Flying With Knives: How Chefs Prepare and Travel for Food Festival Season
"It's never going to be a exactly the same, so how can I make it work for me?" - Chef Elizabeth Falkner
I'm at Terminal 5 in JFK airport in New York at 4:30 a.m., having just come from covering the Gourmet and Golf Classic in Punta Mita, Mexico, and now heading to the Virgin Islands, first for their St. Croix Food and Wine Experience, and then to make a wedding cake for a girlfriend.
My carry-on stops traffic and gets pulled from the scanner. A TSA lady opens my bag to hand-swipe and test everything inside. After a quizzical look, she waves me on and sighs: "Trust me, I've seen weirder." The item in question is a Kitchenaid standing mixer, with the bowl and whisk attached.
In my checked luggage are industrial half-sheet pans, measuring equipment, knives, boards, dowels, various cake-building odds and ends, baking soda, and some really good vanilla. It had been a weird packing process—figuring out how to get both camera and writing equipment and the entire baking stock of my New York kitchen safely to a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean, and the process got me wondering: how do chefs do this all the time?
How do they leave their kitchens to cook so regularly around the world? How do they adapt when something goes wrong? How can we, as those who gobble up their food and maybe exchange a word or two, be better attendees of events? So, as we welcome in what is soon to be a very packed food festival season, we asked ten chefs from around the country to weigh in.
- Floyd Cardoz: Winner of Top Chef Masters and former executive chef at New York's Tabla and North End Grill, Cardoz recently traveled to the Punta Mita Gourmet and Golf Challenge to execute a five-course formal dinner and then a four-course lunch of morning-caught fresh fish.
- Andrew Ormsby: A native of Australia, Dallas chef Ormsby led the Australian national culinary team to 11 gold medals in the Culinary Olympics. We caught him in Punta Mita, cooking up a storm.
- Antonio De Livier: Mexicali-born De Livier worked for 8 years in Boston before returning to Mexico, heading up kitchens in Cabo and Guadalajara. His 5-course beachside menu at the Punta Mita festival brought together techniques from all over Mexico and very local ingredients.
- Leah Cohen: A StarChefs Rising Star, Top Chef alum and owner of Southeast Asian restaurant Pig and Khao in New York, Cohen doesn't hit the festival circuit often, so we were lucky to catch up with her on St. Croix for their Food and Wine Experience.
- Sam Choy: Hawaii's Choy has 16 cookbooks, a weekly show, and travels to 20 events a year, mixing Hawaiian tradition with local ingredients, which he showcased in St. Croix.
- Elizabeth Falkner: Award-winning chef in both the savory and pastry worlds, Falkner is on the board of directors of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, and recently left Corvo Bianco in New York to focus on some new projects, including her third cookbook.
- Jason Dady: San Antonio's Dady has six restaurants of his own, and flies all over the country to cook at events, including a tasting dinner at New York's City Grit and at StarChefs' first Smoke barbecue event at the 2013 International Culinary Council.
- Paul Qui: A StarChefs Rising Star, James Beard 2012 "Best Chef, Southwest" winner, and a 2014 Food and Wine Best New Chefs, Qui started with a chain of Asian food trucks in Austin, and now combines his love of French cuisine and his Filipino heritage at Qui.
- Kevin Sbraga: A Top Chef Season 7 winner and Bocuse d'Or challenger, Sbraga mashes up global influences at his namesake restaurant in Philly.
- Philip Speer: Texas native Speer, a StarChefs Rising Star Pastry Chef and occasional Food Network judge, caters his pastry menu at Austin's Uchi and Uchiko around fresh products and unconventional ingredients, and travels with some dangerous looking ingredients.
How do you plan what you're bringing versus ordering at events?
Philip Speer: For a large event I like to make a lot at my home restaurant and ship what I can to have minimal prep on the site. We have to decide whether it's worth the cost to ship, so for a smaller event I get there and prepare everything on site.
Floyd Cardoz: I normally get a list from the festival organizers about what they have, and then try to see what's available locally, because what's the point in going to Mexico and asking for hamachi from Hawaii when you can get another fish equally good from Mexico, like red snapper or African pompano? I find if you do that you get better quality ingredients, and it makes creating [the dish] a lot easier, too.
Sam Choy: It's all in the planning stages. What makes me excited is adapting my cooking style to anything indigenous, so I just make sure the menu is well designed, and go to the wet market for fish and the dry market for produce to fill in the blanks.
Kevin Sbraga: Let's say I'm going to do a dinner and I have to make ice cream; I might make the base here and bring it with me. Fresh things I usually order. Quality control is sometimes a problem—I want to have the same product at the festival that I would at the restaurant.
What do you always bring with you?
Andrew Ormsby: My pepper mill. I've had it for years, since I was 18, so it's sort of my security blanket! Okay, not really. It's a simple thing, but a lot of times you get somewhere and they don't have one, or there might only be two in a kitchen of 20 chefs.
