Research and development are the cornerstones of opening a new restaurant or keeping an existing concept fresh. Though R&D sounds a lot like R&R, nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s not a vacation,” says chef Leah Cohen (pictured above) of New York City’s Southeast Asian restaurant Pig and Khao. “It’s a lot of work.”
Before she even gets on a plane, she meticulously researches the dishes she wants to sample, restaurants where she would like to dine, cooking classes to attend, and kitchen equipment stores to shop in. Every potential stop is pinned onto a digital map, so she can plan her days most efficiently.
Trips to Asia are an annual event for her and her husband, and previous excursions have included sojourns in Burma, Vietnam, and Malaysia. “We usually stop in the Philippines because we’ve got family there and Thailand because we’ve got friends there,” she says.
This past spring, they traveled to Manila, Bangkok, and Singapore, partially to work on recipes and obtain photographs for her forthcoming cookbook and also to find inspiration for new menu items. “I’ll become obsessed with something I ate,” she says. “When I get back, I’ll research a ton of recipes, pick and choose what I like from each recipe and then make my own recipe.”
The big takeaway from her last trip was Singaporean white pepper lobster, a play on a crab dish at No Signboard Seafood restaurant. “I just kept tasting the sauce and kept asking myself how I could bring it back to my restaurants and put a twist on it,” she says.
For others, these trips can be a way to forge a stronger connection between a restaurant and producers. In the summer of 2016, chef Amy Brandwein of Washington, D.C.’s award-winning Italian restaurant Centrolina brought her general manager and beverage director on a tour of vineyards in northern Italy (pictured above).
Highlights included Ca’del Bosco in Erbusco, which makes a sparkling wine in the Champagne method, and Cleto Chiarli in Emilia Romagna, a small producer known for its Lambrusco. “They rolled out the red carpet for us,” says Brandwein of the latter. “We had a four-hour lunch with these amazing baby tortellini.”
The trip paid off on several levels. Every vineyard they visited is now represented on Centrolina’s wine list and every one of the producers has personally visited the restaurant. “It’s not just that we do a tour and then never see them again,” says Brandwein. “We have relationships with them.”
Sometimes these expeditions are for sourcing authentic aesthetic elements. That’s why co-owners Todd Herbst and Rocco Mangel (pictured above) traveled to Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico a decade ago when they were opening their first location of Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar in West Palm Beach, Florida. In between purchasing light fixtures and décor, they sampled dishes and countless tequilas. “We immersed ourselves in the culture and had a ball,” says Herbst. “We were kids in a candy store.”
Since that eye-opening experience, they’ve gone south of the border more than a dozen times for R&D and to buy decorations for their expanding chain, which is set to open its ninth location in Naples, Florida.
For other operators, R&D trips have a deeper goal. Dan Simons (pictured above), co-owner of Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C. and beyond, as well as the sister concepts Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers and Distillers they are a necessary part of the innovation process. “[Co-owner Mike Vucurevich] and I believe it’s difficult for us to activate the creative side of our brain unless we put ourselves into an inherently foreign environment,” says Simons, who has been on R&D trips to Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, London, Panama, and, most recently, London. “These trips get us out of our operations mode and let the creative side of our brain turn on. I learned a long time ago, I can’t schedule creativity.”
His objective isn’t just to try dishes, see aesthetic elements, and watch service in action, though those are all a part of it. “I’m trying to see through the eyes of the people who live there,” he says. “I’m trying to get inside their heads. I want someone from a different place to teach me how to do things differently, so I’m expanding my ability to think creatively or do things differently.”