Here, taste this

For all of the obvious bad points about business travel (especially when trade shows are involved), there was one perk, one thread of cultural redemption I'll always cherish; for 6.5 years, I ate some amazing food on someone else's dime. (Fortunately, it was a cash-rich multi-billion dollar corporation.) New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, L.A., Paris, London, Stockholm, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney... in each case, I was allowed to explore the local culinary scene in some detail without going bankrupt in the process.

Uunless your job is actually to be a food reviewer, or you're the V.P. of something, you're unlikely to be given an appropriate budget. Inevitably, I or one of my coworkers, would bump into (or shoot right past at high speed) our allotted $75 a day. Ironically, when I did exceed my "per diem" by, say, $15.00, I received a scolding for it despite the fact that every day for the 5 days prior, the only thing I had eaten all day was a soggy, stale, almost "flavor vacuum" of a sandwich with an over-sized Coke made with unfiltered tap water and a dwindling CO2 tank for $9.00 a day. How much you saved (or tolerated) didn't matter, it was a number. If I was allowed $75 a day, and I only spend $15.00 of it, why couldn't I spend the difference all at once?

One coworker of mine had a great idea - "I think I should be able to eat at least as well as I can in my own house." Seems reasonable, but both he and I are passionate about food and cooking and places that could meet or exceed our own culinary abilities tended to be on the pricey side. In New York, the company paid big money to house us in Times Square (I don't want to stay in Times Square) but I'd rather be much closer to the convention center (where we were often required to be anyway) and spend the difference on food.

About half the time, I'd dine solo and take advantage of having mastered the art of dining "belly-up" dining and sit at the bar. I would venture out armed with anything from years-long, in-depth research to nothing but a strong rumor in search of both sustenance and inspiration. Other times, I was the "designated diner". When you are the one with the strongest opinions about food, you are the one most likely chosen to pick the dining location. In some cases, people I barely knew got wind of my restaurant sherpa abilities and decided to tag along, sometimes by invitation, other times by assumption.

In one such instance in New York, a coworker (and somewhat unseasoned traveler) of mine decided he'd like to tag along... with his girlfriend. Fair enough, not a problem. We all went back to the hotel after work, changed out of our corporate logos-wear, and reconvened in the lobby in various shades and textures of black clothing. (New York can be a bit brutal on white clothing, especially if you take a taxi or the subway anywhere.) Our uninvited but welcome guests showed up in jeans and running shoes (in her case, with the addition of a denim jacket.) I stood there quietly horrified. I'd never even imagined wearing running shoes in New York unless of course I was actually running. I wasn't even sure the restaurant would let us in.*

We arrived at the restaurant, all sat down, menus and a wine list were handed out, and the waiter scurried off for that lag time between sitting and decision making. When he returned, there was a request for a Cosmo, a beer, a Martini (by yours truly), and the girlfriend asked if they had any "white zin".

I rarely have moments in real life when I can actually hear the sound of a needle scraping a record, but this was one of them.

The waiter hesitated for a moment and, I'm quite sure, assumed he'd misunderstood her (despite the fact that there is no other variant of Zinfandel which rhymes with "white"). Though, just in case, his response was gentle and guarded."Excuse me?" She clarified, "White Zinfandel, do you have any White Zinfandel?" Each time she repeated it, a record scratch.

Turns out, he had heard her correctly in the first place. "I don't think we have any." He gave a token, but unconvincing, glance toward the bar as if to survey the wines again to make sure he hadn't missed the first time around. "...but we do have a Tavel rosé. That's (and here's where I could hear the soft, tendony crunching sound of his own tongue being bitten) similar to a white zin." Well, it's the same color anyway.

I had two meals in Hong Kong on consecutive nights; one in a place known for their Peking duck and hand-made noodles, a moderately formal dinner with disconcertingly-low ceilings for my taste. The following night, we ate almost literally on the street; tables and chairs on the sidewalk across the street from the restaurant, lighting provided by bare bulbs suspended from cables overhead. The waitress came across the street, dodging cars to do so, and took our order. As she walked back, she reached into tanks in front of the restaurant I hadn't really noticed previously and, out of each, she retrieved something wiggling and splashing, and proceeded to walk the exceedingly fresh seafood to the back of the restaurant. On plastic plates with plastic knives on a plastic table in plastic chairs, we ate an equally-good, if stylistically different, meal from the night before.

Aside from humorous stories, the biggest benefit to all those business dinners, was knowing what food can be, what it is capable of. It's so important to know what's possible, how high the bar can be set and, ideally, have a target to strive for. I have higher expectations of my own cooking because I've seen what's possible; not just singularly, but consistently across the country and around (at least part) of the world. Food is ultimately not about pretense, or expense, or ingredients, it's about tasting good and allowing you to enjoy the company of others, even if they are coworkers.

* Emeril's in New Orleans once told me they didn't allow jeans in the dining room despite the 5 visibly-empty tables and equally barren reservation book in front of it. I asked where he might suggest I take my expense account, penchant for great wine, and my 5 hungry and thirsty companions. Magically, the rules governing denim we were waved.


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