TURNING THE TABLES
Chef Daniel Boulud joined top editors of consumer travel media for a robust discussion about food and travel. His questions to them were on the menu, as well.
By Arnie Weissmann
Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography
Each year, Travel Weekly’s readers hear the opinions of those who sit atop the mastheads of travel-focused media in our annual Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.
These journalists and editors who cover developments in tourism are de facto travel tastemakers. For our 13th annual edition of this gathering, we decided to add a more literal tastemaker, whose influence in global cuisine is undeniable In addition to his restaurants in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Singapore, his recipes have been served at 30,000 feet to Air France passengers and soon will be available on the high seas at specialty restaurants aboard Celebrity Cruises ships. That was chef Daniel Boulud, who joined us at the table at his Cafe Boulud in New York.
A shorter version of the conversation between Boulud and the editors appeared in our April 29 print edition; this expanded, web-only version of the Roundtable includes more of Boulud’s thoughts on specific chefs, restaurants and food preparation, making this, figuratively speaking, a meatier Q&A.
Roundtable veterans Julia Cosgrove of Afar, George Stone of National Geographic Traveler and Bob Guccione Jr. of the website WonderlustTravel.com were joined by Amy Virshup, who has headed the New York Times travel section since October, and Jacqueline Gifford, who was appointed editor in chief of Travel + Leisure in November.
Boulud not only cooked for us; he grilled us. We asked him to come prepared to question the editors about travel media, and we further turned the tables by encouraging the editors to join Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann as interviewers, bringing questions for Boulud and also for one another.
The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Let’s begin with our host. Daniel, as you know, people commit a large part of their travel budget for gastronomy. Some will eat at a Michelin-star restaurant. Others, street food. When you travel, do you plan where you’re going to eat in advance?
Chef Daniel Boulud: It depends where I’m going. I always plan where I’d like to go, and if it’s a difficult reservation, I’ll do that in advance. Going to Tokyo can be a challenge with communications, so either I have a local friend or the hotel make the reservations.
And when it comes to street food, I’ll wait in line. In Japan, I was in a ramen noodle place, and I waited an hour. And that was fine.
Weissmann: Were you recognized?
Boulud: Yes, there were people doing selfies, because, you know, there were also Americans in line.
Weissmann: Was it worth the wait?
Boulud: It was fantastic. Those are places where only four, five or six people can fit in at a time, and you have to wait until the soup is cool to eat it; it’s half an hour just to eat the soup.
Weissmann: In your experience, is a place that’s “hot” really that much better than other good places?
Boulud: It depends. I was traveling in the South and decided to stop in Asheville, N.C., for barbecue. And I had heard about this place and was so excited to have barbecue in the South. But I think I’ve found better barbecue here in New York.
Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: What was the name of that place?
Boulud: 12 Bones. It’s fun, really classic, but maybe they forgot the ribs in the oven too long. I like my ribs juicy and meaty, not too dry. So that was a disappointment. I’m sure they do a very good job; it just happened on that day. And talk about a line, the line was like a mile long.
Weissmann: There are regional differences in barbecue. Do you have a favorite?
Boulud: Carolina. I like the way they finish it with spicy vinegar sauce, and they do pulled pork. It’s delicate. It’s addictive. And it’s not too messy compared to Texas barbecue, where you may need a towel or two to wash yourself after.
Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: Is there a part of the world that you think doesn’t get enough credit for being a rich culinary destination? A place that you think more people should pay attention to?
Boulud: In my country, France, Brittany doesn’t always get a good rap compared to Pays Basque or Mediterranean Provence or Burgundy, but it has amazing seafood along the whole coast, from Mont-Saint-Michel to La Rochelle. And it’s still very wild. I have fond memories of places that were very beautiful and served incredible, simple seafood.
Outside of France, Portland, Maine, has a lot of good chefs. I remember maybe 12, 14 years ago, I went to a restaurant called Hugo’s, and the chef, Robert Evans, was very creative and very avant-garde. It was a small restaurant, very unpretentious.
My fish supplier is from Portland, and the supply there is amazing, from sea urchin to scallops to fish. Damian Sansonetti and his wife, Ilma Lopez, a pastry chef, met in my restaurant and got married, had a kid, moved to Portland and opened a restaurant, Chaval.
In Asia, there are vegetarian restaurants in the temples, very unique. They receive mushrooms wrapped in this wonderful, silk-like paper. They’re white and very firm, and they’ll carve the top of the mushroom as they would abalone, and they’ll braise it like abalone and serve it like abalone, and it has the texture of cooked abalone. Very interesting.
A couple of places in America, like Minneapolis or Nashville, they’re really rising. But to me, it’s Canada. The chefs are very, very talented. And the Quebecois are a little bit more rustic in their approach. Not French, not American, not Canadian, but Quebecois.
