In search of inspiration

For the past year, I've been trying to define who I want to be as a chef, by launching my brand Belly London. I've designed my own recipes and delivered my own food to Londoners via housebites, I've done street food festivals, including the Canada Day Festival in London, UK, I've done recipe testing for a large corporation, I've flown out to Ibiza to be a private chef for a week and I've even written for Digest Mag. It's been a whirlwind trying out difference areas in the culinary world and trying to figure out what fits. 

My dream has always been to have my own restaurant and serve up my own food, but I've always struggled with what to label my food. I just want to make food, the kind of food I want to eat, but everyone else need to label it, will it be Asian, Fusion, Contemporary, Southern and so on. In some ways, my dream of owning my own place feels further away than ever, thinking about marketing, price points and business plans. Yes, all of that is important and absolutely essential to success but first you need passion and a clear idea what you want to serve up. 

So I realized I needed to get back into the kitchen, hone my culinary skills and be inspired again. So I've packed my knife roll, my belongings, bid farewell to London and am hitting the road less travelled. I'll be travelling through North America and Asia in search of new skills, new experiences and more importantly, something to eat.

First stop, New York.

Southern Road Trip - Nashville, Tennessee

*Sorry for posting my bbq road trip out of order, but a dear friend of mine is heading down to Nashville soon, so I fast tracked this post!*

Nashville, home of country music is worthy of a stop on any BBQ road trip. While not as famous for its BBQ, the city does have some excellent culinary options, a lively downtown scene and excellent music (I confess, part of the reason for our stop here was because of my deep love of Nashville, TV series). Don't just take my word for it - several chefs from kitchens in Atlanta and New York had rave reviews and tips on where to eat. 

Here are my must eats in Nashville, TN

This is a Nashville institution, serving up fried chicken, pickles and a few sides since the 1960's. Prince's Hot Chicken is worth the wait, and wait you will, the Prince family stubbornly refuses to batch fry chicken and instead only starts frying your chicken once you order, to preserve the quality of their famous chicken. 

I considered myself a deeply devout Fried Chicken lover and this is definitely in the top 5 fried chicken. 

  • Go straight to the back of the restaurant, where the order counter is (everyone else lingering around is usually waiting for their number to be called) 
  • Bring cash! 
  • If you have 3 or more people, order multiple spice levels (mild, medium, hot and x hot)
  • Get the potato salad and cup of pickles, it will help cut the heat and are delicious
  • Order more chicken than you think you want, unless you are lucky enough to be in Nashville often, who knows when the next chance you'll get to have some Prince's

Prince's Hot Chicken is hands down the best meal I had in Nashville, it is the kind of meal that makes you dream of food in your sleep. In fact, it is the kind of meal, that makes me want to pack my bags, move to Nashville and work for the Prince Family and have regular access to that delicious chicken! 

This is a southern classic, famous for their biscuits. Loveless cafe is worth a detour, but be forewarned the droves of tourist can make the wait for a table well over 2 hours, so it is best to come with a book in tow. 

While the biscuits are good, I regretted not sampling more of the menu (Fried Chicken, Ham and red eye gravy). The best way to enjoy the Loveless cafe is to come with 4 or more people and try one of their Family Style breakfasts, which let you try a bit of everything. 

Jacks in on the main drag in downtown Nashville, it is an institution in this town and if you ask around, this is the one most people are apt to recommend. 

**Okay, so first of all, I'm a bit of a BBQ worshipper, having lived in Georgia for the better part of 1 year, I fell in love with BBQ. So fair to say, I'm more than a bit critical of BBQ joints**

So, Jack's is on this list because it is an institution and is you want to get an idea of the range and styles of BBQ in the south, this helps fill out the picture. Overall, the ribs were good - tender and juicy, but a bit light on the smokiness and not quite fall of the bone. I've had better and I've had much worse. To be fair, if they were selling these ribs anywhere else other than the South, people would pretty much lose their minds. The pulled pork was okay and definitely worth a try. I'd skip the brisket if you've ever been to Texas though, a bit dry and under seasoned.

Overall, I decided that Jacks made my list because of a number of things, the decor and atmosphere is bang on, location is great, the menu offers a sample of a bunch of different style of BBQ from St. Louis, to Texas and they have an amazing self serve BBQ sauce section that lets you try out almost every style of BBQ sauce. 

Other recommended places

When planning any trip, there are always more places than there is time or physical room in my stomach to eat. However, here are a list of places which I really did want to go to, but couldn't fit in. 

Catbird Seat - was one of the most recommended restaurants by chefs. What they are doing here is innovative and challenges the misconception that southern food is not refined. I absolutely wanted to dine here but due to demand, reservations were not available, even though I tried booking 30 days in advance. 

The Pancake Pantry - this is another Nashville favourite, famous for their sweet potato pancakes. This is popular with the tourist and locals alike so expect a long wait. 

