Food to Go
Ah, the glamorous life of a Dallas chef: the long hours, the stifling kitchens, the wicked pace of dinner rush, the competition. At least they get to wear cool outfits.
In addition, every chef knows that in order to maintain the status of their restaurant, attract new customers or keep up with the ever-changing tastes of the consumer, they must engage in a continual process of learning. Even chain restaurants employ corporate chefs to develop new menu items and find new ways to make everything taste the same. For most of us, education involves conventions or reading. For Dallas' top chefs, it requires a little bit more.
"You can read a hundred books," says Jeffrey Hobbs, chef at Il Sole, "but if you actually go over there it's like reading a thousand books."
Every year, chefs from all across the United States invade Europe and Asia, embarking on lengthy tours, visiting storied places such as Paris, Tuscany, Thailand and Vienna. For some reason, no one ever rushes off to check out culinary trends in Moscow, Helsinki or Riga. Or even Oklahoma City, for that matter. There's only so much you can do to borscht, pickled herring and Taco Bell. "You can't experience the smell or the look of a French cheese shop in Dallas," says Kent Rathbun, executive chef at Abacus. "We just don't have that." It's quite simple, on the other hand, to replicate the feel--and especially the aroma--of Oklahoma. Some of the places along Interstate 35 in Lewisville accomplish that feat pretty well.
When discussing culinary travel, Dallas-area chefs leave the emphatic impression that the mere act of hitting the road, visiting restaurants, shopping and eating, adds that extra intangible flair to their cooking that separates the good from the memorable. "When you visit you see the culture, the presentation, the techniques, the décor," Rathbun explains. "You don't just inherently have ideas. You have to develop a repertoire of knowledge. And you come out of travel with a wealth of knowledge."
According to the National Restaurant Association, ethnic cuisine became mainstream in the 1990s, with Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Caribbean and Middle Eastern foods showing a marked increase in popularity.
Yet Dallas chefs rarely pick up recipes on these international road trips. Instead, they try to learn methods of preparation, an unusual mix of spices, new trends--anything that increases their ability to create on their own. Andreas Becker, chef at the Firehouse, says that international travel added years to his experience level and provided a new base of information to draw from. "I can take a basic recipe," he says, "but what's going to make it taste better? What's going to make it stand out from other chefs? Before I went to the Caymans I didn't know anything about turtles. There they serve it 50 different ways."
Becker spent time in the Caribbean. Rathbun traveled extensively in France, Italy, Mexico and Thailand. Al Heidari, executive chef at Old Warsaw, roamed through France, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Japan and China. Oddly enough, they all resist labeling any region as a favorite. Instead, they recall details from each visit, little things that taught great lessons.
Heidari likes visiting rural restaurants and private homes. "It amazes you there how they cook every day, three meals a day, and sometimes never go to a restaurant. The regular people are often the best cooks in the world." Rathbun wandered the street markets in Thailand, checking out food at the source. "Some of the markets I've seen are horrifying," he says. "But the best food I had [in Thailand] was on the street for two bucks." Abraham Salum, executive chef at Parigi, toiled for a year in the south of France and another year in Brussels. "Belgian cuisine is as good as French cuisine," he insists. "There's an incredible array of seafood, Germany to one side, France to another; it has so many different things." Yet even he resists naming a favorite. "Anywhere you go you pick up something you didn't know."
Indeed, that is the mantra of the Dallas chef: It doesn't matter where you go so much, as long as you go somewhere. "We often forget that we have regions in the U.S.," Rathbun says. "We are as diverse as other countries." Becker frequently visits other Dallas restaurants just to check out--and learn from--other chefs.
A typical day for a chef overseas includes visits to markets, vineyards and restaurants, sometimes with a guide, sometimes on their own. Often their restaurant or their investors pay for the trip, all or in part. Gilbert Garza of Suze, for example, picked up a trip to Italy as part of an agreement with his backers. Abacus even urges its managers to travel. Salum arranged his foreign excursion as part of an internship with a Michelin three-star hotel.
However they manage, all see tremendous value in culinary travel. "The purpose is simply to absorb the atmosphere and see how people enjoy their food. Here we tend to eat to sustain ourselves between meetings," says Hobbs, who plans to visit Austria and Italy later this year. "They have good Italian food in Chicago," adds Rathbun, "but it's not Milan. We have a tendency to Americanize cuisine. When I went to Italy for the first time I finally 'got' the cuisine."
As long as they don't "get" airline food, we'll be all right.
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