Do you give away your secrets every time you write? Sometimes you feel, ‘My God, if I talk about this place, it might never survive.’
CHEF DANIEL BOULUD
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: Where do you think fine dining is headed?
Boulud: The European and American model -- white tablecloth, silverware, proper china, proper glassware -- was important. That experience is civilized and elevated beyond what you may have had at home. At home, you eat on your wood table, but when you go to a restaurant, you want to feel the linen is crisp because you don’t put linen on your table every day.
And when I go to Paris, don’t take anything away from my experience at a George V or at the Plaza Athenee. Don’t give me …
Cosgrove: A wooden table.
Boulud: Yes, a wooden table. I want to enjoy the food and the experience as fine dining.
Today, fine dining can have the energy of the Spanish tapas bar and the refinement of the Japanese sushi counter. It’s about the whole experience. You go to Michel Troisgros' in France today and you have this very modern manor in a very rustic environment, and the combination is fantastic. The tables are sleek, and there is no tablecloth but rather a mat made of very thin cotton paper. Its surface is uneven, but it’s very elegant, very Japanese in its finesse and detail.
It worked. Formality can be deformalized by the attitude of service and the pace. Fine dining will never die but will keep changing and evolving, like fashion. Fine dining will come back to a certain excess and then go away and come back, but not every restaurant should go away from it.
And let me reverse the question: Where do you think fine dining is going?
Cosgrove: I agree it’s cyclical. I think that there will be a return to the opulence of the ’80s, but there will continue to be casual experiences. I was just at Meadowood in Napa Valley and ate at the Charter Oak, which is Chris Kostow’s more casual dining place. I had my two kids with me, and they brought out homemade play dough for my kids to play with.
Amy Virshup, editor of the New York Times travel section: Now that’s fine dining.
Guccione: You have to be good to cook play dough well.
Weissmann: Do you see a rise in what seems to me to be the introduction of theater -- or at least set design -- into fine dining restaurants?
Boulud: Many fine dining restaurants are hiring very high-end architects and designers. That takes care of the theater side of it.
Gifford: Every time I walk into a fine dining restaurant like Daniel, it’s my little night of escapism, and to me, it is theater in a way.
The food has to be extraordinary, but I think it’s just as much about the way you feel, the service and the chef’s vision that extend into every aspect of the restaurant, including decor. When you feel the passion of the people who work at the restaurants and who believe in what the chef is doing, to me that is the most successful part of fine dining.
On another level, I would love it if fine dining restaurants could be social media-free zones.
Guccione: Daniel, what do you consider the most interesting cuisine in the world? Not necessarily the best, but the most interesting?
Boulud: Peruvian. It’s becoming mainstream now. Everybody knows how to make a ceviche. When I saw the open-air markets and the ingredients they have and the food they made with it, I loved it. The ingredients had such a strong connection with local traditions. There was no Whole Foods or things imported from anywhere else.
They also eat a lot of guinea pig, and as a kid I always had guinea pigs as pets, so it wasn’t my thing.
I went to Japan with Nobu [Matsuhisa, a chef known for Peruvian-influenced Japanese cuisine], and we went to Sado Island, off the west coast. The seafood is abundant, and the chef at the sushi bar we went to was 70 years old, maybe, but so passionate still! I’ve never had abalone so big and live crabs and live fish and live shellfish. It was a super experience, because, again, the proximity of the ingredients permits direct transformation.
Weissmann: Do you travel with other chefs frequently?
Boulud: Sometimes. I want Eric Ripert [of Le Bernardin in New York] to take me to Tibet. He’s a Buddhist, and he goes there once in a while.
Guccione: How are you going to cook on a cruise ship and keep up the quality and the elegance when you can’t exactly zip out to a market for fresh herbs?
Boulud: A cruise ship is in the same situation as a hotel in Vegas or Miami, where they have a limitation on what’s grown locally. We’ll work closely to develop recipes that have some possibility to adapt but not shift away too much.
I want to do a tasting menu composed of, let’s say, four or five courses. And those courses will be tested to make sure that seasonality, supply, works well. The consistency and theme will be inspired by Cafe Boulud, which is more French-American than French.
For Cafe Boulud, I created four menus, inspired by La Tradition, the French traditional cuisine; La Saison, because I always cook following the season; Le Potager, because for 20 years I have felt that having a vegetarian meal on our menu is important; and Le Voyage, which goes back to the cruise. It can be a region of France, of Europe, a country, a cuisine. Sometimes they might mix. It might be Southeast Asia and Indian together.
