How a Trip Across the World Got Me Out of My Cooking Rut

Always take the cooking class and other food lessons from a trip to Bali.

High-end BBQ at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay

Four Seasons Resorts Bali

Thirty-nine hours into my journey to Bali, I just plain lost it. Between long layovers, delayed connections, and rescheduled flights, I was well into my second day of traveling from Philadelphia to Indonesia, and I had nothing left.

The tears began streaming somewhere over the Australian Outback, as I watched the setting sun transform the rippling landscape forty-thousand feet below from rust-toned to nighttime gray. I’m not a cryer, but between the exhaustion from the still-unfolding journey and the treadmill of a schedule I’d been on since my first book published a few months before, my brain just seemed to melt. I covered my face as nonchalantly as possible so that the guy next to me didn’t see the blubbering mess I’d become. A few minutes later I managed to gather myself, wiping away the juices that had collected in the space between my nose and upper lip, and glanced over furtively to my right.

My seatmate was reading a book called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. I burst out in laughter at this none-too-subtle message from the universe.

Like many of us, some of my most spiritual moments have come at the dinner table. Yet I’d recently found myself in a rut. I prepare most of the meals in our home, and have always taken great pride in my ability to both plan a solid menu for the family each week and to occasionally transform a few about-to-die ingredients from the fridge into something delicious. When I do that, our daughters refer to the feat as “Top Chef-ing dinner.” It’s the highest compliment they can offer.

But for most of the fall and early winter, my food had been … meh. Dinners were repeated with greater frequency than they should have: My pastas had grown passé and Taco Tuesday had lost its luster sometime around Halloween. Seasoning was off. Breakfasts were tepid, carb-centric affairs.

A week in Bali changed that, and reminded me that sometimes, you have to travel somewhere new — in this case, to the other side of the planet — in order to re-discover whatever had been missing at the core of yourself. Or, in my case, at what had been missing in my relationship with the food I was preparing and eating.

Breakfast at Taman Wantilan at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay

Four Seasons Resorts Bali

After waking up the next morning at five o’clock (thanks, jet lag!), doing some yoga on the patio of my villa at the gorgeous Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, and answering the dozens of emails that had come in while I slept (thanks, time-zone differences!), I headed over to breakfast at Taman Wantilan, the expansive, airy restaurant where my food reawakening began as soon as I sat down.

Cooled by the breeze drifting in from the water, Taman Wantilan is one of four fantastic restaurants on the property, each one specializing in a different type of cuisine: This one is pan-Asian and Western; Sundara focuses on barbecue; Jala is Balinese (and also home to a terrific cooking academy); and Alu pulls influences from around the world.

And while there were postcard-perfect pastries and plenty of familiar American options, I decided as soon as I sat down that I wouldn’t focus on that during my stay — either there, or at the other property I visited in Bali, the transporting Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan. That’s the one where the Obamas famously stayed and where, after returning from a white-water rafting excursion, the ex-president apparently proclaimed to the stunned guests enjoying breakfast that they had to get out on the water themselves. (I did that trip, and he was right: It was a phenomenal way to experience the local landscape up-close.)

So it was lawar kacang for me that first morning, the vivid snap of long beans serving as counterpoints to the subtle sweetness of coconut, all of it tied together with impossibly moist ground meat. It was ridiculously tender kailan — Chinese broccoli — fried in a wok. It was the lineup of every sambal on offer, the petite serving dishes lined up across my table like a tiny, spicy-savory caravan. It was a fantastic version of khao soi, the hearty soup that I swooned over during a visit to Chiang Rai, Thailand, a decade ago.

Cooking class at Jala Cooking Academy at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay

Four Seasons Resorts Bali

In other words, the breakfast was nothing like what I had eaten at home … well, ever. And over the course of my time in Bali, every meal seemed to force me to re-think not just what I’d been cooking and eating with my family, but also how I looked at the ingredients themselves.