Arnold's Country Kitchen - only open from Monday to Friday from 6 am - 2 pm and the lines are long. Was definitely on the list but we didn't get into Nashville early enough on Friday to make it there. But this was a huge regret of mine, I love a good meat and three! 

Best meals in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is considered a street food mecca and home to some of Vietnam's most beloved dishes, such as Pho. After a week of eating everything in sight, I can personally attest that the city boasts some of the best Vietnamese food in the country.

A few tips for finding good food in Hanoi:
  • Do your research: There are a million websites and blogs with write ups about great local food. Spending a bit of time googling places to eat will give you a better base of info than just relying on a guidebook or your hotel recommendations. Also as most of the menus are exclusively in Vietnamese it helps to learn a few food words. Beside food is the best part of trip planning isn't it?
  • Forget the research: Well some of it, it's great to have a plan but new street food and restaurants pop up and change often, so if you see a huge crowd of people and the food smells good, give it a go. Also, keep in mind sites such as tripAdvisor (which I love and use a lot) are a bit skewed as these are reviews mostly by tourists and often don't include some of the best street food places which have no address, website etc. 
  • Worried about food safety? As a trained chef, I'm also concerned over food safety but there are a few things I look for when I pick a street food place 1) is the food cooked to order (fried, barbecued etc) or if you are having soup is it hot?, if it is then that reduces your risk 2) turnover - if a place is really packed then they are likely selling the food as fast as they can make it which means your food hasn't been sitting around at room temperature for ages 3) reviews - if a street vendor has been in tripAdvisor/guide book etc, it means a fair number of foreigners have dined there and lived to tell the tale. All that aside, I do usually look around at the cooks and go with my gut feel about the place (touch wood, I haven't had an issue yet) 
  • Plastic tables, stools and no walls = perfect! Hanoi is one of the few cities where the best food isn't in a restaurant, rather it is located in the sidewalks and alleyways of the city. If all else fails just head to the Old Quarter, pound the pavement and follow your noise to your next meal. 
  • Pack napkins/wet naps. Remember these are street vendors, it is dine and dash, so don't expect any cloth napkins, or actually any napkins at all. 
Here's my list of my must eats in Hanoi, bon appetit! Promise to update with a full review of all of the below with some tips on what and how to order.

1. Banh Cuon – Steamed Rice Rolls Filled with Ground Pork and Wood Ear Mushrooms
Where: Banh Cuon Gia Truyen - 14 Hang Ga, Old Quarter
2. Barbecue Chicken Street - An entire street dedicated to barbecuing chicken (wings, drumsticks, thighs, feet)


 *note - the whole street is full of barbecue chicken stands now, but don't be seduced by the ones that you encounter at the beginning. Walk all the way to the end, where the original chicken shop reigns king, these guys are definitely the busiest. Their patrons are all locals, so no tourists are usually here*

Where: Ly Van Phuc, Close to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda (40,000 duong/ $2 US cab ride from the Old Quarter)
3. Pappa Roti - Crispy Sweet Buns either with a coffee or butter filling

*full disclosure - these are not Vietnamese but are a big hit with the locals, make sure you elbow your way to the front and have your 14,000 duong in hand to trade for a warm bun. Oh yeah and if you become addicted, it's not my fault*
Where: 34 Hang Gai, Old Quarter
4. Pho Ga - Delicious rice noodle soup, featuring chicken. 

Where: 1 Hang Dieu, Old Quarter or 49 Bat Dan Street (I didn't try this one as it never seemed to be open but the blogasphere says it amazing)
5.  Nem Cua Be – Fried Crab Rice Paper Rolls
Where: Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim - 67 Duong Thanh, Old Quarter
6. Cha Ca Thang Long - Vietnamese fish with turmeric and dill
 Where: 21- 31 Duong Thanh, Old Quarter

Of course there are a million other delicious things you should eat as well, I guess I'll have to come back for a few more weeks and eat the rest! If you find any hidden gems be sure to let me know.

And I've been published

So, anyone who knows me well knows I usually have several to do note pads on the go, tons of plans for how I might take the food world by storm and drawers full of random recipe sketches. Well, I'm happy to announce that I've completed one of my goals for this year already (woohoo!), by writing a piece of food journalism and having it published in Digestmag, have a read and let me know what you think.


As a side note, you know how it feels weird when you hear your own voicemail message? It feels equally weird to see your own name in print and read your bio.....very strange.

Happy New Years

Yikes, is it 2013 already? 

On New Years, despite my healthy living vows, the BF convinced me to eat some good olde KFC on New Years Day, to be honest, I have a weakness for fried chicken in general, so yeah twist my rubber arm. 

Alas, the KFC standards over here in the UK are definitely slipping, the meat was greasy, the skin soggy and it wasn't very tasty. All in all, definitely not worth the calories! 

Lots of fun postings in the works - have a good feeling about 2013, I have a strong feeling it will be full of delicious food, recipes, and the odd food review. 

Happy New Years everyone and stay tuned!