When you travel, you want to have a little bit of exoticism in the cuisine, and also, a lot of the chefs on the ship are from many parts of the world, from Asia, the Nordic countries, the Southern Hemisphere, a lot of Europeans. I think they will adapt well to a little eclecticism.
When I was on the Celebrity Edge, I went to the buffet and met two Indian chefs. They had prepared their home recipes for curry for the buffet. For me, it was perfect, tasty and delicious. I was very happy. I felt confident, seeing the array of ingredients and the quality at the buffet.
Weissmann: You once partnered with Air France. Other chefs have told me that when they prepare menus for flights, they must take into account the dryness of a cabin. They had to add extra salt to make the food more palatable. Is there any condition on a cruise ship that you must compensate for? And what are the technical limitations of working on a cruise ship?
Boulud: There are limitations. For instance, you can’t cook a steak on a wood fire. You have to establish recipes for which supplies can be guaranteed. Ingredients have a certain shelf life, and keeping their freshness is key. But cruise lines have very high control of everything they buy, everything they serve. There’s more risk grabbing a soup or sandwich on Lexington Avenue than there is having a meal on a cruise ship. I feel confident about that.
I want the meals to contrast with other restaurants on the ship. For most restaurants, because they are included in the price, portion control is very important. When you have 2,500 or 3,000 people on a ship, there will always be 500 who don’t mind paying more to have a bigger suite, different food. You shouldn’t neglect anyone, but at the same time, there can be a different approach to the menu. In a restaurant where you pay extra, we will try to give value, and it’s not portion controlled the same way. I think it opens a lot of possibilities for people who will pay a premium.
Weissmann: Was there a back story to why you chose Celebrity? I would imagine you may have been approached by other cruise lines.
Boulud: I was approached by another company before, and I turned it down. But my relationship with Neil Gallagher, Celebrity’s associate vice president of food and beverage operations, made me more confident. Neil worked with me for two years as a sous-chef. We’ve known each other for 20 years. And he begged. He begged.
Guccione: Begging works.
Boulud: Yes, but I saw also the impact he’d had on his company. He has really helped the fleet do a better job with their culinary program. So, after so many years of begging, I said, “OK, Neil, let’s do it.”
George Stone, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler: My question is about Washington, D.C. Ten years ago, we met very briefly when you hosted a dinner around the inauguration of President Obama. If you were to prepare a meal for the sitting president, what would you prepare, and what would you mean by it?
Boulud: For the president we have now? Maybe I’ll do a takeout.
One time at Daniel, I had a big table of very important guests, and I was doing a 10-course meal. It was fantastic to cook for them, and then I felt, well, I’m going to provoke them, because frankly, they need a little bit of provocation. And so I sent one of their drivers to [old-school Manhattan Italian restaurant] Rao’s to get meatballs in those little white boxes. Meatballs with red sauce. And I put the box on the plate. They were cracking up. Talk about breaking the ambience!
So, maybe I’d go to Rao’s. I think he’s going to like red sauce. He always wears a red tie, in case some sauce falls on it.
When you arrive and there’s a sort of pageantry that’s put on for tourists. That, to me, can be deeply uncomfortable.
JULIA COSGROVE, EDITOR IN CHIEF, AFAR
Stone: You have a restaurant in D.C., and it’s not so far from the Trump Hotel. Chefs and restaurateurs are having to navigate around the politics of President Donald Trump. It’s not an easy time.
Boulud: And it’s not easy when the government is shut down. The businesses get hurt. I think he spends a huge amount of time in his own hotel and at the White House. I don’t think they’ve been to my restaurant.
But we chefs are bipartisan. We open the door and whoever comes in, comes in. I have served many presidents. When I was sous-chef at the Westbury Hotel in New York, Richard Nixon would come for lunch very often; his daughter lived nearby. And Carter. Reagan, Nancy Reagan. Ford. George Bush Sr. They all came, to Le Cirque also.
I served Reagan just after he was elected, when I was working at the embassy of the European Economic Community in Washington. I was very young, 26. But for my first president, I was 15 years old. The restaurant where I was working, in Lyon, catered for the prefecture, and we were doing all the private dinners. At 15, I served President Pompidou.
Weissmann: On the topic of politics and food, there’s a heightened sensitivity these days to the notion of cultural appropriation, where one culture borrows or exploits traditions from another. The history of how cuisines have developed seems to rely on the introduction of ingredients and techniques from non-native cultures, yet there has been some backlash when someone from one culture opens a restaurant that represents another culture. Should cuisine get an exemption from this concern?
Boulud: I think, in the end, it’s whatever lasts that wins.
Weissmann: Regardless of the ethnicity of who’s in the kitchen?