Fish, for example, had become so hemmed in at home as to generally fall into two categories of preparation in our suburban Philly kitchen: pan-roasted (usually salmon, and usually with some sort of herbed yogurt sauce) or fried (usually cod or catfish, and as often as not accompanied by roasted potatoes and some sort of aioli, fish-and-chips style). Yet experiencing how easy it was to make, for example, pepes ikan kakap (grilled, banana-leaf-wrapped red snapper) at the Jala Cooking Academy, forced me to ask myself why I’d fallen into that particular rut back home.

Even barbecue — I’m a passionate smoker of meat — went in directions I hadn’t considered: Smoked Balinese pork martabak walked a perfect tightrope between savory, tangy, and earthy, and elegant roasted scallops found perfectly crunchy counterpoints of crispy rice and jicama. Varying up my diet at home wouldn’t take more effort, just a willingness to change calcified habits.

At the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan, located a bit more than an hour’s drive north and close to vibrant downtown Ubud, I realized that though my home kitchen doesn’t look out on any view even approximating the one there — the white noise of the Ayung River nearby, the birds calling from the impossibly verdant canopy above — I would still be able to whip up a shockingly quick and delicious batch of beef satay and homemade sambal and peanut sauce, as I did during a cooking class at Sokasi restaurant. (I also attended a fantastic cooking class at the Jala Cooking Academy, at the Jimbaran Bay property, which began with a trip to the Jimbaran Fish Market and ended with a feast that I couldn’t quite believe I‘d helped prepare. Talk about confidence-building!)

Drinks from Sundara at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay

Four Seasons Resorts Bali

Even our daughters have benefited in unexpected ways since I’ve returned home and answered their many (many!) questions about the food and drink. Our younger one, for example, is passionate about mixing mocktails before dinner for her and her sister. After seeing my photos and videos of how the team at Telu, the zero-waste cocktail bar at Jimbaran Bay, utilizes the herbs they pick from their extensive garden, she has expanded the flavor profiles of her drinks. Now, cilantro and basil are buzzed into them; turmeric root is muddled to extract its oils; ginger (both raw and powdered) zip through her lime-seamed seltzers. Occasionally, my wife and I pair them with dinner instead of popping a bottle of wine.

One day, toward the end of my time in Bali, I took a taxi into Denpasar and ended up having lunch with the driver at Nasi Ayam Kedewatan Ibu Mangku, where the nasi kampur (imagine the chicken and rice of your dreams, and then double the pleasure you expect) reminded me how terrific that humble bird can be: The vaguely smoky richness of the hacked pieces of chicken danced alongside the vibrant and somehow earthy lawar ayam salad.

That happened throughout my time in Bali, and whether it was the low-and-slow whole pig, the skin burnished and shatteringly crisp, at the chef’s table dinner at Sokasi, or the deceptively complex dosas and noodles and sambal-crowned rice for breakfast, I left Bali with a refreshed sense of how the food I cook for my family could taste … and how, really, it can be conceived of.

Lobby at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay

Four Seasons Resorts Bali

Don’t get me wrong: We still tuck into burger night with abandon, and baked ziti is still on regular rotation. So, for that matter, are fish and chips in the evening and bagels in the morning. Taco Tuesday isn’t going anywhere. But they’re now more frequently interspersed with snapper cooked in parchment paper (fresh banana leaf is not so readily available in these suburbs) and dragged through homemade sambal. And breakfast now sometimes features rice and vegetables, as well as a range of chili sauces.

You don’t necessarily have to fly halfway around the world to reset the way you look at food and drink. If doing so is possible, then definitely go for it, but even shorter trips will likely help re-frame your eating life. More than that, actually: Immersing yourself in someplace unfamiliar, and staying at places that are richly tied to the local culture, can have a lasting impact. It absolutely did for me. I’d happily make the trip again without missing a beat. Even if it meant public crying at 40,000 feet.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles