Cooking & Eating Well on the Road: 6 Chefs Share Their Top Tips

Few people are better at finding—and eating—great food on the road than chefs

Italy, Palermo, Vucciria, Piazza San Domenico fruit market
Christof Koepsel / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the road, how to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

Few people are better at finding—and eating—great food on the road than chefs. Step into any restaurant kitchen and scrappy cooks will regale you with tales of eating fish drenched in leche de tiger in Peru, downing kicky curries from streetside carts in Bangkok, or cracking open fresh oysters off the Brittany coast. So just how do they do it? We polled more than 40 chefs and food experts on their favorite tips for eating well while traveling, and here are the six hacks that stood out.

"Just Penang it."

Those are the words of wisdom from James Beard award winner Jonathon Sawyer, whose Adorn Bar & Restaurant, opened in Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel in late April. Penang N.31, a pungent spice blend of chili, onion, turmeric, garlic, and more, created by master spice blender Lior Le Sercarz, is a staple when Sawyer travels with his two teenagers.

"Sometimes the dining decisions you make with the family aren’t necessarily the dining options you want for yourself, so bringing a secret weapon can be critical for flavor’s sake," he told TripSavvy. "Hard-boiled eggs with just Penang and salt? Win. Hotel chop salad is average? Add Penang. Curry isn't proper? Just Penang it. Raw oysters? Yes, please, Penang." (It's his restaurant's personal secret to excellent fried chicken and is delicious on instant ramen, too, Sawyer added.)

Embrace Your Leftovers

While it's easy to skip the doggie bag on the road, Tyler Akin, chef-partner of Wilmington, Delaware's Hotel Du Pont's restaurant, Le Cavalier, and chef-owner of Philadelphia's Stock restaurants, will have you looking at leftovers in a new light. "On your first day of travel, go to the best local bakery and pick up a half-dozen rolls," he recommended. "Restaurant portions are always generous, so I like to bring leftovers back to the hotel and turn them into sandwiches the next day or pack one for a better airport meal." (Pro-tip: Add some mini-bar potato chips for a fun crunch.)

Try a Salad Taste-Test

Starting a meal with a bowl of leafy greens is never a bad idea for the obvious nutritional reasons, but for chef Sara Hauman, a competitor on season 18 of "Top Chef," it's a reliable litmus test as to a restaurant's quality. "If the salad contains greens that are not browning, vegetables that are crisp and fresh, and a dressing that is tasty and homemade, you can almost always count on all the other food being just as fresh and delicious," Hauman said.

Avoid the Adjectives

Restaurant menus these days have become figurative dictionaries of culinary buzzwords—farm-raised, hand-harvested, all-natural, and fresh are a few common offenders. And while these might sound like positive traits, shouldn't everything we eat have those qualities? "I see these words as red flags," said chef Harley Peet, executive Chef of Bluepoint Hospitality and its fine dining flagship restaurant, Bas Rouge in Easton, Maryland. Peet, an avid fisherman, explained, "it's like, bringing my attention that these ingredients are as described and makes me second guess it, in a curious kind of way."

Run a Culinary Half-Marathon

While lacing up your running shoes on a vacation might not sound appealing, Ian Rynecki, the executive chef at Virginia's Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard, runs a different kind of marathon on his trips. When traveling with a friend, Rynecki spend some time building a walking map ("The calorie burn is necessary," he explains.) of 13 different places to eat. "Go with a friend, sit at the bar, and share one item with them," Rynecki told TripSavvy. "Walk to the next place, repeat. You will have an unforgettable dining experience." Don't forget to take notes or photos for posterity!

Local Food Isn't National—It's Regional

The top chef secret? Great chefs understand that food isn't just national—it's regional. While eating Thai food in Thailand seems pretty obvious, you're unlikely to find a good khao soi—a northern Thai curry—in Bangkok, for example, explained Luke Charny, the founder of A Chef's Tour, a company which designs and runs street food tours in Asia and Latin America. "Pav bhaji is fantastic in Mumbai but won't be so great in Kolkata," he added. Charny recommends learning a few local specialties of the area you're visiting before you hit the road.