Boulud: That is important, but you know, there are so many Japanese restaurants that when I go into the kitchen, the chef is Asian, but he’s not Japanese. I don’t want somebody who’s not Japanese making my sushi, but actually it doesn’t matter. Downtown, there’s an American chef, a young kid making sushi, and he’s amazing. He has amazing dexterity, the knowledge, the training and the capacity to do very well. Many chefs choose a cuisine for their inspiration, and I think it’s a good thing, as long as they can go far with it.
In America, we’re very lucky, because there are so many cuisines represented and so many ethnicities of chefs. They may learn from a traditional restaurant. For example, David Chang, the founder of Momofuku restaurant group, worked at Cafe Boulud before he went out on his own. That conventional training was very important for him.
Guccione: I have a very adverse reaction to [the notion of cultural appropriation]. There’s no question that in food, there’s a cross-pollination of techniques, inspirations, flavors. I think it’s ridiculous that anybody complains if an Asian restaurant doesn’t have Asian owners or an Italian restaurant doesn’t have Italian owners or chefs. I’ve gone to some great Italian restaurants where the chef has been Mexican.
Taken more broadly, when someone travels, is it right for them to participate in local festivals or events happening around them? Absolutely. Why go otherwise? This whole appropriation thing is American-manufactured angst. Absolute nonsense. Obviously, there’s no place for disrespectful or boorish behavior, but beyond that, I don’t think we should go around telling people how to behave. The point of travel is to experience foreign things, and if you want to use the word appropriation, appropriate them! Go to a French cafe and act like a French person having coffee for two hours. That’s not wrong. I think we just don’t call bullshit on bullshit enough. This notion of cultural appropriation has gotten out of hand. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Cosgrove: I’m going to use the example of the Coachella festival, where you have a bunch of young, white people donning Native American headdresses. I don’t think that that’s a particularly respectful form of cultural appropriation.
Guccione: Where is it disrespectful?
Cosgrove: They know nothing about Native American traditions. It’s just this festival trope for people. The other example -- and I think we probably all experience this -- is when you arrive in a destination or resort or you get off a cruise ship and there’s a sort of pageantry that’s put on for tourists. That, to me, can be deeply uncomfortable.
Cosgrove: Because I don’t know if the money is going back to the people who are putting it on. I don’t know that there’s any kind of genuineness or if it’s created for my entertainment. That, to me, feels like a misstep.
Guccione: I love it. I love it.
Stone: I feel it’s an odd experience, because you’re being objectified as a tourist by people enacting a kind of manufactured, possibly cultural moment. There might be something behind it, but you don’t know that. And I often feel that those are not joyful moments for the people putting on those welcomes. I feel there are better ways to get acquainted with cultural tradition.
Guccione: That’s a very good point, George, as is Julia’s. But I would just say that, first of all, I’ve had uncomfortable jobs, and I’ve done things to earn money that I’m not proud of. Secondly, is the world better for the locals if all that goes away? Probably not. That’s employment for them. It’s sort of like going to Disneyland and Mickey Mouse meets you. It’s kind of nonsensical, and I don’t know if it says anything.
With all due respect, Julia, if somebody wears a headdress, I think it’s neither an insult nor a compliment. It’s just getting caught up in the spirit, just as people put masques on in Venice or wear beads in New Orleans. If we are in some way bringing about the humiliation of people, that’s wrong. But there are real problems in the world, and we tend through social media to get caught up in tsunamis of invented issues.
How is travel journalism different from just journalism?
AMY VIRSHUP, EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES TRAVEL SECTION
Gifford: To bring it back to food, I remember being really touched by the Netflix “Chef’s Table” documentary on Ivan Orkin, who created Ivan Ramen, a wildly successful restaurant in New York. I was really moved by his devotion to Japan, his passion and how frequently he traveled there and was able to learn so much about the culinary heritage. Does the fact he’s not Japanese mean that he’s not allowed to open a ramen restaurant?
Boulud: I saw it. It was an incredible story. He’s one in a thousand. He wanted to immerse himself in a culture and go as far as he could. It’s not appropriation. He has so much respect and admiration for that culture. It’s like if you are a Christian and you want to become a Buddhist, is that appropriation of religion?
Weissmann: I went to a dinner in Mexico where a dozen Mexican chefs were honoring Rick Bayless. He’s another passionate one.
Boulud: Rick Bayless. Absolutely another example. And I think sometimes appropriation, if it’s done from passion and dedication to the craft, it’s beautiful. Rick Bayless knows Mexico and Mexican cuisine because he has been through every region of it.
Guccione: And the market determines whether something lives or dies. If a guy who’s not Mexican is doing a Mexican restaurant and he doesn’t do it well, he won’t stick around.
Weissmann: In a city like New York, there’s always a new place opening every week, getting a lot of buzz. Does that make it harder to cultivate a loyal following?
