Forget those vintage ads—the Golden Age of Travel is upon us right now. All you have to do is ask chefs and restaurateurs, who have more opportunities than ever to criss-cross the country in the name of great food.
Far from playing hooky from their own kitchens, many chefs are racking up frequent flyer miles by traveling for special events, kitchen collaborations, book tours, and more. It’s all part of the package for professionals at the top of their game, and an essential way for chefs to stay abreast of the ingredients, trends, and techniques shaping their industry.
But it’s not all work and no play when chefs hit the road—one thing you can be sure of is that they’ll find time to squeeze in an epic meal (or three). Sometimes the entire purpose of their trip is to engage in said epic meal. So as 2015 winds down, we figured we’d poll a dozen-plus of our favorite chefs about their favorite meals of the year. Their answers run the gamut from fine dining in Napa, to Korean barbecue in New Jersey—proof that good food knows no stylist or geographic boundaries.
Chef at unnamed/upcoming NYC restaurant
Best meal of 2015: Shuko
Location: 47 E 12th St, New York, NY (212-228-6088; shukonyc.com)
Kluger says: “In January, I went to Shuko with my parents, my wife, and my brother for his birthday. [Chef] Nick Kim befriended my father, who loves Japan, and they talked throughout the meal. I think he even got Nick’s phone number so they could go eat in Japantown. I don’t even have Nick’s number! The food there is so memorable—delicious crab and cucumber salad, different types of fatty tuna, and the different ways in which they are treated always amaze me. I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at Shuko a few times as well as at Neta when Jimmy [Lau] and Nick were there. In turn, they’ve both figured out how much I love their uni and the spicy tuna hand roll. That night we were also served lobster with bacon and truffles, an incredible fried chicken, and Kobe beef. I love the interactive element, sitting at the counter and watching everything being made while asking questions along the way. It makes for not only a great culinary experience, but a social one as well. We could barely walk when finished, but it was the best feeling and made for the perfect celebration.” (Photo: Yelp/Katie L.)
Top Chef judge, cookbook author, Food & Wine editor
Best meal of 2015: State Bird Provisions
Location: 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco (415-795-1272, statebirdsf.com)
Simmons says: “I spent a lot of time in California this year shooting the next season of Top Chef, and I ate so many great meals all across the state. But one that stands out because it was just so much fun has to be State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. The setup is dim sum-style service, with waiters coming around with trays of little plates you can choose from, but it’s not dim sum-style food. The whole thing makes for a really lively meal, and it’s a fun change of pace from regular service, plus there’s an open kitchen were you can see everything come together, and all of the servers are really enthusiastic about selling whatever they’re carrying.
It’s hard to remember everything we ate because it’s just kind of a parade of all these small, creative, beautiful dishes (on gorgeous tableware), but I know we had fried quail, which is in fact the state bird of California, along with amazing oysters with all kinds of garnishes, and a super-smooth, super-savory duck-liver mousse in a little jar with a cracker. There was fried rice with a smoked egg yolk broken into it, and beef tongue on toast. I was there in June, so peaches were in season, and we had this incredibly beautiful peach tart for dessert. And I definitely remember that on the bathroom wall there was a hand-drawn map of all 50 states with the name of every state bird, which I wanted to get for my dad, who’s a birder. I should follow up with the restaurant about finding that artist.” (Photo: Facebook/StatebirdSF)
Chef at Aquavit, NYC
Best meal of 2015: Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Location: 630 Bedford Rd, Tarrytown, NY (914-366-9600, bluehillfarm.com)
Bengtsson says: “Earlier this year, eight of us from Aquavit’s kitchen staff dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Over the course of the four-hour meal, we ate in three areas of the restaurant: a private dining room, the main dining room, and the outdoor patio. I particularly enjoyed getting to dine in these different settings, including the interludes between them, which served as sort of mental palate-cleansers that allowed us to process what we had experienced. There was just a beautiful, peaceful rhythm to the whole meal, and a service that had us in a spell.
