Travel

Boston chefs hit the road feasting on food finds

Eric Brennan at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams & Bacon in Tennessee.

Eric Brennan at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams & Bacon in Tennessee.

A rented RV. A rotating roster of chefs. A plan to head across the country from Boston to California, stopping only to cook, eat, and chat with local chefs and other characters along the way.

The setup sounds like the plot of a classic road trip movie with a foodie twist, but instead it is the true-life adventure just completed by Boston restauranteur Chris Himmel and some of his staff. Himmel, along with his family, owns and runs Grill 23 & Bar, Post 390, and Harvest. He came up with the idea and floated it by his team more or less as sort of as a joke. As these things sometimes do, the more they talked about it, the better it sounded, and then it finally became a solid plan.

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For Himmel, the reason behind the trip was about inspiration and face-to-face connections. “You don’t find that opportunity to meet people, even local vendors, from the kitchen,” said Himmel. “The relationships we made, the deep connections, we came away inspired.”

The cooking philosophy at the Himmel Hospitality Group is to use local and sustainable products as much as possible, so as they traveled, it was their mission to visit with likeminded chefs and other food industry people. They made time for local purveyors, farmers, fishermen, ranchers, brewers, distillers, and winemakers.

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After returning in mid-March, Himmel and a couple of his cohorts spoke about their experiences on the road. Over the course of the trip, which began Feb. 18 and ended March 12, the team covered more than 3,000 miles and tried a lot of new things.

The two constants on the trip were Himmel, and Carl Carreiro, his facilities manager who insisted on doing most of the driving. Carreiro said driving cross country had long been a dream of his and called the whole experience “unbelievable.” Other people — chefs, managers, even Himmel’s personal trainer at one point — came and went, sometimes flying into one city and traveling with the RV for a few days, then flying back to Boston. Some just came to a city for one of the many pop-up dinners the chefs participated in and then left.

Among them were Eric Brennan, the culinary director of the three Himmel restaurants; Nick Deutmeyer, chef at Post 390; Tyler Kinnett, chef at Harvest; Molly Hanson, pastry chef at both Grill 23 and Post 390; Brian Mercury, pastry chef at Harvest; and Brahm Callahan, the Himmel Group’s beverage director.

The group in the RV changed over time, with some people flying in to one city and traveling in the RV and then flying back to Boston.

The group in the RV changed over time, with some people flying in to one city and traveling in the RV and then flying back to Boston.

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Himmel and crew didn’t just pick up people. Foodstuffs quickly piled up in the RV. Early on in the journey, they stocked up on products, including a 33.5-pound aged smoked Berkshire ham, from famed Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams & Bacon in Tennessee, to use at various dinners. They were also gifted with a guanciale, or cured pork jowl, which hung in the RV for the entire trek to California. Anecdotes also piled up, as on any road trip.

“At one point, we’re trying to do prep on the way to a dinner and we wanted to make sweet tea,” related Himmel. “We tied down a pot of boiling water with Saran Wrap so it wouldn’t spill as we’re doing 75 miles an hour.”

In Charleston, S.C., Himmel and the chefs watched as fishermen from Abundant Seafood unloaded their boat with fish some had never seen or worked with before. Tyler Kinnett cut some up on the spot (banded rudderfish) and made a crudo right on the dock.

Himmel also related the story of rolling into an RV camp in Albuquerque after hours and slipping money under the door to pay for a parking spot. The owners weren’t appeased and came knocking on the camper door in the morning. A package of Benton’s bacon, however, did the trick, Himmel said.

Besides the planned and organized dinner events, a lot of cooking was done in the RV and at campsites. Almost invariably, other campers would be intrigued by the unusual group, who traveled with a huge drum grill/smoker, among other gear, and clearly were not cooking standard campground fare.

At a Destin, Fla., campground right on the beach, the chefs were trying to crack open a conch with a marble cutting board, which drew a fair amount of attention. They were flush with fish then and Eric Brennan passed out lion fish crudo to anyone who came by.

Though they were on a bit of a tight schedule, they made time for some of the major sites. “We did the ‘Family Vacation’ thing at the Grand Canyon,” said Himmel. “Got out, stood there three seconds, then got back in.”

The end of the trip was at the Brandt Cattle Co. in Brawley, Calif. All of Grill 23’s beef is from this single family-owned ranch, which raises beef without the use of hormones or antibiotics. The Brandt family welcomed the group with open arms, hosting them in their home and at the private Cattleman’s Ranch club, which Himmel likened to stepping back in time.

Later this summer, Himmel hopes to put on an event at one of the restaurants with something like a highlight reel or photos from the trip, perhaps even bringing in some of the farmers and other people they met on the trip. As for plans for another road trip? It’s already in the works for next summer, this time on a northerly route.

Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at kimfoleymackinnon@gmail.com.
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