The consensus is in — if you’re a chef, you’ve gotta travel
Some chefs think of the kitchen as a hub of inspiration, while others look at it as a stress box fuelled by repetition and pressure. Chefs are creative individuals by nature, and inspiration is not always found within four walls, which is why travel can provide the opportunity to hit reset, collaborate with other professionals and discover a new realm of cuisines and techniques. Hospitality talks to Merivale’s Dan Hong, Sokyo’s Chase Kojima and chef and author Christine Manfield about what travel means to them — personally and professionally.
The role of a chef is one of the few occupations where getting out of your immediate surroundings is a must — even if you happen to hate the journey, which is the case for Sokyo executive chef Chase Kojima. “I know there are a lot of people who love to travel, but I don’t like flying,” he admits. “Still, travelling overseas at least twice a year is something I always do and I know it’s benefited me. I’m a creative chef, so I need to explore and see new things. If you stay somewhere too long, your creativity dies.”
Staying put can be a blessing and a curse. While familiar surroundings can be comforting, it’s easy to slip into a rut. “Living in Australia is very comfortable, but you don’t get to try a lot of international food because of how quarantine works — you forget what else is out there,” says Kojima. Merivale executive chef Dan Hong agrees, and says an open mind can make all the difference.
“As a chef, you never stop learning, but you can only learn so much in your own country,” says Hong. “It’s really important to open yourself up to different cultures, and food is part of that. I am continually inspired every day I’m eating overseas.”
Christine Manfield got into cooking because she wanted to explore the world, and says food and travel go hand in hand. After more than 30 years as a chef and restaurateur running acclaimed venues including Paramount, East@ West in London and Universal in Sydney, Manfield’s career as a restaurateur came full circle with the closure of Universal in 2013. But her passion for travel has never wavered, and has gone on to become a crucial part of daily life. “My favourite motto is, ‘Life starts at the end of your comfort zone’,” says Manfield. “I’m not interested in being mediocre — I’m always up for a challenge and that’s what travel provides. When I had restaurants, it was mandatory for me to escape for a week or a few days and throw myself into something else. The creative juices start flowing again and you can bring back what you learn and use it to grow your business. If you’re stuck in the same shitty little kitchen day in, day out, I think it shows in the food.”
Collaborations and pop-ups have become commonplace in the industry, with Australian chefs cooking overseas and vice versa. Life took a turn for Manfield when she chose to take a two-pronged approach to the next stage of her career as a pop-up aficionado and gastronomic tour leader. “I knew I’d be a little bit busy, but I thought my working life would be very different to how it has transpired,” she says. “When I chose to step way from Universal, the phenomena of pop-up was just starting and I tapped into it and ran with it.” The chef now hosts events around the globe in locations such as London and India. “My forays into cooking for the public are now done through my events, whether it’s in Australia or elsewhere,” she says. “I really like being able to collaborate and the teamwork and culture that come with it. I think the industry — on a global scale — has shifted. Chefs are now working together instead of being in a corner, separated.”
Manfield will soon host events in Kolkata, Delhi and London to launch the new edition of her book Tasting India, and says it’s important to be selective when it comes to choosing pop-up venues. “I only work with restaurateurs and chefs who are good mates or people who are on the same page,” she says. “Having realistic expectations, doing the groundwork and establishing close liaisons with the chefs and team before you get there [is key]. I’ve already visited any country I work in as a traveller, so I have some idea about what I’m stepping into. My vision has always been global — I want the whole world as my grab bag.”
Sokyo has hosted pop-up events with industry connections, and Kojima says there are a number of yet-to-be-revealed plans in the pipeline for 2019. One such venture is the newly announced restaurant Chuuka, which Kojima will lead alongside Lee Ho Fook’s Victor Liong. “I have friends who are pastry chefs and we’ve held dessert collaborations before,” he says. “Chefs and people who work in the industry are willing to share.” Hong’s restaurant Ms.G’s has also hosted pop-ups in recent months including a collaboration with Chivas Regal dubbed The Blend which featured dishes from Hong, Jowett Yu from Ho Lee Fook in Hong Kong and Louis Tikaram from E.P & L.P in Los Angeles. The restaurant most recently hosted a one-day event with Matt Abergel from Hong Kong’s Yardbird yakitori bar.
Travelling provides chefs with the opportunity to make connections and learn how other professionals run their kitchens. Hong recently visited countries including Korea, Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, Spain and France, and the chef estimates he travels three to four times a year — including stints in other kitchens.
When asked if he’s picked up any new skills from his travels, Hong mentions his time at Michelin-star restaurant Duddell’s in Hong Kong. “When I did a pop-up there, learnt so much about how a traditional fine-dining Cantonese kitchen is operated, from cooking techniques to the way they do service,” he says.
Inspiration and discovering new techniques isn’t just confined to a professional environment and can hit you from simply wandering around and taking in the sights and smells of a new location. Kojima has visited Japan a number of times and was struck by a woman cooking tamagoyaki (layered egg omelette) at the fish market in Tokyo. “I struggled to cook that [dish] for a long time — I think everyone does — and the lady was cooking six at once while serving me,” he says.“She had a good equipment line up, but it’s also technique. There’s a lot of equipment in Japan that maximises time, but the skill level and discipline of mastering one dish is shocking and surprising.”
Of course, travel doesn’t come cheap, and money can often be the key reason why chefs aren’t able to head overseas. Some restaurants provide chefs with travel opportunities as incentives and others send employees to other countries for educational purposes. Kojima’s employer covers two trips a year in the name of research, with the chef recently travelling to China in preparation for the launch of a Chinese-Japanese restaurant called Chuuka. “I’m working on a restaurant for The Star, so I wanted to go to China to understand more about the cuisine because there are a lot of things I don’t know.” Kojima says he’s given a fair budget when he’s travelling overseas for work and also has the opportunity to bring a staff member on trips, too. “All we do is eat,” he admits.
Victor Liong and Chase Kojima
As the executive chef of the Establishment precinct, Mr Wong and Ms.G’s, Hong works across a number of cuisines from Cantonese and Japanese to Vietnamese and contemporary Australian. The chef says certain meals may be covered by Merivale if they directly relate to work. Hong travelled to Europe last year to dine at some of the world’s best restaurants, racking up an impressive 36 Michelin stars on the trip. “I went to France, Spain and Denmark and finally got to eat at all the gastro temples I dreamed of when I was a fine dining apprentice,” he says. “Every time I travel overseas, I am influenced.”
While Hong, Manfield and Kojima are frequent globetrotters, you don’t always have to go far to discover something new. Australia is home to some of the world’s best chefs and offers a diverse range of cuisines. “Australia has a true reflection of multiculturalism in our food — we are spoilt with what’s available to us,” says Manfield. “You don’t have to go overseas, but you have to go outside of your own little patch on a regular basis.”
Whether it’s taking a few days out of the kitchen to visit local restaurants and new areas or a few weeks to travel to other countries, travel is vital for getting ahead in an industry that thriveson creativity.
This feature originally appeared in the March issue of Hospitality. Subscribe here.
Dan Hong image credit: Kimberley Low, Broadsheet