14 Chefs Share Their Craziest Stories of Traveling with Food
From oregano drug busts to black market pizza.
Eric Ripert once bought his oysters a plane seat.
In 2017, the Le Bernardin chef, alongside Craggy Range’s Terry Peabody, threw a memorable Cayman Cookout luncheon at Le Soleil d'Or on Cayman Brac, complete with oysters that tasted as if they’d just been poached in the sea and high-end caviar. Guests devoured the spread without ever questioning how the sea fare was transported to the small, remote island. It was later revealed that Ripert purchased the delicacies a plane seat to ensure a safe arrival in the Caribbean. It’s one thing to serve spectacular food in the comfort of one’s restaurant kitchen; logistics get even trickier when chefs have to travel with ingredients and perishables.
Biscuit Love’s Karl Worley makes his famous gravy in-house, packs it up carefully and travels all over the country with it. At last year’s Euphoria Greenville, he reportedly transported 185 pounds of gravy to the festival—and two weeks later, flew with two whole pigs (head and all) to California.
“It’s always fun to see the faces of the airline employees when I check bags,” he says. Sometimes, though, sticky situations arise. Last spring, on the way to the James Beard House from Concord, Massachusetts, the Woods Hill Table team found themselves stuck in a traffic jam by way of a fallen tree on the highway—with copious amounts of ice cream in the back seat. While the ice cream made it safely in the end, the team frantically took turns dumping ice on it in while standing still. Bottom line, next time you’re stuffing face at a festival alongside your favorite chef, we strongly suggest giving them a well-deserved high five (or a strong cocktail to calm the nerves)—they’ve earned it.
Here, fourteen chefs divulge their craziest stories of traveling near and far with everything from from giant subs hanging out of the top of a Jeep to rotten cabbage arriving at baggage claim.
A runaway ham
“The team’s very first event out of town was a debacle. We got to the airport with boxes in tow, not knowing we had messed the whole thing up. For starters we had our food in boxes that were barely held together in non-compliant shapes, so we had to rush back to the restaurant to get coolers. A few of us missed the first flight that day. For the boxes that were allowed to go we got to witness, along with everyone on our flight, ingredients rolling down the luggage retrieval at our final destination later that day. Nothing says quality quite like a Berger ham rolling down the ramp. After lots of extra money spent, we learned very quickly that traveling with food is a much more complicated task than it seems.” –Chef Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker
“Last year for Charleston Wine + Food, we cooked a couple hundred pounds of amberjack for an event. We picked up whole fresh-caught fish in Beaufort, North Carolina, from our friends at Blue Ocean market, iced them down and drove nearly 300 miles south to Charleston to find that our rental house for the weekend was on the third floor of an old building with steep, uneven stairs and no elevator. We had to haul four heavy coolers of fish up to the apartment and break them down in the tiny kitchen. When the cleaning lady came the next day, after we had successfully finished grilling all the fish at the event, she thought we had murdered something because of all the bones laying around and the bloodstains on the countertop!” –Jamie DeMent of Coon Rock Farm and author of The Farmhouse Chef (Hillsborough, North Carolina)
Midnight Express chocolates
“I was going to do a guest chef dinner on a very small cruise line, and I had packed the ingredients to make chocolates on board. I was landing in Greece and then suddenly remembered the movie Midnight Express—and that I had to two kilos of vacuum-packed white powder with me that I had to go through international customs with. It was just tapioca and potato starch, but I couldn’t help thinking I didn’t want to meet Lars in prison, so I was freaking out a little. Luckily, when I got off the plane, I didn't have to go through customs or security because there was someone from the cruise line to walk me through, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe I should've thought of making something else! – Chef Christopher Gross of Wrigley Mansion (Phoenix)
Oregano drug bust
“When I visit my cousins in Sicily, I often walk through their village and collect the wild oregano that grows in the fields near their home. Since I use so much oregano at my restaurants for my marinara sauce, I decided one time to pack up a whole suitcase of oregano in individual brick sized plastic bags and bring it with me back to Naples. Oregano sealed up tight this way looks a lot like ‘Square Groupers,’ South Florida’s code name for drugs dropped in the Everglades from Colombia during the late 1970— and I was quickly stopped in the Sicilian airport at gunpoint by military personnel as security ripped through my packages. They eventually realized their mistake and let me through security, but since then I’ve preferred to ship, though not once have the bags of oregano made it to me in Naples.” – Chef Vincenzo Betulia of Osteria Tulia, Bar Tulia and The French (Naples, Florida)
Exploded kimchi at baggage claim
"This goes back to the early days of Animal. We were going to Sundance Film Festival—we prepped everything before leaving Los Angeles like we always did. We needed to bring our house-made kimchi that went with a pork belly dish, so we decided to Cryovac the kimchi. We loaded it into a Styrofoam box that had cardboard on the outside thinking they would be fine. We got to the airport, checked our bags and boxes and off we went. While waiting for our stuff to arrive at baggage claim, a foul odor started to linger in the air. When our box made its way down the carousal, the odor got worse. Of course, we opened the box right there to see what happened and the bag had somehow exploded—everyone around us was gagging and holding their shirts over their noses.” -Chef Frank Anderson of The Rez Grill (Tampa)
Driving with wedding cakes
"More than once, I've found myself driving one handed while trying to balance a tiered wedding cake and following GPS directions. One delivery sent me out on country roads with limited cell service and an abundance of gravel roads. Thankfully, the cake was safely delivered, but there were some close calls along the way." – Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakeshop (Washington, D.C.)
