Culinary inspiration from home and away

Andrew McConnell never travels without his set of knives packed in his suitcase. It's not that he's a  magician, well, not in the conventional sense, with some sort of travelling knife-throwing act. He's  a chef, and a leading one at that, who relishes the opportunity to buy local produce as he goes and samples it.

"I view a city through the market so that's where I head," says McConnell, The Age's Good Food Guide 2015 chef of the year. "I love having the option to cook along the way, I knock up lunch especially when in Europe where you have so much exposure to top produce," say the chef who for this reason, prefers to stay in apartments with kitchens rather than in hotels without one

Keen experimenters and seekers of knowledge and inspiration, it's a given that chefs should have a voracious appetite for travel, with the pursuit of a  destination's cuisine often dictating which path will be travelled. 

Visiting places where food is part of a more-pleasurable side of daily life, where it is savoured and shared is something chefs relish. It was, after all,  Ferran Adria, chef of Spain's celebrated though now-defunct elBulli, who once said, "You cannot get an influence from the cuisine of a country if you don't understand it. You've got to study it."

Of course, McConnell is not alone in fresh produce figuring into his journeys abroad. No matter where the destination, chefs go straight to the source after clearing customs. Kylie Kwong, the chef and owner of Sydney's Billy Kwong, like McConnell, invariably heads for the central food marketplace because it is there  that, as a traveller, she can best gain a true heart and soul of the local community.

"Apart from broadening my mind through the discovery of different ingredients, cooking styles and ways of eating," says  Kwong,  "travel also teaches me incredible tolerance and understanding. The Tibetans, for instance have so little materially, yet manage to maintain such a rich and vibrant spiritual life."

Nicky Riemer, chef from Melbourne's Union Dining, says that the first thing she does is to  find a "food source", namely the local market or the best local restaurant or cafe or trattoria. "I plan my sightseeing around where I will eat," she says. "It's annoying to my sister and mother who I travel with a lot, but they love me for it later when I have all our dining sorted!" she  says with a laugh.

But nowadays it's the journey that matters to most chefs. McConnell used to travel to "explore and learn more about cooking and culture. But he now loves the chance to seek  "the big picture", providing him with the inspiration on what to do when he returns home to his restaurants.

He recalls his very first trip overseas - to Penang, Malaysia - a memory that has stayed with him and influenced his cooking. "Penang was mind-blowing, I went by myself in my early 20s, being alone it was challenging but the memories are vivid."

It is there, which the award-winning Australian writer Peter Carey called "that almost perfect island" full of hawker centres offering Chinese, Indian and Malay flavours, that McConnell spent half his time time in restaurants that had been recommended to him and the other half in the island's profusion of art galleries.

Upon arrival in a place Shannon Bennett, of Melbourne's Vue de Monde, likes to take a jog to get his bearings, and never travels without a notebook. The chef, who has penned guides to France and New York, travels once a month on average and has a special fondness for South America. 

"A lot is unknown about the culture of Peru, and Lima in particular, I love the fusion of its cuisine through different influences, it has evolved into something truly unique," he says. Bennett fondly recalls his most vivid travel memory, not in South America, but the day he went diving in the Maldives. "I witnessed 'the cleaning station' where dozens of manta rays line up to have their skin cleaned by small fish, and saw a large ocean reef shark jump the queue!" he says.

But it's not overseas that chefs seek and find inspiration. Riemer likes to keep it local, at least once every six weeks driving somewhere for just an overnight stay to immerse herself in an area and eat and drink locally. High on Riemer's list is the Great Western district, the Bellarine Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Castlemaine and Daylesford, all in Victoria.

Yet the lure of travelling overseas remains irresistible. Of the Australian chefs interviewed by Traveller, Japan was a unanimous favourite. Anthony Bourdain, author of books such as Kitchen Confidential and nowadays the king of the travelling TV chefs, once said, "if I had to eat one city's food for the rest of my life, every day, it would have to be Tokyo, and I think the majority of chefs you ask that question would answer the same way."

McConnell counts Tokyo as his favourite destination, and  Ryan Squires, head chef at Brisbane's acclaimed Esquire restaurant, is planning a return early next year. Martin Benn, head chef of the modern Japanese Sepia, The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015 restaurant of the year, also counts Japan as his favourite food destination.

He says that travelling regularly to Japan has taught him much about food and their culture, with his most vivid travel memory a recent dining experience at Jimbocho Den. "It was whimsical, perfectly executed and absolutely delicious," he says of his meal at the tiny Michelin-starred restaurant tucked in a Tokyo alleyway.

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