It is surreal to learn that American chef, author and TV presenter, Anthony Bourdain hadn’t travelled much at all… until he did. As Netflix’s latest documentary on him—Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain—unfolds, it becomes clear that the legend’s ilk has far outlived him. Now, a cohort of culinarians follow in his footsteps to far-flung corners of the earth in search of inspiration. And significantly those at the helm of experimental dining and gourmet restaurants specialising in what some might call ‘high food.’
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The phenomenon, though not explicitly new, has found more fervour at the behest of globally acclaimed chefs like Rene Redzepi (Noma restaurant, Copenhagen) and Dan Barber (Blue Hill restaurants in the US), who have popularised ‘foraging’ and ‘research and development’ (R&D) in their quest to champion ingredient-first and imaginative food. Closer to home, chef Thomas Zacharias, did the same with his wildly popular journals on social media dubbed #ChefOnTheRoad, where he documents his travels to Jokai in Assam, Kolkata, Goa or Uttarakhand in great detail, providing fodder for those keen on travelling for food, but more importantly, for his own growth. A lot of the learnings that Zacharias gathered during these escapades found their way back into The Bombay Canteen kitchen (which he was heading up until 2020) and found expression through unique menus, such as their 2019, limited-edition offering ‘A Taste Of The Wild,’ which celebrated seasonal wild vegetables from Maharashtra.
In that same vein, Masque restaurant has championed ingredient-focussed, culturally rooted food and menus that are often underpinned by their explorations and findings in Goa, Uttarakhand or Kashmir. Their team went on excursions to Rampur, Uttar Pradesh in search of the “elusive fiddlehead ferns" and harvested “10-12 varieties of seaweed" in sun-kissed Goa.
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Similarly, the search for produce has taken Ankit Gupta—co-founder of Burma Burma, an Asian restaurant-chain with outlets in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and most recently Ahmedabad—to Myanmar about 12 times. Twice a year, Gupta and his team travel to the Southeast Asian nation (also Gupta’s maternal home) for a little bit over a week, and eat their way through approximately 17 meals a day across local food joints, uncovering crockery, artefacts, spices, condiments, sticky rice tea and more, all of which, he assures, helps provide a more special and culturally nuanced experience for the diner.
Having travelled to Coorg for R&D as a student at IHM, Aurangabad or to Guangzhou, during his stint with the Taj Hotels, in search of kitchen equipment and appliances (the Chinese city is the capital for the same), Gupta wasn’t new to the concept of travelling for food. But now, 12 years since his first trip to Myanmar, his expeditions have found more form. “Along the way we’ve found a lot of friends in Burma and many food guides and artisans that we work with. So it’s much more planned. Before the trip, we try to involve the stakeholders. We get in touch with the local tour guide; there is someone with us who knows English as well to communicate," he shares. Masque’s Aditi Dugar’s travels, too, are just as meticulously designed, in tow with local experts and artisans. “The selection of the right destination is of paramount importance. We scrutinise parameters, such as the availability of unique ingredients, the depth of culinary heritage, and the potential for cross-cultural inspiration. That encompasses logistical considerations, accommodation arrangements, transportation, and permits, if they are requisite," she shares.
The endeavour, creative as it may be, involves logistics, planning, and importantly, expenditures. Elaborating on the economics of research-led culinary trips, Gupta shares, “It’s an expense booked to the company. A typical budget, if I leave out my artefact shopping, is roughly around ₹ 5 to 6 lakh for two to three of us." Dugar adds, “They require financial planning, and our company conscientiously incorporates these trips into our Profit and Loss (PnL) statement, recognising their pivotal role in shaping our culinary identity and menu." Countertop, a consultancy that works with alcohol brands and hospitality groups, was behind the highly regarded, now-shut Goan watering hole, Tesouro (ranked #No4 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars and #No1 in India's 30 Best Bars in 2022). They were one of the first to look at alcohol through this prism and craft drink menus based on foraging trips across farms in Florida, with a botanist and forger, to boot. Its co-founder Pankaj Balachandran offers, “It is expensive when you’re travelling for R&D and most of the time, you do plug it into the company’s PnL. But for example, when we used to do foraging trips, we would run a menu, and get a brand to sponsor it. So, some part of the cost gets covered and that’s how we usually work now."
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Be that as it may, chefs travelled just as much even before the advent of social media. Through the 1980s, as a budding chef in the US, and later, as the founder at Indigo, Mumbai (which he started in 1999 and left in 2014, after selling his shares), chef Rahul Akerkar toured around Paris, Bilbao in Spain, Southern Italy, and Sri Lanka, among other countries. “They allow you to understand the beast in its own jungle," he muses, as he looks back at his early career, on the precipice of a new chapter, as the creative director and director of cuisine at Aditya Birla New Age (ABNA), the multinational company’s freshly minted hospitality arm. “We were in Sri Lanka and we found amazing cheap crockery there. So, in fact, our second lot of crockery for Indigo was all from Sri Lanka. You end up getting exposed to new ingredients. Do you travel specifically to do that? You might, but I think it happened more organically along the way on our journeys," he opines, explaining how things were a bit more extemporaneous in his days.
The desire to unearth new techniques, ingredients and culinary aesthetes is undoubtedly motivated by the recognition that in a super-premium restaurant like Masque, or high-end restaurant like Burma Burma, diners will expect an experience that goes beyond scratching the surface. And travel provides enough ammunition to showcase the uncharted. But there’s surely something to be said about these gourmands’ innate, instinctive and indescribable desire to uncover the culinary treasures hidden in parts unknown—something Bourdain chased all his life, until he just couldn’t anymore.
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Suman Mahfuz Quazi tries to make sense of the world around her through food. She’s also the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED25.09.2023 | 02:00 PM IST