Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Traveling for a living

How romantic that lifestyle must be, your plane descending early every week into a different city’s sky line. New people to meet, perhaps even a new culture. Just stepping out of the airport must bring a renewed energy for exploration. Well, that is every bit true. For just about a month. Then the realities of the pill that you swallowed begin to set in. You don’t really meet new friends in a couple of days, do you? Well, sometimes. Being on the road about 42 weeks a year is my life. I often tell folks that I weekend in Florida (where the actual house and family are). It is an interesting lifestyle to say the least.

Like any job, no matter how much you love it (and I do), there are things you find negative. Even though you and I might struggle to comprehend this, I bet if you asked Bill Gates or Donald Trump what the negatives of their jobs were, they’d be able to point a few things out. So I can too.

First, the most obvious drawback to the sojourner lifestyle is being away from the family. They’re missed. I only live with one of five kids (the whole non-nuclear family thing) but she’s about to turn four and I hate not being under the same roof with her every night. Olivia is remarkable, at least to me (and EVERYONE ELSE SHE’S EVER MET!!!!). She really does light up a room with her personality. I have seen her be shy, but for the most part, she’s anything but. I think she clearly understands that her big eyes and innocent smile can get her what she wants (most of the time). But I digress. No matter how ornate a hotel lobby is, it pales in comparison to my daughter’s bedroom. Next is the hassle of travel. I’m not going to elaborate too much because it’s a beaten dead horse in the media. Suffice to say that travel days are very long days, even if the actual flight time is only a couple of hours. Combine that with working half days on most travel days and doing that twice a week and it’s a bit taxing.

Having said that, I do like traveling. I do enjoy new places. I do occasionally meet and make new friends. And frankly, I love my work. Primarily though, and you knew it would come down to this, I love the food. Finding where the locals go and exploring regional favorites is what fuels the weekly trek through the terminal. It’s common for me ask the indigenous, “If there was just one place in town I have to try, where would that be?” I have received spectacular answers with a rare dud. I’ve learned a few key points along the way as well. Tips, if you will, for those who don’t get to a new city weekly. Now while these points may sound like common sense tips, you might be surprised to find that many travelers don’t follow these simple philosophies.

If you’re looking for the best food:

*Leave the hotel- I am amazed at my traveling colleagues. They get to a new town and order room service. First of all room service is ridiculously priced and should be reserved for a rare “convenience factor” meal. If you want to spend 30 something dollars on a piece of salmon, go to a nice restaurant and order THEIR salmon. Send me a check for the difference. I should net about 18 bucks. Just email me for my address.
*Ask the locals- The best way to find the best food is to ask the natives. Who would know better, right? This does come with a small caveat. Note how long this native has been native and how old they are. Nothing against the youthful (I miss those days) but I recall asking a high schooler at the front desk where to find the best steak in town (I was in Omaha, NE if I recall) and she said her favorite was the Outback across the street. OK I like Outback just fine but I had something less “chain-ish” in mind. Also be prepared for a mixed bag of answers, I recall sparking a fierce debate in the lobby of the Memphis Peabody. After asking the “If there’s one place…” question, I thought these two locals were going to come to blows over Rendezvous BBQ and Neeley’s BBQ. I had both and found them both to be fantastic.
*Avoid the overpriced tourist areas- Most of the time there is no need for this. Refer to "Ask the locals". EXCEPTION- Orlando. The best restaurants ARE the tourist areas since Orlando is dedicated to tourists. International Drive has some of the best Sushi between there and Nobu in Manhattan (I could dedicate an entire writing to Nobu). I also enjoy the offerings in Universal Studio’s City Walk area (Emeril’s is great there). Even having said this, there are plenty of non-tourist driven restaurants in Orlando- I like those of Winter Park.
*A steakhouse is a steakhouse is a steakhouse- What I mean to say is take advantage of where you are and what they are known for. In Chicago, I think of deep dish pizza. Now, Gino and Giorgetti’s is a great steakhouse in Chicago, but I can get a great steak in MANY cities and often pay far less. So, if you’re in Napa Valley, take advantage of the local organic food stops. On the California coast, find great seafood or the Asian fusion. In my neighborhood, get the Stone Crabs in season (October to May). Stone Crabs are just beneath lobster on my personal hierarchy of best seafood ever created. And if you go to Maryland without eating a crab cake, you better have a good excuse (such as your allergy to shellfish will cause you to stop breathing in 4 milliseconds).
*Internet, Internet, Internet!!!!- Just type into your search engine, “Where to eat in Phoenix”. You are now just a few clicks away from some amazing southwestern cuisine. Often, when searching for places to eat, I find the links to the individual restaurant web sites. This will almost always lead to a menu. Now, I know what’s for dinner before I even go. I do this in every city I go to for the first time. ALWAYS!!!! WITHOUT FAIL!!!! It works.
*The Rags- I’m not sure this should count but I have to give honorable mention to Bon Appetit and Gourmet Magazines. In fact, they have recommended my favorite meals (such as Slanted Door in the San Francisco Ferry building). The problem with these references is that they tend to focus on the food cities. This makes sense to me but if your not traveling to New York, San Francisco, Boston or LA, you’ll be lucky to pick up the issues that features a restaurant at your destination.

So traveling is a several things to me. It’s work. It’s a pain. It’s tiring. It’s disorienting. It is also a privilege that I love. I have to come to grips with the idea that at some point all of this fun will end, but for now, I savor the next town and drink of the idea that I will find the next great meal right around the corner.

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