Food poisoning! What to watch out for in 2012

food poisoningFor many people–myself included–one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is experiencing how other cultures eat. Even if you’re only traveling as far as the other end of the state, chances are there’s a regional specialty, street food, farmers market, or restaurant that’s a destination in its own right.

Sometimes, however, the pickings are slim, or no matter how delicious the food, the odds are just stacked against you. As Anthony Bourdain put it on a recent episode of his new series, The Layover, “…if there’s not a 50-percent chance of diarrhea, it’s not worth eating.”

Gross, perhaps, but gluttonous travelers know there’s truth in those words. Bourdain happened to be referring to a late-night drunk binge at one of Amsterdam‘s infamous FEBO fast food automats (above), so with that in mind, I present this photographic homage to the things we eat on the road, despite knowing better. Walk softly, and carry a big bottle of Imodium

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[Photo credit: Flickr user .waldec]

Airlines offer in-flight menu items at food trucks, pop-ups

airline food trucksIn a marketing move best described as “ironic,” a handful of airlines are now offering land-bound folk a taste of the finest of what they serve in the air. The New York Times reports that Air France, Austrian Airlines, Southwest, and Delta are trying to lure potential passengers by tempting them with samples of in-flight meals “from” celebrity-chefs.

The modus operandi are primarily roving food trucks and pop-up restaurants in cities from New York to Denver (there are also some permanent vendor spots at various sports stadiums). In Washington, passerby were offered European coffee and guglhupf, a type of cake. In Manhattan, crowds lined up for a taste of buckwheat crepes with ham, mushrooms, and Mornay sauce, or duck confit.

I get it. Airline food sucks. Time for an image makeover. But isn’t the airline industry so financially strapped that we’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels during a cross-country flight? And just because reknown chefs like Joël Robuchon, Tom Colicchio and Michelle Bernstein act as consultants for airlines and design their menus, that doesn’t mean it’s their food you’re eating on the JFK-to-Paris red-eye.

Most ludicrous, however, is the notion that there’s any basis for comparison against fresh ingredients and made-to-order food versus even the best institutionally-prepared airline crap. I’ve had a couple of decent meals designed by well-regarded chefs when I’ve been lucky enough to fly business class, but in the grand scheme of things, they were still made from flash-frozen, sub-par ingredients whose origins I’d rather not ponder. And if food truck crews are merely nuking actual airline food, then how are they any different from the corner deli with a microwave?

I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find it interesting that airlines are hopping on two of the hottest culinary trends of the new century–ones largely based upon local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. Yet by all accounts (to hear airline reps tell it), the plane campaign has been wildly successful. Of course. Who doesn’t love free food?airline food trucksRaymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, cites social media as the gateway to this type of “experiential marketing.” “As people are bombarded with marketing messages,” he explains, “real-life interaction with products and brands has become increasingly valuable for airlines to get their message across.”

Valid point, and there’s no doubt this is a clever scheme. But truth in advertising is what wins consumers. What a catering company can pull off on-site is a hell of a lot different from what you’ll be ingesting in the friendly skies. If airlines want to use food to entice new passengers, they need to start by sourcing ingredients in a more responsible, sustainable manner, rather than supporting ecologically detrimental produce, meat, and poultry (talk about carbon offsets). I realize that’s not financially feasible at this time, but supposedly, neither are in-flight meals. As for making it taste good? You got me.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OpalMirror]

Pop-up restaurants: dining for a new decade

pop-up restaurantsFirst, it was underground supper clubs. Now, everything’s coming up pop-ups. As with food trucks, this form of guerrilla cheffing borne of economic need has become a global phenomenon. Equal parts dinner party and dinner theater, a pop-up refers to a dining establishment that is open anywhere from one to several nights, usually in an existing restaurant or other commercial food establishment.

The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and little food cost and labor. They’re not enough to sustain chefs financially, but are instead a great way for them to make a name for themselves and draw some income in between (or during) gigs. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch themselves, stylistically or ethnically, although some prefer to let local ingredients shine. Most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place.

I first heard about pop-ups while couch-surfing in San Francisco two years ago (my own pop-up form of survival after relocating back to the West Coast from Colorado). Chef Anthony Myint, the brainchild behind SF’s Mission Street Food pop-up, which started in 2008, was serving much-lauded, locally-sourced dinners Thursday nights, each time with the help of a guest chef. The food was unpredictable with regard to cuisine or style. The location? Lung Shan, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in the city’s vibrant Mission District (FYI, my favorite place for great, usually cheap, eats). I remember thinking at the time, “More, please.”pop-up restaurantsFast-forward 24 months, and while the pop-up is no more, the venture was so successful, Myint is now co-owner of San Francisco’s popular Commonwealth, as well as newly minted (har) chef at the forthcoming Mission Bowling Club. And Joshua Skenes of Saison, one of Food & Wine magazine’s newly crowned Best New Chefs, started the restaurant as a pop-up.

San Francisco has long been an incubator for innovative ideas involving food, so it’s no surprise pop-ups are, ah, popular there (click here for a recent round-up). Meanwhile, fellow 2011 Best New Chef Jason Franey, of Seattle’s Canlis, has also been getting in on the pop-up. In February, he cooked a one-night gig at “Hearth & Home,” held at one of the city’s Macrina Bakery locations (another tip: if you’re in town, visit Macrina in its own right. Four words: chocolate-orange pound cake).

The pop-up trend–which now applies to boutiques, galleries, clubs, coffee houses, and bars–has gone national. Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Miami: all popular for restaurant pop-ups. Oakland has seen phenomenal response to its Pop-up General Store, which features a twice-monthly gathering of food vendors held at a catering kitchen. Founded by former Chez Panisse Chef Christopher Lee and his former sous chef Saimin Nosrat (of Berkeley’s defunct Eccolo), the venue features all the deliciousness you would expect when a group of mostly former Chez Panisse cooks and food artisans get together and prepare things to eat.
pop-up restaurants
Pop-ups are even crossing the pond. The New York Times reports that, starting today, Singapore is sending some of its top chefs and a pop-up kitchen on a yearlong trip around the world, with nine stops planned in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, Sydney, and Dubai. Dubbed Singapore Takeout, the goal is to showcase the city’s eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine. The kitchen is a converted 20-by-eight-foot shipping container. Also hitting the road is chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se. He’ll be featured in a ten-day pop-up at Harrods, London later this summer.

Tip: Due to the nature of pop-ups, the best way to find them is to Google the words, “pop-up restaurant, ____ (city).” You can also go to Pop up Restaurants for news. Get popping!