Notes from the Road: What Happens When 8 Chefs Drive an RV Across the Country
This winter, a group of Boston-based chefs piled into an RV and embarked on a cross-country trip to California. The goal: Meet the people that grow the ingredients they love, cook with some of the country’s top chefs at pop-up dinners, gain inspiration and eat—a lot. Documenting the trip is Chris Himmel, Executive Vice President of Himmel Hospitality Group. Along for the ride: HHG Culinary Director Eric Brennan, Harvest Executive Chef Tyler Kinnett, Harvest Executive Pastry Chef Brian Mercury, Grill 23 & Bar and Post 390 Executive Pastry Chef Molly Hanson, Post 390 Chef de Cuisine Nick Deutmeyer, Post 390 Beverage Manager Jason Percival and HHG Beverage Director Brahm Callahan. Here, Himmel’s dispatches from the first leg of the trip from Boston to New Orleans.
In DC, our team was lucky enough to collaborate with one of the truly great restaurant group’s in the country. Chef José Andrés’s Think Food Group was kind enough to extend an invitation to Molly and Brahm to collaborate with TFG Director of Research & Development Chef Rick Billings and TFG Wine Director Andy Myers on a 6-course dessert tasting menu with wine pairings. I think it’s safe to say that our “Himmel Hit’s the Road” cross-country culinary road trip could not have gotten off to a better start. Now off to Louisville and a trip down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail!
Today was a day for drinking, and lots of it. Waking early to grey skies and the sounds of a downpour, we drove over to Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville to check out their brewpub. Working with a 15-barrel system, brewmaster Amelia Pillow brews fun one-offs for the pub. Afterwards we braved the rains to make it over to the main warehouse where the bulk of production for distribution takes place. Greeted by death metal, hanging phalluses, and a bunch of guys in plaid, we felt in good company. After filling up on brunch and beer back at the pub, we headed to Frankfort to see the Buffalo Trace distillery. Like an 1800s version of Emerald City, huge brick buildings line the streets, all connected with a spider web of steam pipes. Very little has changed since the distillery was built over 200 years ago. They build their own spare parts to keep things working since nothing is made to fit their equipment anymore. Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete tour without tasting a bit of it.
We got an early start making our way from Louisville to Madisonville to tour and sample country ham and bacon from one of North America’s most highly regarded smokehouses. Boy did we luck out as owner Allan Benton was on site to greet us and guide us through his pride and joy, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams & Bacon. Allan walked us through the entire process from salting (using a special seasoned rub), to aging, to smoking, and finally followed by yet more aging. Some of their finest country hams are aged for over 26 months and utilize heritage breed pigs such as Berkshire (Allan’s favorite), Red Wattle, Duroc and Tamworth breeds just to name a few. Like kids in a candy store we compiled our wish list of what we’d like to bring with us back on the road to enjoy for ourselves and share with the many lucky guests we’ll be cooking for across the country: thick sliced bacon and handmade sausage for breakfasts in the RV, shaved boneless country ham to sit atop Island Creek Oysters for a dinner in New Orleans, guanciale and a 26-month-aged smoked Berkshire ham leg to hand slice at our “A Table in the Sky” dinner at Alize in Las Vegas.
After a fantastic southern dinner and a few cocktails together as a group the night before at Magnolia, we woke up at 7am. I never wake up at 7am, nor am I built to. When the rooster crows at dawn, I’m trained to shoot said rooster and roast it with a delicious lemon thyme and garlic crust for dinner, not wake up. But here in this place all any of us wanted to do was soak up as much as we possibly could.
We left the hotel at 8 a.m. and headed to the Clemson University food research center for a tour of the facility. There we met Dr. Brian Ward, one of the scientists responsible for reestablishing the rice industry in the U.S. Dr. Ward was a great tour guide and opened our eyes to just how many years and the massive amount of effort it takes to have such a dynamic impact upon our food. We were also honored to meet another scientist, Dr. Shaker, who is about half way into his 12-year journey of developing watermelons resistant to certain types of common vegetable rot. As chefs, we put great effort into cooking and sourcing great ingredients. It’s reassuring that there are professionals out there putting so much thought into each ingredient that we buy.
