Trend-Spotting: Backpacker Food Gets Hip

In the midst of a challenging global economic landscape, many travel lovers aren’t able to globetrot like they once did. Some innovative entrepreneurs have sensed an opportunity and are finding new ways to bring the world home, and restaurants are setting the trend. Restaurateurs have long sought to recreate world cuisines in other parts of the world – hence the popularity of Japanese cuisine in San Francisco, Indian in London. Now some cutting-edge restaurants are going one step further and are attempting to bring the travel experience itself to diners.

At New York City’s Vegabond in the South Bronx, open for less than a year but already drawing a crowd of younger foodies through word of mouth, diners are digging into what looks a lot like backpacker food, but with a modern high-concept spin.

Dishes are produce-heavy, often with an Asian street food influence, and notably spare: portions are modest, garnishes non-existent. The regular menu item ‘instant ramen with powdered vegetable broth’ looks much like a version that might be found in Styrofoam bowl from a vending machine, but the instant noodles and powdered broth are both prepared in-house by Vegabond chefs and cooked table-side. ‘It was a eureka moment,’ says owner and chef Zach McReady. ‘Making a perfect vegetable broth and then turning it into a uniform powder is no easy feat.’Not surprisingly, McReady’s food was influenced by his own travels. ‘When I spent a year backpacking around the world after culinary school, my eyes were opened to a wide range of new foods, simpler foods, even foods I used to think of as abominations created by an industrial food complex gone haywire. What I had learned at school was a very restricted, pleasure-centric view of the culinary world. Most western cuisine is focused on providing an experience of artificial abundance and luxury to diners, but it completely misses the deeper joys that one can experience through challenge and deprivation.’

But never fear, Vegabond diners won’t leave hungry, especially if they’re clever. ‘There’s a social gaming element here much like you’ll find in a real-life travel experience,’ McReady explains. ‘When you’re on the road with very little money, you have to treat each meal like a puzzle. How do you maximize your resources? Your drink for the evening might come from a half bottle of wine left on another table, or you might get a bit of something free by ingratiating yourself to a complete stranger or haggling like you might at a hostel. We encourage this type of intimate engagement with the meal, and most diners leave feeling like they’ve done something vibrant and exciting.’ He smiles, ‘But you have to be fast, leftover wine won’t last long here.’

Frequent Vegabond diner and world traveller Jasmine Toole makes the trek from Hoboken whenever she can beg a ride from a friend. ‘I don’t mind coming up to SoBro for this. The food here isn’t that delicious, sumptuous food you might find at one of the Michelin rated places,’ she says dismissively. ‘It’s more real than that.’

Similar things are afoot at San Francisco’s 4iJ (pronounced ‘forage’), more upscale but with a wry bent. An amuse bouche of truffled cashews and micro-cheese puffs comes sealed in a plastic pouch like you might find in an airplane meal or a gas station market. Starters include creative options like vacuum-packed hand-pulled string cheese, squashed ‘hotel lobby croissant’ crostini with confit of peppered beef jerky, and a fallen-fruit salad that has proven very popular with diners.

Chef de Cuisine Gilbert Lilly explains, ‘Fallen fruit is typically ignored and wasted, but it’s sweeter and more nuanced than perfect-looking fruit that’s picked under-ripe. Once you go bruised, you never go back. As any budget traveler knows, eating from local markets is a cheaper option than going to restaurants, but what’s a better bargain than free fruit from the ground?’

‘It might sound weird to some,’ says Lilly, ‘but think of it like this: if you can’t go to Naples, go to a Neapolitan pizza place. If you can’t backpack around the world scrimping on every meal, come here. Sure it might cost more, but the experience is very authentic.’