We had so many courses, and so many wonderful ones, too, it’s hard to choose favorites. But if I had to, I would give shout-outs to the amazing beetfurter (a hot dog made of beets), bone marrow, cured duck and other housemade charcuterie, plus the chicken feet. (I loved how they fried the whole feet but at the same time managed to remove the bones; so interesting.) I particularly enjoyed Chef Barber’s “Don’t overcomplicate it” style and his emphasis on such a wide range of really local and pristine produce. Even the dipping sauces that came with some of the little bites of vegetables were designed to amplify the essential taste of the vegetables themselves.” (Photo: Stone Barns)
Chef at Craigie on Main, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Best meal of 2015: Dizengoff
Location: 1625 Sansom St, Philadelphia, PA (215-867-8181, dizengoffphilly.com)
Maws says: “My favorite meal this past year was at Dizengoff, Michael Solomonov’s hummusiya in Philadelphia. I’ve certainly had my fair share of fancier, highfalutin meals elsewhere, but Dizengoff stands out simply because it exceeded expectations more than any other meal this past year. I was in awe of the simplicity but complete deliciousness of all the hummus dishes we tried, topped with an array of spices—with crusted, roasted chicken; with crispy-fried chickpeas; with beets and pistachios. And the a la minute pita out of the brick oven, all toasty and puffed up! The small sides of fresh and crunchy pickles brought me back to this small spot I stumbled upon outside of Jerusalem 20 years ago. I was almost annoyed—as in, ‘how can this guy come up with something already so ubiquitous but make it so f’ing good that I can’t wait to go back?’” (Photo: Yelp/Jack J.)
Chef at The Federal, Miami
Best meal of 2015: Petit Trois
Location: 718 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA (323-468-8916, petittrois.com)
Zapata says: “Believe it or not, Petit Trois wasn’t anything extravagant or out of the ordinary. But its simplicity is what made it so great. The steak tartare was perfectly seasoned and just cold enough. They make their own baguettes and serve them with European butter and Maldon salt, and the escargot (two to a slot!) were plump and not overly garlicky. The real showstopper was the gougère—it was the like gougère version of our jumbo biscuit at The Federal: eggy, fluffy, light, and totally delicious. Honestly, this was simple French fare, but executed to the highest degree, with attention to every detail, from the spicy Dijon mustard to the servers’ bowties. It was just perfectly executed across the board.” (Photo: Facebook/Petit Trois)
Joseph “JJ” Johnson
Chef at The Cecil and Minton’s, NYC
Best meal of 2015: Revival
Location: 129 Church St, Decatur, GA (470-225-6770, revivaldecatur.com)
Johnson says: “This summer, I went to Kevin Gillespie’s new restaurant Revival, and it was such an amazing and memorable night. I was in Atlanta cooking as a guest chef at Gunshow and didn’t have much time to do anything else, but I had to swing by Kevin’s new place to check it out. The space reminded me of being in my grandmother’s home—it just felt like I was in the country ready to dig into some real Southern flavors. Even though I was only with four other people, we tried almost everything on the menu. I loved Kevin’s wood-grilled Georgia quail with roasted honey. We make a mean mac ‘n’ cheese in Harlem, but I really loved theirs, which uses tiny tube pasta, a ton of creamy cheese, and comes topped with potato chips instead of bread crumbs—totally awesome.” (Photo: Yelp/Drew A.)
Chef at Beast, Portland, OR
Best meal of 2015: Estela
Location: 47 E Houston St, New York, NY (212-219-7693, estelanyc.com)
Pomeroy says: “Every time I come to New York I can’t not eat at Estela. I love their fried arroz negro with squid ink so much I ordered it twice in one night. With the right glass of wine, it’s always over the top. I love that dish because it’s such umami-forward flavors, but it’s totally balanced with just the right amount of acidity. And it’s fried, so you’ve got that amazing crunchy texture. I also love the mussel on toast dish there because it has this bracing acidity, but it’s tamed with the perfect amount of olive oil and gets these fresh clean flavors from the parsley and herbs. I like to rally all of my old friends that live in New York and bring them together at Estela. There are so many restaurants to try in New York that I feel kind of bad for always going there, but I know I’ll have a great meal, so I just keep doing it.” (Photo: Yelp/Lori L.)