Boulud: I think you must constantly bring in new loyal customers, and they may live in Atlanta or Chicago, but when they come to New York, they’ll visit you every time. I have so many people from Charlotte, and I don’t know why. Maybe because I like Nascar?
But it’s true that very happy customers from Charlotte will tell other people where they have been. The same with Brazilians. I have a lot of loyal Brazilian customers.
Stone: I think there are a lot of other external factors, beyond cuisine, that are defining trends in dining. Massive real estate development or redevelopment in areas that haven’t had restaurants need entertainment spaces that serve food. A restaurant can catch that wave. And part of what supports that is the youthful mindset that’s about chasing new things. We’re looking at a massive population of millennials that are coming for new experiences, and that can make it hard for established talent to have an impact right now.
Virshup: Dwight Garner went out and did Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco for us. And there’s not a place in it that opened in the last 30 years. It’s totally, totally old-school San Francisco. Usually I would say, “We have to tell people where to go that’s new,” but it had such a point of view that I thought it worked perfectly.
Boulud: Let me ask all of you another question: What makes you most happy when you travel? Is it the hotel? Is it the restaurant? Is it the museum?
Gifford: It really depends upon the trip. I was just in India for eight days on a business trip with a group of travel advisors, and one of the highlights was staying at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai.
You could feel the history of the hotel in every aspect. The general manager and the team that work there were so on top of their game, it felt like there was no better hotel on Earth. In that case, it was the hotel. But when I’m traveling with my family, it’s seeing my son smile. And if that’s because of a great restaurant on the beach or jumping in the waves, that’s a successful trip, too.
And to bring it back to food, it could be a place like Cafe Boulud, but also, when we were in Anguilla we went to the most amazing seafood restaurant. A very casual dinner on the beach.
Boulud: In Jamaica, you stop on the road, and they’re cooking a whole pig on sugar cane and, for almost nothing, you get a bowl of pulled pork.
Tell me, do you all give away your secrets every time you write? Because sometimes you feel, my God, if I talk about this place, it might never survive.
Gifford: I felt that way about my little seafood place in Anguilla. I didn’t really want to tell.
Boulud: The first thing people ask me about, even when they’re traveling for music or art or business, is food. I’m basically running a concierge desk at my office, because I have so many customers who won’t go anywhere without asking where they should go to eat.
Cosgrove: Food is the easiest way into a place and culture.
There’s a spectrum in journalism. At one end, investigating police corruption. At the other, a junket river cruise in Germany.
BOB GUCCIONE, JR., EDITOR IN CHIEF, WONDERLUSTTRAVEL.COM
Guccione: I think also there’s a recognition that it’s OK to regard food as pleasure. You know, we Americans are very puritanical in our DNA, and I think we were late to the table in realizing that the rest of the world is really enjoying food. It wasn’t that long ago that a wine list was “red” or “white.”
Boulud: The word “sommelier” didn’t exist in the restaurants in America. And today, they have a wine director and a sommelier.
Guccione: As a group, we were very unsophisticated.
Boulud: I don’t think you were. I remember when I arrived in the early ’80s, New York was vibrant with restaurants. OK, there was a domination of French and Italian, but Michael Tong was trying to do interesting Chinese, or you would go to Brooklyn and there were real Italian restaurants for New Yorkers, not the international crowd. And you had all the Asian restaurants, which were there for their communities and really made people feel very happy.
But also in the early ’80s in New York, there was a change, a shift when, for example, Barry Wine opened the Quilted Giraffe and other American chefs like Larry Forgione at An American Place were really paying attention to everything: the supply, the food. That was the beginning of the shift.
Weissmann: Chefs today put more and more emphasis on fresh food, local food. But with commercial aviation, you can really have anything within 24 hours. And it was fresh when it was put on the plane.
Boulud: I can call Oregon at 5 p.m., and it’s only 2 p.m. for them. They know what they just received from their pickers, and they can ship it so I’ll have it the next morning.
It’s all about the ingredients. There was a chef in Washington, D.C., Jean-Louis Palladin, and when he arrived here from the Southwest of France, he panicked because he could only find ordinary ingredients. And he wanted to know where everything was from, who was growing it and raising it. He had a friend who was a lawyer who had a farmhouse, and he taught him how to raise squab and rabbits. And he convinced Rod Mitchell, a seafood supplier in Maine, to go at night with a silk net and catch baby lamprey eels in rivers so he could make the specialties from the Southwest. And he was driving everybody crazy trying to find things.
