni are our guests for June — Travel Month at The Kitchn! They will bringing us tips and good ideas for eating while traveling, and finding good ways to bring your travels home to your own kitchen.
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(Images: Dylan + Jeni Ho)