Chef at Annisa, NYC
Best meal of 2015: Cosme
Location: 35 E 21st St, New York, NY (212-913-9659, cosmenyc.com)
Lo says: “One of the best meals I’ve had in the last year in was at Cosme in New York. Everyone had been raving about the place, and it was a very difficult reservation to land, so my expectations were very high. Everything was amazing: the generous size of the tables, the dark, modern industrial setting, the service, the food. We started with a few crudos—sliced sea scallops with lemon and chives and hamachi with chilies. Both were much more complex than they sound, and impeccably sweet and fresh. Then we had what remains in my mind as the archetypical ideal of chilaquiles: a pile of loose tortilla chips still light and crispy at the edges, smothered in a layered sauce made orange by fruity chilies, then gently topped with a soft snowfall of cotija cheese. Also memorable were the famous duck carnitas and that corn dessert made with a charred corn husk meringue and corn mousse. We had ordered like professionals (i.e., most of the menu), and I was impressed with how the kitchen nailed the balance of every dish.” (Photo: Yelp/Gabriela N.)
Chef at Hot Joy, San Antonio
Best meal of 2015: Benu
Location: 22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA (415-685-4860, benusf.com)
Watson says: “I had made a reservation at Benu just before they received their third Michelin star as a way to celebrate with my wife on our honeymoon. They were completely booked after the announcement, so already we both felt like we had won some kind of contest. I’ve hyped meals before, only to be let down, so I tried to make it a point to just let the meal happen—but I couldn’t help it. Coming off the high of just getting married, going to one of my favorite cities, and scoring that reservation, I hyped it up so much. I thought I was doomed to be mildly impressed. Wrong.
We ordered the tasting menu with the sea cucumber supplement (a dish I had been fanboying over for a while), threw on two bottles of the cheapest wine we recognized from the list, and got to work! There were so many familiar flavors and textures that I love but are so rarely seen in a fine dining context. The texture of the spongy sea cucumber, the flawless technique of the lobster-coral xiao long bao, the funky aroma of a 1000-year egg, not to mention the hilarious play on the cliché (at this point) combination of oyster, kimchi, and pork belly.
Considering that the meal was my wife and I’s gift to each other, and we’re both chefs, on our honeymoon, the meal really spoke to us—not in some cheesy sentimental way, but from a place that we’re both familiar with: Asian food in America. I recognized the flavors and ideas that were on the plate. I’ve eaten and cooked my share of high-end, fine dining meals, but never have I felt like I truly recognized a narrative, a story being told in front of me, a story held close to the chest. That’s a feeling usually reserved for a home cooked meal or a street stall, so to experience it at Benu was really special.” (Photo: Yelp/Elliott D.)
Chef at Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Best meal of 2015: Tybee Island Fish Camp
Location: 106 S Campbell Ave, Tybee Island, GA (912-662-3474, tybeeislandfishcamp.com)
McPhail says: “My most memorable meal this year was at Tybee Island Fish Camp, where we ate for a rehearsal dinner. It’s a tiny sleeper of a restaurant on this small island in Georgia. Chef/owner Kurtis Schumm makes super-local food that rivals anything in New York or San Francisco. He made a lemon-lobster risotto that pretty much blew my mind—it was one of the best risottos I’ve ever had. It was extremely aromatic and cooked perfectly, with a big buttery lobster flavor, but finished with a pop of lemon so it doesn’t feel heavy. We also ate fresh oysters, lobsters, and steak. It wasn’t expensive, but they use great quality ingredients, cook extremely well, and are all around just amazing people. They also run the Tybee Island Social Club down the street, which is a great place to walk down to after dessert and listen to bluegrass music on the beach.” (Photo: Facebook/Tybee Island Fish Camp)
Chef at Terrine, Los Angeles
Best meal of 2015: The Modern
Location: 9 W 53rd St, New York, NY (212-333-1220, themodernnyc.com)
Morningstar says: “Last November, I was on a quick trip to New York for a friend’s wedding and to finish up shooting for Knife Fight. I had some down time on a Wednesday, so I decided to treat myself to lunch at The Modern. I think most of the time, people feel strange eating alone at a table, but I thought it was so nice to just sit there and focus on the food. I had a full-on, six-course tasting menu—the one that takes 2.5 hours—with wine pairings, in the middle of the day, and every bite was fantastic.