Paul Qui: I like to have my spoons, my knives, a bench scraper; a lot of the little tools. In an ideal world I usually bring the stuff that takes a lot of labor, anything from sausage or flavor builders— things that take more than a day to prep.
Floyd Cardoz: I try to take my own spices, and I always pre-grind them in various quantities. I take my aprons and jackets, and always take my houndstooth pants, always, no matter what—when I'm out of my home kitchen, I want to feel as close to my own person as possible.
Elizabeth Falkner: A whisk is always a good idea, and a rubber spatula, because sometimes they just don't supply that. A corkscrew, a Microplane. I find myself thinking, "Damn, I should have brought my own xanthan gum," because it can help you in so many situations; it's such a great emulsifier and helps make things just a bit thicker.
Leah Cohen: I try to use as many local ingredients as possible. Sometimes it's hard to do because of the cuisine I cook [Southeast Asian], so I usually bring my own fermented shrimp paste with me (which I actually get from Thailand).
Sam Choy: I bring my knives; they're custom made, designed for my hand. Because of people who write and educate, the world has shrunk—there's a lot here in St. Croix I wouldn't have expected, like mandolins and spiral cutters, things you have in New York and Hawaii. It's wonderful, because it tells you people are watching and listening.
What's the weirdest thing you've flown with?
Paul Qui: 80 pounds of beef tongue in a duffel bag. We did a pop up at StarChefs and it didn't make the plane, because my acting sous chef didn't label the bags. It arrived the same day, but late in the evening. I had brined it for three days and basically cooked it for another 24 hours, then made it really, really cold, so it was okay.
Jason Dady: An immersion circulator, way back in the day when they weren't so prevalent. The TSA had no clue and fucked up the whole thing—pried it open, broke it, and wouldn't replace it. To this day I type up letters that say, "I'm a chef, please don't break my equipment."
Elizabeth Falkner: A ton of frozen cake to make giant sculptures in Food Network Challenge. I put them in a cooler, had them deeply frozen with dry ice, then wrapped them in bubble wrap and checked them in, so when they got there they were still frozen. I'd rather make them fresh, but it depends on the time frame. And that electric knife that you see on infomercials; I needed that for shaving marshmallows.
Philip Speer: A 15-quart liquid nitrogen Dewar. Of course they were like, "What is this? It looks like a bomb?!" There must have been 30 different airport people talking about it. It was empty of liquid nitrogen, so there was no pressure and I did get it onto the plane.
Then I was wheeling it through Chicago and had to sneak behind a restaurant so that some chefs (who weren't supposed to) could come out and fill it for me. At that point I was pretty much walking around Chicago with a bomb. I was early so I had to leave my bags at the hotel, and had to make a really big deal about not touching the suitcase or moving it, and they looked petrified. It was pretty hilarious. But all in all I got my liquid nitrogen to the competition.
Andrew Ormsby: Crocodile and kangaroo. A lot of people were freaked out about the kangaroo, but it's actually really beautiful, and lean. I brought it down on a private plane; I was worried about whether I would get it through or not.
Antonio De Livier: A bull penis, pickled. I'm big into pickling things and cold Mexican escabeches with pigs feet and stuff, and the old man that I buy it from is very careful—he's done it for many years and you taste it and you're like, "Ah, this son of a bitch, man!" So for shits and giggles I made an aguachile with it, plus smoked marlin, beautiful yellow heirloom tomatoes, and blond jalapenos. People loved it! I just told them it was Mexican pickling. Wink—you're eating penis, people! With all due respect!
Any shipping nightmares?
Kevin Sbraga: I don't ship anymore—if it doesn't fit on the plane, it doesn't go. Years ago stuff was missing for two or three weeks, and it wasn't my stuff; it was my boss'.
Philip Speer: Two years ago for StarChefs at ICC we shipped a lot of food and I was literally driving to the airport when FedEx called to say one of the boxes has exploded. It was full of ice cream bases and other components for desserts for 350 people and I'd over-packed it, so it was completely destroyed and leaking. I had to make everything there in a short amount of time, so we were scrambling to the grocery store and borrowing things, but we pulled everything together.
Jason Dady: My first time ever cooking at the Beard House in 2004, I sent two boxes via FedEx and one went missing. It showed up at the Beard House four hours before dinner. Best part, it was 100% guaranteed and they paid for the entire shipping costs. Phew.
Any packing tips for traveling to cook?
Paul Qui: I save a lot of ice packs from my fish and other orders, and keep them in the freezer, and make sure they are packed well with a lot of packing tape. A lot.
Kevin Sbraga: To keep things cold we like to get our coolers in the walk-in at least twelve hours in advance and keep them open, and then put ice packs in at the last minute. And don't put too much ice—that can make it really heavy.
Leah Cohen: Make sure to bubble wrap anything that can potentially break / that is liquid. The last thing I need is for a bottle of fish sauce to break in the bag.