Post-It notes and money bribes
“I flew to New York City to cook a dinner at The James Beard House with a group of chefs representing Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. I had made ten pounds of pickled kumquats, which I had wrapped at least 100 times to avoid them bursting in flight and ruining everything in my suitcase. I wrote five notes and stuck them on every package, explaining the contents to TSA and begging them not to open the kumquats. I also stuck a $20 bill on each of the tubs. I arrived in New York City with a note that TSA had indeed inspected the bag, but the kumquats and the money were still intact.” – Chef Kathleen Blake of The Rusty Spoon (Orlando)
Black market pizza
"Being a native New Yorker, I travel to and from New York often to visit family. During one visit, I was tasked by my mother to bring back some New York pizza because, of course, it’s the best in the country. I carefully wrapped it in the brown bag it came in and put it in a large gallon Ziploc bag, situated inside a small cooler and brought it as my carry-on item. When going through security, the authorities opened the cooler and accused me of trying to transport organs (as in, human organs!). I had to explain to them what I was doing, and they let me go. They did confiscate my pizza and my cooler, so I ended up telling my mom she will have to come to New York with me next time and that pizza was on me.” — Chef Amanda Colello of Fiore Steakhouse at Harrah’s Resort Southern California
Giant sandwiches hanging out of a Jeep
“One summer in Washington, D.C., we had an event at the Smithsonian Zoo and had to transport two 6-foot sandwiches across the city. The only car that was available at that time was a convertible Jeep. So here we are driving down Pennsylvania Ave, cruising past the White House, holding two giant sandwiches on top of a Jeep. Quite a sight to see and a lot of tourists were taking pictures! I’ve never gripped a sandwich tighter. We were lucky to make it safe and sound to the event and it was the most talked about item.” – Executive Chef Sean Blomgren of Stowe Mountain Lodge (Stowe, Vermont)
A bee swarm
“Early in my career I booked a catering job at a destination wedding in Palm Springs. We didn’t have much in the way of proper transport vehicles to get all our food, kitchen utensils and team to the venue so we rented a U-Haul, packed up all the food and hit the road. When we got there and opened the rear door, the food had tipped over inside the truck and bees immediately swarmed the truck and the spilled honeycomb from the bride and groom’s charcuterie board."—Chef Brandon Sloan of Provisional Kitchen Cafe & Mercantile at The Pendry (San Diego)
A Neapolitan ice cream air freshener
"What does 'busy season' look like for a pastry chef? Picture 72 gallons of ice cream base. When our ice cream machine was out of order at the restaurant, I loaded my little toy car up and trekked to the nearest resort— 40 miles away up the windy hills and dirt roads to Sundance Resort in Utah. With a puddle of strawberry sherbet soaked through the trunk mat, mint chocolate stained back seats and half a smile on my face, I was able to spin and freeze the ice cream there. Although I envisioned my childhood dreams of owning and operating an ice cream truck going a bit differently, my car smelled like Neapolitan for a week, so I’ll count it as a win." – Pastry Chef Callie Varner of Washington School House (Park City, Utah)
Two grumpy dogs and Lion’s Mane mushrooms
“While Lion’s Mane mushrooms can and are cultivated commercially, I foraged them in the months leading up to Charleston Wine + Food Festival. I stored them in coolers, rotating containers and towels daily to keep them as pristine as possible. Traveling down to the festival with them was a trick, as I didn't want to pack them in the trunk of my truck and risk them being jostled and my backseat was taken over by our two dogs. We fashioned a little barrier in the backseat out of tomato boxes to keep the dogs on one side and the mushrooms on the other. By the end of the 4-hour drive I had two grumpy dogs, beautiful mushrooms and the knowledge that my truck might never smell the same way again. Luckily it was well worth it to see the looks on people's faces as I told them the mushrooms can help grow back brain cells.” - Chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom (Charlotte)
Locker room superstitions
"During Blackhawks, Cubs and White Sox seasons in Chicago, I'll deliver whole smoked animals (like pigs, goat legs, boars and salmon) to the locker rooms where the players enjoy pulled pork sandwiches, snacks, and other dishes. One of my favorite deliveries has been for the Chicago Cubs, because, ironically, we brought the team a whole goat leg. I'm a believer in superstitions, and for over 70 years the Cubs hadn’t been in the World Series. Not to say my cooking is magic, but maybe the Frontier goat leg ended the ‘Curse of the Billy Goat.’" –Chef Brian Jupiter of Frontier (Chicago)
Thousands of dollars in damages
“We were fortunate to be invited to cook at the James Beard House for the very first time, not once, but twice in one week. So naturally, we wanted to come prepared. We decided we should pack everything—I mean everything we would need for the dinners—from sous vide sauces to house-made sausages to bottles wine in our suitcases. When we checked in at the airport, our luggage was too heavy to make it on the plane and our only option was to buy more luggage at the airport to fit everything in, and boy did we—to the tune of $1,000 in extra luggage at the airport to fit all our ingredients. When we arrived in New York we opened one of our bags to find 90% of the wine we packed had broken in-transit, all over our new luggage. Needless to say we had to have our restaurant manager in San Diego overnight two cases of wine to the Beard House for our dinner. Luckily both were a success!” —Executive Chef Brian Redzikowski of Kettner Exchange and The Grass Skirt (San Diego)