Being a chef might look like fun and games on the Food Network, but it’s a grueling gig. The hours are long, it’s hot as hell in the kitchen and you’re on your feet all day. Plus, you’ve got to deal with the occasional mouthy waitperson, oil fires and complaining customers. By the time vacation rolls around, most chefs can’t wait to trade their aprons and Crocs for sunglasses and flip-flops.
No matter where in the world they go, good eats play a role in their travels. Chefs might not be offering to cook anyone dinner—who wants to work on holiday—but they’re more than ready to enjoy childhood favorites, discover regional specialties or dig into comfort food classics.
We checked in with some traveling toques to find out about their itineraries and best bites as they get that much-needed break from the burners.
Destination: Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Mussel Bar, Bethesda
When the 52-year-old chef-restaurateur touches down in California for vacation with his family, they make a beeline for the nearest In-N-Out Burger. He gets his hamburger “Animal Style,” topped with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, extra pickles and special sauce. To commemorate this stop at the patty palace, he picks up a T-shirt. “They’re always changing the design,” he says. “So now I have a huge collection.”
These summer trips to the West Coast are often booked around family reunions, which sometimes take place on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Since part of his family lives in Alaska, they feast on salmon, chili and elk brought in fresh from the last frontier. “I stay out of the kitchen unless I’m asked to taste something,” Wiedmaier says. “I usually tell whoever’s cooking to add more heat.”
Destination: Puerto Rico
The 43-year-old chef-restaurateur was seeking middle ground when he found his ideal vacation destination. “Puerto Rico is the perfect meeting point between the country I come from—Spain—and the country that adopted me,” he says. “I love the island, the cooking and the beautiful, small frogs that sing all night long.”
He enjoys golfing, sailing and scuba diving in this tropical paradise. During one deep-sea expedition 100 feet below the surface to a reef wall, Andrés saw his first sea turtle. “It changed my life,” he says. “It’s very astonishing to see how much life is under the water.”
Back on dry land, he makes time to eat at José Enrique Restaurante in San Juan. “I’ve eaten some of the best lobster dishes there,” Andrés says. “Puerto Rican chefs are becoming some of the best in the world.” That’s high praise from a James Beard-award winner, and yet another reason to book a ticket to the Island of Enchantment pronto.
Destination: Roanne, France
Tout de Sweet, Bethesda
Heading home to Roanne, this talented baker takes off his apron and tucks a napkin into his collar instead. “My mum always cooks a lot of dishes that I used to eat when I was younger,” he says. One of his favorites is her homemade lemon tart, which deftly balances sweetness and acidity, with a dash of love.
When not seated at his parents’ kitchen table, the pastry chef likes dining at Le Relais du Château de la Roche. Nestled on the banks of the Loire River, it has a sweeping view of the historic castle that inspired the restaurant’s name. The 32-year-old Chevy Chase resident always orders the frog legs sautéed in butter and garlic. “I usually eat everything that I can’t get here,” says Colin, who also indulges in the local cheeses and charcuterie.
There’s only one downside to these homecomings. “The last time I was there I put on a few pounds,” he says. “You’re not working; you’re just enjoying life.”
Destination: Niigata, Japan
The last time Homma visited his family in Niigata, his mother shared a long-held family secret: the recipe for noppe jisu soup, which is passed down from generation to generation. After helping her prepare it—along with other favorites—the chef/co-owner of Raku enjoyed what he calls “the best meal I’ve ever had.”
When the 43-year-old isn’t learning how to prepare the dishes he loved as a child, he’s hitting the local markets for fresh produce. He particularly loves chamame soybeans, which are known as the “king of edamame” due to their rich flavor and intoxicating aroma.
There are also tennis ball-size fresh strawberries in the summer. “They’re pricy,” Homma says. “But they’re worth it because they’re so sweet and flavorful.”
When he returns to the States, he brings back some tastes of home, including pickled vegetables, braised kelp with wasabi and spicy kanzuri paste made with chilies and fermented yuzu.