Everyone loves to travel; not everyone, however, lives to travel. During most of the year, Claire Handleman pays the rent working at Del Posto, the Bastianich-Batali Italian juggernaut that won four stars from The New York Times last year. Every winter, she packs up her bags and spends at least three to five months wandering the globe — usually in Asia — which she documents in her blog Passport to Eat. She just returned to New York after spending time trailing chef David Thompson at nahm, the Bangkok counterpart to the London restaurant of the same name, which was the first Thai restaurant ever to earn a Michelin star.
We checked in with Claire and talked to her about finding her calling, her favorite Thai ingredients, and the best papaya salad she’s ever eaten.
How did your culinary career get started?
After graduating college, I decided to travel around Asia for about a year. I was sitting in an Internet café in Thailand trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life when I realized that everything I did during my trip was related to food, so I decided right there and then to sign up for culinary school.
I ended up at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and then worked at Jean-Georges’s Nougatine. Starting off in fine dining was a great experience, but for the first two weeks, I spent every day crying in the walk-in because it was so intense. Now I look back and I think it was the best way to start, because they really taught me good habits, like cleanliness and how to stay organized. Then I worked at Eleven Madison Park for a few months and then I fell into my current job freelancing for Del Posto, which I’ve been doing for the past three years.
How often do you travel?
Each year, I leave for about three to five months, usually when it’s winter in New York. When I’m in the city, I work as hard as I can and try to save up money so I can travel. Over the last seven years, I’ve gone to China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, India, and, last year, Central America. But I really love Asia: the food, the culture, the people. For some reason I really connect to it.
You spend a lot of time traveling in and writing about Thailand. What is it about the country that you love so much?
A lot of it is the food. When I first went there, I was amazed by all of the ingredients I’d never seen before. Dishes that took five minutes to make on the street tasted better than things that a French restaurant would take hours to prepare. I’d say I’ve spent a total of one year in Thailand over the past seven years.
What Thai ingredients do you really love?
They have snake fruits, which we don’t have here. They also have these sour little green fruits that kind of look like tiny cucumbers that are tart and sour and go in a lot of salads. High-quality, organic palm sugar; I don’t know where you’d even find that here. When I go to Chinatown I just find the dry, hard palm sugar that you have to moisten with water. You can find durian in Chinatown, but not of the same quality that you’d find in Thailand.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in Thailand?
I’m a papaya salad fanatic. When I was staying in Bangkok, I wandered around to all of the different papaya-salad ladies in my neighborhood until I found one who was about a 15 minute walk from my house (on Convent Road, in between Silom and Sathorn). She is like the Soup Nazi of papaya-salad ladies; she works in this tiny space with a jury-rigged grill with an open charcoal fire and she yells at everybody who comes in. She charged me about 40 baht ($1.30) for a papaya salad, which is a lot in Thailand compared to other places that usually charge 20-25 baht.
It just blew every other papaya salad I’ve ever had out of the water. She uses these sugary sweet limes that taste like candy. She also uses these crabs that are about three times as big as the ones that most people use. Usually, they’re these salty, fermented things that people use as seasoning, but these are sweet with firm flesh and you want to suck every morsel out of them. Her dried shrimp are about the size of a quarter, while everyone else uses minuscule shrimp that just kind of dissolve into the salad. She just sources the best ingredients; it’s worth paying two times the price for her salad. Every single day it’s packed. I’ll go and it will be an hour wait for her salads, even at like 2 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Claire Handleman tomorrow.