Philip Speer: Vacuum sealers are great. Any product you might wanna put into a quart container, if you can, vacuum seal it. Also, don't over-pack your boxes. I create cushions with air in a bag and put them between everything, so if anything does break it's not going to break something else.
Elizabeth Falkner: Before cryovacing machines I used to have to use deli containers and wrap them a billion times, and under pressure they just don't work, so things would explode—one time I had a glittery powder open up so everything was covered in silver dust. I still find sugar in my traveling things. I highly recommend everything being cryovaced so when you send powder and stuff it weighs less and is very clear.
Jason Dady: Cryovac everything. Label and type up notes for TSA so they won't fuck with your shit.
How do you get questionable items from point A to B?
Philip Speer: I was going to a pastry competition in Chicago and brought a whole batch of modified starches, stabilizers, pastry base and hydrocolloids, vacuum-sealed into little baggies that looked very much like a suitcase full of drugs. I shipped that box, and I thought for sure it would get opened up, but I guess since it wasn't drugs and dogs couldn't smell it, it was fine.
We usually ship knives because if you fly with knives it's a guarantee that your bag will get opened up. After an event in Portland I got home and unpacked my carry-on; my 8" knife with a 4" blade was on there, and I realized I had gotten through Portland and Arizona security twice (because I had a layover), so I had actually scanned the bag 3 times, and nobody saw it. Two airports, three times through security.
Kevin Sbraga: Whenever I drop my bags off at TSA I let them know there are knives inside, and they check through my bag and that's it.
On the flip side, have you ever brought any questionable food related item home?
Jason Dady: Nothing other than meats and truffles from Europe. I never ever claim it and play dumb. I do that well.
Leah Cohen: One time I snuck back Thai baby garlic... I was very nervous when going through customs.
Paul Qui: I haven't ever smuggled any ingredients back—I've never take that risk—but one of my purveyors gave me some peat moss, which I guess is illegal to take from Scotland and he smuggled back for me. I still have it; I'm waiting to do something with Scotch and something with smoky or peaty flavors.
What should festival organizers pay attention to?
Floyd Cardoz: It's hard when you're promised a piece of equipment and something else shows up—you've requested a grill and a plancha shows up. Or you ask for refrigeration and there's no refrigeration for your raw fish or raw meat, so you're running around trying to ice things down as fast as possible. Or you ask for plates and get a bowl a quarter size of what you need. That's when you get thrown for a bit, because it's like, "What do I do now?"
Elizabeth Falkner: No matter what, there are always going to be surprises, that's why I like all those shows that mirror surprise elements. In Caracas, in the early nineties, I was with these other great chefs and we had to cook in a hotel that was so funky that the burners on the stove were so clogged there was only one flame shooting up in the air. And it was so hot and we were tempering chocolate. Improvising is vital. You have to be open-minded more than anything.
Sam Choy: There should always be garbage, and seating areas throughout; women are in high heels and not comfortable more than two hours on their feet, so have stations where they can go in and sit down. Guys are getting a bite and some booze down; the women are watching, learning, and asking the right questions. It's funny. I admire people that come there and ask the questions.
Jason Dady: I'm very well-versed in using a hotel shower or bath tub as a "refrigerator"... many, many times.
How can fans make a positive impression when approaching a chef?
Leah Cohen: Sometimes it can be challenging when everyone wants to talk to you (for a long time) and it interferes with putting out the food fast enough. But don't geek out... just say hi.
Philip Speer: My biggest pet peeve is when people put their dirty dishes on your table—use a trashcan. People seem to drink a lot at festivals, so don't be a jackass. If you're hoping to go meet a chef at a festival, remember that they're busy, so don't expect a lot of interaction at that point. But when the chef walks away for a beer or bite, maybe then offer to grab them a beer and say "hi"—we're in the business of eating and drinking and having fun as well, so a "nice to meet you" is always good.
Jason Dady: Don't be a schmuck. Nothing is more satisfying than when someone appreciates what you do. Be yourself, have fun, and free high fives.
Andrew Ormsby: Don't give the chef back the dirty plate—that sort of freaks us out a little bit, you know what I mean? If people are enjoying your food you want to talk to them; that's the whole reason we're here, really!
Floyd Cardoz: When they say, "That's really good?!", like they're surprised, I sometimes get tempted to say, "Fuck yeah, it is!" What else do you think I'd serve you? And it really upsets me when people drop dirty plates without thinking when you're putting down clean food. Keep in mind that there may be other people who want to talk, so don't take up too much time, but just go up to a chef and say hello and thank you. I look for gold in people—it takes a lot of courage for some people to come up and talk to you.
Antonio De Livier: Saying "thank you for being here" really moves me, man. It's uncomfortable, but it's very nice. "Thank you for being here." Shit. It's deep. Maybe they mean it, maybe they don't, but it's a very nice thing to say. It's like saying, "You have pretty eyes." Aw, really?! I don't know, man. It's a nice thing to say, goddamn it!
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.