Weissmann: There’s now a countertrend you may be aware of, one that focuses on responsible sourcing. They make the argument that there’s a reason we only domesticate a relatively small number of animals for food: cows, pigs, sheep, chickens. They can be raised efficiently and sustainably. On the other hand, with fish and seafood, we just pull out whatever we can, and that can endanger species and upset ecosystems.
Boulud: Fish farming has evolved well, for sure. But if you want to eat turbot, you have to go to England, France or Belgium, somewhere along the English Channel or the Atlantic, because that fish doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. So to be able to ship it here, it’s great. Once in a blue moon, we’ll say, “OK, we’ll do turbot,” because we haven’t done a French fish in a while.
Or Dover sole. We have, like, seven different sole along the coast from Maryland to Canada, and we love them also, but it’s different. People go crazy for Dover sole.
Virshup: I would say that you do have to think, in an age of climate change, what does it mean to be able to fly any ingredient you want from anywhere in the world? I think that’s a legitimate question.
Boulud: They tried to grow truffles in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, but it hasn’t produced yet. It’s such an expensive ingredient, so the cost of shipping is minimal compared to the cost of the ingredient itself.
But otherwise, most of the menu is shaped by ingredients you can source here. Ariane Daguin, co-founder of D’Artagnan, worked with farmers here to breed certain European animals -- chicken, ducks, lambs -- as they do in the Gaspesie. Along the coast, the grass is deep in the mist of the sea, so the lamb gets this beautiful, fine, delicate flavor. She managed to convince some farmers to start to raise them here because it feels like Normandy or Brittany, and she succeeded.
Because the air is dry, chefs add extra salt to food served aboard planes. Do you compensate for conditions on a cruise ship?
ARNIE WEISSMANN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, TRAVEL WEEKLY
Weissmann: Daniel, are you aware of the trend for people to cook for travelers in their homes? Would you be interested in being a guest in a stranger’s home?
Boulud: In Israel, I had that with a Bedouin family. We drove through the Galilee and we all sat down in a garage. It was a garage, but it was like a tent, fabrics everywhere, rugs everywhere. And we ate with our fingers, and the food was amazing.
Weissmann: Amy, are home visits for dinner something you might cover in the New York Times?
Virshup: We would be willing to. I don’t have a formulaic idea that all our food should be fine dining or casual or whatever. But we have a massive readership, and you can’t send all New York Times readers to some poor lady’s home to have dinner.
Weissmann: Daniel, as you know, we’re in the middle of a long period of extended economic growth.
Boulud: A bubble.
Weissmann: Perhaps so. You’ve been through several economic cycles. When there’s a downturn, are your restaurants, which are so well known, recession-proof?
Boulud: I don’t think any restaurant is recession-proof. If you think of New York City, for example, you fill it with tourists. When hotel occupancy is high, everything is working. When the occupancy goes down, you feel the drop. In New York, a local person may like to dine between 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock, but a South American likes 9:30, 10, 10:30. If they are not in town, then you don’t get that seating.
Weissmann: What percentage of your clientele do you think is local versus tourists?
Boulud: It depends on the restaurant. We have a very strong local clientele here at Cafe Boulud, but the local is someone who comes in twice a month, once a month or twice a year. Also quite a lot of regulars on the Upper West Side, though they are not necessarily from here. Daniel is more of a destination, a certain percentage business, tourists, social.
Weissmann: Are you seeing any signs, in terms of reservations, of people being more careful with money at this point? Was your December affected by dips in the stock market?
Weissmann: So it can have an immediate impact on you?
Boulud: It does. What has had the biggest impact on the industry as a whole were the changes about what could be deducted as business expenses. That, I think, is the No. 1 hit.
Weissmann: Do you see differences in your restaurants in different parts of the world that reflect the economy in those cities?
Boulud: Yes. Toronto is vibrant, it’s quite an amazing city. Montreal also. We’re in hotels there, so the life of the hotel also is part of it. It’s more seasonal in Florida and London. And then there is always, you know, competition. We always try to stay very relevant. If a customer is in New York and visits five restaurants and he comes to ours and he remembers that as one of the top experiences, we won. So we work very hard on making sure that they enjoy it.
Weissmann: Something else I wanted to do this year that’s different -- actually, Bob suggested it -- is to have every editor ask another editor a question. Jacqui, do you want to kick that off?
Gifford: Sure. My question is for Julia. Julia, you’ve been with Afar for 10 years. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago?
Cosgrove: The advice that I give to young women who work for me all the time: Fake it till you make it. I just think everybody has a degree of imposter syndrome, no matter who you are or what you do.
Boulud: But how to do that in cooking?
Cosgrove: It’s hard to do it in writing, too.
Weissmann: Well, a writer has an editor, but a chef has got to get his work directly out to the diner.
Cosgrove: Truth be told, it’s practice, and it’s hard work.