Next stop was Abundant Seafood, a completely sustainable fishing company outside of Charleston. The owners are Mark and Kerry Marhefka, a charming couple that have been setting the standard for preserving species of fishes and have dedicated their careers to the wellbeing of aquaculture. After purchasing a few beautiful vermillion red snapper caught the night before and loading it into the RV, Mark handed me an incredibly fresh banded rudderfish to cut right there on the dock. He likened it to hamachi. The fish smelled absolutely delicious and had some slight honeydew melon aroma. We made a crudo with some pickled cherry bomb peppers, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. Luckily we ate what we wanted before the pelicans swooped down for a bite of our fish. It doesn’t get fresher than fighting a pelican off with a water hose to protect your crudo.
EMERALD COAST, FL
What a day here on the western coast of Florida! The original idea was to head out on a daylong fishing expedition at the crack of dawn, but terrible weather pushed all the fishermen into shore for the day and marooned us at the dock. Disappointed, we decided to head down to the pier anyway and try to learn what we could, maybe even encourage some insane captain with a death wish to take us out and ignore the ominous waves crashing on the beach right behind us.
We found Greg Abrams Seafood fish processing plant, a tiny tin-clad building right on the water. Inside we found a small retail shop with a glass display case filled with beautiful, fresh seafood caught early that morning. We decided to buy some of this amazing fish and plan an epic dinner on the beach—cooked in the RV.
We took stock of our fish and split up responsibilities. Eric took shell-in rock shrimp and a large conch, Tyler had a beautiful, huge red snapper and I took two spiny lionfish. After a frantic trip to the grocery store we sailed our land yacht down the coast and parked directly on a beautiful white sand beach and got to work. We had a charcoal grill to assemble, food to prep, fish to butcher and wine to drink. After a couple of hours a feast materialized in front of us: Whole grilled red snapper drizzled with chimichurri, roasted Florida rock shrimp and Allan Benton’s guanciale, pan-fried conch with Southern remoulade, lionfish crudo with fresno peppers and local citrus, and dirty rice with andouille and chicken livers. A beautiful sunset complemented a ridiculously luxurious meal in a beautiful setting. What more could one ask for?
Man was it hard to pull ourselves away from the beautiful Emerald Coast of Florida, but New Orleans was calling our name and the lure of the town’s incredible food, cocktails, restaurants and music were all the motivation we needed to make the 280 mile drive to the Big Easy! We headed straight to Purloo Restaurant, located in the newly renovated Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where a few of the chefs would be collaborating with chef/owner Ryan Hughes and his team.
With no time to waste we made the most of our situation aboard the RV and got a jumpstart on prep for the dinner by cleaning the beautiful Gulf Coast shrimp we picked up the day before and making up a batch of Sweet Tea Bourbon to pair with a shrimp crudo. (In retrospect, boiling a pot of sweet tea aboard an RV, barreling down the highway at 75 MPH may not have been the brightest move.) The Purloo team could not have been more friendly or accommodating to us upon our arrival and within no time the chefs were settled and ready to roll for Friday night service.
While the night seemed to go by in the blink of an eye we still had one last piece of business to attend to: Bourbon Street was calling our name! While the details from the rest of our night in New Orleans are admittedly a bit hazy I can tell you that there were definitely oysters, gumbo, turtle soup, speckled trout, boudin, sazeracs, absinthe and possibly a “hand grenade” or two involved in our antics. With full stomachs and feeling good from NOLA’s outstanding cocktail scene we somehow found our way home to enjoy a couple of hours rest before getting back on the road to our next destination, Austin, TX!
Follow the chefs on their journey with the hashtag #HimmelHitsTheRoad on Instagram.