Last week, instead of sleeping after a long night of service at Grace in Portland, executive chef Adam Flood found himself up at 2:30 a.m., calling L’Astrance, a restaurant in Paris that has three Michelin stars. L’Astrance takes reservations only by telephone, between 9 and 10 a.m. Paris time.

“I tried calling for 15 minutes,” Flood said, “and all I got was busy signals.”

Flood is planning a two-week trip to France and Italy in May, just before another busy summer restaurant season in Maine begins. He is one of many chefs who take time off in winter and spring, when their dining rooms are not as busy, or are being cleaned or renovated, to travel and taste a little of what the rest of the world has to offer.

The trips satisfy more than just a chef’s appetite for good food, although simply eating a variety of dishes is always a major goal. They also benefit customers because chefs return home filled with new ideas for expanding their menus and ways to make their food more authentic.

Cara Stadler, right, of Tao Yuan and Bao Bao Dumpling House, takes a shanxi noodle-making class in Beijing.

Cara Stadler, right, of Tao Yuan and Bao Bao Dumpling House takes a shanxi noodle-making class in Beijing.

“This will probably influence my menus for years to come,” said Flood, who plans to dine at three restaurants with three Michelin stars while he’s away, spending up to $1,000 on a single meal for himself and his French-speaking girlfriend.

In January, Joshua Amergian tagged along to China with his boss, Cara Stadler, chef/owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland, to not only sample the cuisine he prepares as chef de cuisine at Bao Bao, but to get a better understanding of how Stadler makes some dishes and why she makes them a certain way.


As for Stadler herself, she travels every winter when Tao Yuan closes down for a month to “go explore and keep my mind open.” It’s a good way to see where the classics come from, she said, and to better understand the foundations of a particular cuisine.

“I consider it essential,” she said.

Last year, Stadler traveled to Spain, Italy and France. The year before that, she went to Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. Everywhere she goes, she searches out the best places to eat, from the dining room of an innovative chef to street vendors.

“I’m a super food tourist,” she said. “I spend a lot of my time doing a lot research about where to eat.”

Dave Mallari, owner of Sinful Kitchen and Salty Sally’s in Portland as well as a catering business that specializes in pig roasts, has traveled twice this winter (once in November, once in January) to the famous “Pork Highway” in Puerto Rico. Along the stretch of PR-184, Mallari hoped to gather a little Caribbean influence to add to his pig roasts, which he offers in southern, Hawaiian or Filipino styles.

“It’s basically miles of pig roasters, one after another,” he said.


Bo Byrne, executive chef at Tiqa, traveled with the owners and manager of the restaurant in January to the Middle East, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jericho.

A spice market in Jerusalem's Old City visited by a group from Tiqa in Portland.

A spice market in Jerusalem’s Old City, visited by a group from Tiqa in Portland.

“What we were hoping to do was sample the cuisine and find what we were doing right, what we were doing wrong, what we needed to do to make our cuisine more authentic,” Byrne said.

No matter what their goals, chefs find that winter is the perfect time for travel. Mallari’s catering business, for example, slows way down in winter.

He and a friend visited several pig roasters, including El Rancho Original, the first pig roaster to settle on the Pork Highway, and a beautiful place in the mountains where they had to get help ordering because the staff’s English was limited. Mallari raved about the carne frita, a fried pork shoulder dish in which the pork is marinated, then slow roasted and deep fried.

“There are these little cubes of fat and meat that just melt in your mouth,” he said.

He noted that the mojito marinade used in Puerto Rico is similar to Filipino style, but uses more garlic, orange juice and lime juice to tenderize the meat.


Mallari said not only will he add some of the dishes he discovered to his catering operation this summer, he’ll try to incorporate some at his two restaurants as well.

“There were these ceviche nachos that were just out of this world that would be perfect for Salty Sally’s,” he said.

He’ll add a cilantro creamed corn sauce, used on eggs Benedict, to the menu at the Sinful Kitchen.

A cilantro creamed corn sauce in Puerto Rico may show up on eggs Benedict at Sinful Kitchen in Portland.

A cilantro creamed corn sauce from Puerto Rico may show up on eggs Benedict at Sinful Kitchen in Portland.

Stadler and Amergian traveled for two weeks to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In a Beijing restaurant, they discovered a way to make use of the pulp that’s left after making tofu. (Stadler’s restaurants just recently began making their own tofu.) Yangyou madoufu, which looks something like hummus, is made from scraps of tofu and fried pickled mustard greens, topped with a drizzle of lamb fat and chili oil.

“It’s so delicious,” Stadler said, “and I forgot about it, because it’s been so many years since I’ve been back and I had that specific dish.”


Stadler planned to add that dish to the menu last weekend for the Chinese New Year, along with jianbing, a savory crepe made on the streets of Beijing that she said is sold in New York but not much beyond.

Amergian said his most memorable dishes from the trip were a “straightforward” but “breathtaking” chicken and rice, a roast goose and, from Hong Kong, lightly battered prawns served with fried tea leaves.

“I would never have thought to use tea leaves as part of the dish,” he said. “It was nice and fresh and smoky from the leaves. It was a perfectly balanced dish.”

A tofu skin salad with cucumber, carrots and herbs in China.

A tofu skin salad with cucumber, carrots and herbs in China.

Amergian said all the meals he had on the trip reminded him of homemade comfort food.

“Just looking at the way they paired food, I had a million ideas running through my head,” he said. “I love doing steamed buns, and I was just thinking to myself, ‘How could I turn this into a bun?’ ”

Byrne said he learned several ways to make Tiqa’s menu more authentic. For example, the restaurant now serves a mezze plate with items arranged hot to cold. In the Middle East, the mezze “took over the table,” Byrne said.


“It wasn’t one plate with some stuff on it. It was 12 plates that took up all of the space,” Byrne said. “It was a more communal style of eating that was really fun.”

He also found some dishes he would like to add to his menu, such as maqlubah, which means “upside down,” at a restaurant called Eucalyptus in Jerusalem. The casserole is cooked in layers, with meat or vegetables on the bottom and rice on top, then flipped over for serving.

The trip proved to Byrne that some of Tiqa’s dishes, such as the hummus and the sumac-roasted chicken, are “pretty good.” Byrne said he realizes that just spending a few days in another country doesn’t make a chef an expert on the cuisine. That’s one reason chefs keep traveling from year to year.

Mallari said he hopes to return to Puerto Rico annually and he is considering more travel, to South America and Central America.

Jianbing, a popular street food in China.

Jianbing, a popular street food in China.

Flood, the chef at Grace, is looking forward to spending three days in Paris, a night in Alsace, then on to the Burgundy region and Marseilles.

“I learned how to cook in a French restaurant, so I have the utmost respect for that cuisine,” he said. “It’s pretty much where I started, and so I want to go there and experience it.”


He’ll end with a couple of days in Italy’s Tuscan region.

“I hope that I have no idea what I’m getting into,” Flood said, “and that my mind is going to be blown at every meal that I have.”

Amergian’s advice for chefs who are considering travel is to go for it.

“It’s a great way to see another culture,” he said, “but it’s also a great way to become a better chef and have a better understanding of the food you are making.”

Meredith Goad can be reached at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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