Does the fact that Ivan Orkin is not Japanese mean that he’s not allowed to open a ramen restaurant?
JACQUELINE GIFFORD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, TRAVEL + LESUIRE
Guccione: George, I have a question for you. Why do you think there is so little humor in travel media?
Stone: It’s a good question, because people are funny; the world is kind of funny. Exploring is funny. But it’s not easy to write funny, and it’s even harder to take a funny picture that’s not corny.
Boulud: Or that misrepresents the country or the place.
Stone: Yes, so humor is a challenge. I think travel journalists, to some extent, work against themselves by not being as personable, funny and out there as they can be. There’s this compulsion to fit into some journalistic box, but travel journalism stands apart in some ways, with stories of exploration and discovery, stories of people finding a place in the world. These flights of fantasy that we deliver are very important to people’s expression of individuality.
There are very human moments that we cover, and we should express all of those moments. We should be funnier. I think attempts at humor are baffling to some of our bean counters, by the way. They just don’t understand it if it doesn’t fit in the box. Humor is a little bit risky, so let’s be boring instead. That’s not what we need to do.
Boulud: Do you think that because every magazine depends on advertisers, you must walk that line carefully?
Stone: We do. Within travel media, I think we’re more aware of a connection with the advertising market and community. We engage with them more than other journalists tend to. Not necessarily at the New York Times, but in a lot of travel media.
Virshup: We don’t have any advertisers (laughter). Actually, it’s very, very freeing, because I really don’t have to do anything to cater to advertisers.
Stone: But we do have to be thoughtful about the steps we take and not be disrespectful. Nonetheless, I think creative content is informing advertising campaigns, telling real stories across platforms like social media. A lot of these ideas are emerging from travel media, but are being adopted by travel brands that speak to the spontaneity and joy of travel.
So, we engage, and yeah, we have to be a little bit cautious, but I think we also create formats of storytelling. We’ve been working on illustrating storytelling with Christoph Niemann, who goes out and creates really humorous and personality-filled sketches and stories of his journeys. That has been adopted already by some advertisers. There’s still a leadership position that’s unconventional and that can change the discourse around travel.
I have a question for Jacqui. At a bookstore at the train station, I saw so many travel magazines that are specialized, like one only about road-tripping. As a general interest travel magazine, how do you navigate a world where everything is becoming increasingly specialized?
Gifford: We do themed issues, of course. In September, we’re going to do a culinary issue. July is our adventure issue. There are certain topics that I feel are important to do a deep dive.
We have a hotels issue. Anybody picking up a travel magazine probably has a passion or at least fondness for hotels. We did a great story on L.A. hotels and their unique place in that city. Some were local hangouts, some design-forward. Different price ranges. And when we looked at the entire magazine, we realized we’re appealing to a wide variety of people, but each story has its niche audience.
So if somebody’s bothering to read Travel + Leisure and they love the brand, they know us well enough to know that there is a story in each issue that will speak to them. I understand why there are all these niche publications, but let’s be honest, their reach is very small. We’re a luxury title, but if you really look and study the prices of the hotels and the places we cover, it’s actually a pretty broad range. That’s really important to me.
Boulud: And for the reader.
Gifford: And one of the things we say is, “OK, how much does this hotel cost, and is it really worth it? How much does this restaurant cost, and is it really worth it?” When you’re doing your job as an editor, you’re looking at all of that. And that’s where travel can really shine when speaking to a larger audience.
Virshup: My question is for George. You raised the issue of travel journalism. I’m new to travel. My former job was being an editor on the metro desk. So, is there a thing called travel journalism, and how is it different from just journalism?
Stone: I think of travel journalism as a unique and separate form of journalism, different from newspaper journalism. It involves the frailties of memory. It involves the openness of emotion and certain aspects that are very human.
National Geographic has this 130-year history of telling stories about exploration and discovery of the world, which itself is built on a tradition of going out into the world and writing about places. It adopts certain qualities of memoir, and it’s also journalism in the service of a reader. How are we going to help a reader make a very good decision about exploring the world with an opinionated, contextualizing portrait of a place?
Whether travel journalism isn’t thought of as serious journalism, or when it is, it’s awesome. Where travel journalism exists, even in the folds of a newspaper, there are stories that are truly important and should be sharing headline space.
Guccione: I’d like to add to this: I would have answered that there’s only a difference in the quality of the output, which I think is vastly different. Travel journalism, uniquely, has a large percentage of creators who actually don’t want to give up the pleasure of getting sent on another assignment and so are very careful not to upset anybody along the way. And in that respect, it becomes kind of wanky, indulgent, fake journalism. When you think about the great army of travel journalists, many traveling as guests of the place they’re going to, unless we’re very careful who we choose, they may, above all else, want to make sure they’ll get sent somewhere again. I don’t want to use that person. I want somebody who wants to find a sense of place.