The food was spot-on and really beautiful, and it was such a gorgeous afternoon—I sat by the window overlooking the sculpture garden. I had met [executive chef] Abram Bissell a few times at various food festivals, but I didn’t ask the staff (who were all outstanding, by the way) to let him know I was there until about the fifth course. After I ate, I popped back into the kitchen and took photos with his white truffles.
I can’t remember every course at this point, but what still stands out today was this amazing king crab with cauliflower and crab butter, tarragon, and almonds. They also have this chocolate cart with all of these different kinds of chocolate preparations and caramel, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Food is often this convivial thing about sharing with others, but as a food professional, I was happy to sit quietly by myself and just be indulgent.” (Photo: Yelp/Lara A.)
Chef at Talde, NYC, Jersey City, and soon-to-open in Miami
Best meal of 2015: So Moon Nan Jip
Location: 238 Broad Ave, Palisades Park, NJ (201-944-3998, yelp.com/somoonnanjip)
Talde says: “My mother-in-law took us to So Moon Nan Jip in Palisades Park, New Jersey, which is her favorite place for Korean barbecue. The meal started with an egg custard made with Korean dashi that comes out bubbling hot; it’s super fluffy and sweet and savory at the same time. Then there’s this purple-grain rice that has these dope beans in it—it’s supposed to be healthy, but it’s ‘healthier than white rice’ kind of healthy. The kimchi and the Korean pancakes were great, too, and we drank super-hot barley tea that burned my hands but was still so good.
Then we got to the main event. My mother-in-law asked me what I wanted, but she did the ordering. Right off the bat, they put the charcoal down onto the grill. A lot of places don’t do the live charcoal anymore, which is unfortunate because it’s really cool. The quality of the meat at this place cannot be beat: the beef is well-marbled; the pork is fatty and delicious, like Berkshire. Plus, it’s such a great environment. Almost everyone eating there is Korean, and there’s a good Korean drama playing on the TV. This was the most legit Korean barbeque I’ve ever had—it makes K-Town in New York City look like a joke, and I love me some late night K-Town.” (Photo: Yelp/Johanna S.)
Chef at Damn the Weather, Seattle
Best meal of 2015: Barjot
Location: 711 Bellevue Ave E, Seattle, WA (206-457-5424, barjotseattle.com)
Dahlin says: “My most memorable meal of 2015 was prepared by chef Nick Coffey and took place at Barjot here in Seattle. The name ‘Barjot,’ if I understand correctly, means ‘bonkers,’ but this meal was nothing but subtle and restrained. All the dishes on the handwritten menu are appetizer size, and we ordered about five. The first was two smelt, preserved in vinegar, peeled, and wrapped around a smoky pickled pepper. They had been skewered with twigs and presented on a chilled river stone, a la Faviken. This dish was emblematic of everything to come: simple, reverently constructed, of this place and time but reflecting the past, executed with surgical technique.
Next came a matsutake mushroom with its cap lightly seared, and the stem served raw and thinly shaved alongside a madrona bark cream; then tiny potatoes baked in squid ink salt, with a coddled egg and a sauce made from fermented squid innards. Last there was a true hunter’s stew of braised venison, wild mushrooms, wild huckleberries, and watercress, which tasted like the hills of peasant Europe, before the Industrial Revolution. At this meal, every plate was a haiku, which, more than just being beautiful and delicious, left a lasting impression of time and season.” (Photo: Barjot)