"I'm, like, Mr. Top Chef," says Chris "CJ" Jacobson. After appearing on every possible iteration of the show, from holiday specials to online series, he ultimately won Top Chef Duels last fall. His prize was a 13-day trip to Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia on Crystal Cruises, where he and his travel companion—his dad—had the chance to study local flavors up close. Jacobson cooks hyper-seasonal New American food at Girasol in Los Angeles, so many of the exotic ingredients he encountered on the trip were novel to him, he says. He rattles off a list of his favorites: "Mangosteen, tomate de árbol, maracuyá, curuba, pitaya, guanabana, cherimoya, feijoa—they were just amazing."
A few experiences stood out during his adventures on shore: exploring mezcal at Mezcal La Reliquia in Huatulco, a city in the Mexican region of Oaxaca ("The cricket and worm salts reminded me of powdered dashi, something I love to season meats with"); peacock bass fishing near Panama City ("We were in the middle of a rain forest with mud-colored water and mud-colored baby crocodiles everywhere. There were monkeys all around us. It was crazy"). Sometimes inspiration struck from above. At El Mangroove resort in Costa Rica, Jacobson reports, "I was walking across the property and something hit me on the head—it was a tamarind pod falling from a tree. Rarely when foraging do ingredients come to you."