There’s a spectrum in journalism. At one end there’s the person investigating police corruption and at the other somebody going on a junket river cruise in Germany.
Cosgrove: I would not describe the favorite stories we run as travel stories, I would describe them as stories about a place. And I do think that the rigor of reporting is lost too often. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on with our writers and our editors. Sometimes you have to go back to the basics and not let these canned stories that a publicist wants you to write go to press.
Amy, how are you finding your new job, and what direction are you going to take the section?
Virshup: I’m settling in, and it’s been a lot of fun. Even though the Times travel section appears in print on Sunday, all week long we appear digitally, and our competition is other stories in the Times. People don’t necessarily know that they’re reading a travel story; to them, it’s just a story. We try to have the same level of reporting and storytelling that other parts of the paper have. And being the New York Times, I can take us into areas that are less comfortable for, I think, travel publications in general. For example, we’re working on a story about women traveling alone and being attacked, which is probably not one that advertisers are happy to be near. But I don’t really have that problem. To be able to tackle those issues and talk to people about those things in a travel section, that’s of one of my ambitions. [The article, “Adventurous. Alone. Attacked.,” was published March 25.]
Stone: You’ve spoken about the importance of voice and identity and representation in your assignments. How are you supporting that vision?
Virshup: I don’t slot people in, saying, “I need a Chinese writer for this.” But I try to find voices and bring them along into the mission. I hired a young African reporter, originally from Zimbabwe. Her name’s Tariro Mzezewa, and I think that when readers come to the travel section and see that byline, they immediately know that we have made a commitment to having different kinds of voices. And she was far and away the best candidate. It was great to be able to hire her.
Travel journalism involves the frailties of memory and the openness of emotion. It’s also journalism in the service of a reader.
GEORGE STONE, EDITOR IN CHIEF, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER
Weissmann: To wrap up, per usual, we’re going to find out where everyone will be traveling over the next 12 months. George?
Stone: National Geographic Expeditions is running an around-the-world-by-private-jet journey that I will be a host on, so at the end of this month I will be with a group of about 70 to 80 travelers to Tibet, the Taj Mahal, Jordan, Tanzania and Morocco.
Boulud: In a private jet?
Stone: It’s a Boeing 757, kitted out as a business-class flight. And I don’t have to do any planning, but I’m supposed to have intelligent things to say, so that’s harder.
Boulud: It beats cruising!
Weissmann: Bob, how about you?
Guccione: Well, I am very much hoping to go to the Faroe Islands. It’s the promised land for me, I’ve been trying to go there for years, and I’m going to make it at some point. Lithuania is on the agenda for July, and I’ve been invited to Ukraine, too, so I’m going to try and make that my trip. And just for fun, Italy. I haven’t been there in a couple of years, and I want to go back, just to sit in a villa with my girlfriend and eat good food.
Weissmann: Daniel, where are you going in the next 12 months?
Boulud: Singapore, and I might go on to Hong Kong. Tokyo. France, of course, Lyon, my home town. From there, I think Portugal and do the north part of the Douro Valley. I also want to go to the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland. I met the chef and owner, so I know I’ll have family there when I arrive.
I might go back to Brazil. I like Brazil because the food is great, the people are great.
Cosgrove: In California, I’m doing a bunch of short trips down to Santa Barbara, Lake Tahoe and L.A. Also, Charleston, S.C. And then, because it’s my 10th anniversary at Afar, I am getting a six-week sabbatical, and we’re going to buy a Volvo and pick it up in Gothenburg and then drive through Sweden and down through Germany into Austria, Switzerland, Italy and then over to France. With my two little kids. This may be bumped to next year, because this year is already getting kind of crazy.
Boulud: Sweet. It’s a station wagon?
Cosgrove: I think a station wagon.
Boulud: It better be.
Virshup: I’m going to Argentina on Friday night. I’m going to Buenos Aires and then down to Patagonia. And after that, I’m not sure. My husband and I are thinking of trying to go to Helsinki over the summer.
Gifford: I’m going to Los Cabos for both work and for fun with my husband and son, because it’s spring break. Then I turn around and fly to Seville, Spain. And then I also have a Tennessee trip in the works. London, Paris, Aspen for the Food and Wine Classic, Singapore for the International Luxury Travel Market. Then I think we’re going to go to Puglia in Italy for fun. And then Virtuoso in Vegas. Bermuda. We go to Bermuda a lot. Bermuda’s my happy place.
Updated: This report was updated May 6 to add information about Daniel Boulud’s culinary work with Air France and Celebrity Cruises.
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