Why Cook When You Travel?

There are few things that put you as intimately in touch with a place and its people as cooking. Every step, from deciding what to make to hunting through shops, markets, and nearby farm-stands for ingredients can be an exercise in discovery.

Take this simple lentil curry as an example.

A bag of lentils will hardly cost you a dollar or two. Combine with a few dollars worth of carrots, potatoes, and ginger, then simmer in chicken broth with a dash of garlic and curry powder and you have hearty, healthy lunches for a week. In that way, cooking is an excellent way to stretch a travel budget.

 

Make a curry in England (where I was when I first tried this one) and you’ll make new friends quickly.

Mention the word curry, or a word that sounds like it might be curry — currentcarafe, corral — and watch as the eyes of the nearest Brit light up with joy and anticipation. For more than two-hundred years the British have had a proper fascination with the stuff, ever since first encountering India, and by extension food with real flavor.

They took to it like, well, like the British took to anything back in those days (colonizing little buggers), and have been obsessed ever since. Or at least, that’s what I gathered during wine-fueled late-night conversations of my autumn stay in Wiltshire. Food (or maybe it was the wine) has a way of bringing people together.

Of course if you want to cook, you first need a kitchen, and that means you need to get creative about where you choose to stay.

AirBNB has made it easy for people to rent apartments and even houses in more than 190 countries most of which come with fully-stocked kitchens. For travelers on a more restricted budget there are affordable hostels, and options like CouchSurfing, WorkAway and WWOOF. In addition to giving you a place to cook, these accommodations put you in direct contact with the people in-country. They give you a more authentic, local experience than could ever be had holed away in a one-size-fits-all room at the Marriott.

Once you have your kitchen, the real adventure begins. Butchers must be found and consulted, farmers visited and vetted. If you’re without a car this can mean long walks through exciting city-streets. It can also mean hours spent navigating through dense forests, using old maps and dead reckoning.

 

It’s true that you have to travel a bit slower if you want to explore a place this way. But once you try it the slower speed feels right. It feels better. It tastes better. Just like home-made pasta, hand-rolled and hung to dry as garden-fresh tomatoes simmer down on the stove tastes better than microwaved Chef Boyardee.

Cooking is a transformative art. A process by which a few basic things are taken and turned into more than the sum of their parts, bolstered with pinches of this and dashes of that, irrefutably improved through the careful use of energy (in this case, heat) and time.

When you think about it, the very same can be said about travel.

Brazilian Barbecue & The Art of Simplicity

One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in a little churrascaria holed in away in a downtrodden section of Connecticut’s state capital. Churrascarias are basically Brazilian steakhouses, where meat is grilled until golden brown on long metal skewers laid atop real glowing charcoal. The tradition harkens back to the South American gauchos — cowboys, basically — who would cook meat over open fires while on the range.

“This is incredible,” I said, tucking into a pile of top sirloin, “What’s on it?”
“It’s seasoned in the Brazilian way,” the owner said proudly, “Just sea salt.”
“Wow, and the pork?”
“Same thing,” he said.
“The chicken?”

He just smiled.

That meal taught me an important lesson: Simplicity can be powerful.

It’s a lesson I constantly need reminding of, for I am something of a chronic over-complicator, and not just in the kitchen.

Back in 2010 I’d stumbled across an article in Backpacker Magazine, claiming to list the 10 Most Dangerous Trails in America. I sent it to a couple of friends, and said I thought it’d be fun to throw some sleeping bags in the back of the car, drive around the country, and hike each one. Six months later a simple road trip had ballooned into an impossibly complicated expedition, in which we planned to travel the country, hike the trails, and raise $100K for charity while filming a documentary in the process. The car was covered with the logos of supporters and sponsors, we had media commitments, publishing deadlines, and had even created an LLC for our enterprise.

Things tend to get complicated when I’m around.

But the older I get, the more I embrace this idea that simplicity is the better path forward. It’s a concept found throughout the pages of Tim Ferriss’ ultimate cookbook The 4-Hour Chef where each recipe is kept purposefully simple. Many have just five ingredients or so.

“You can afford better ingredients if you’re buying fewer of them,” Ferriss says.

This reminds me of a conversation I’d once had with a man named Graham Hill. Graham is the founder of LifeEdited, a company that shows people how to live large, with less.

“In the US, we’ve super-sized our lives over the last fifty or sixty years,” Hill had said, “We’ve got about three times the amount of space per person that we had back then, we’ve also got a twenty-two billion dollar storage industry for all our extra stuff…Despite having more space and more stuff, we’re actually not any happier.”

The fix for all this, according to Hill, was simple: Less — less space, less stuff, less debt, less consumption, less struggle, less worry, less chaos.

In essence, a simpler life is a happier life

“I’m not saying don’t have any stuff,” he said “just have less of it, and try to have great stuff that you really love.”

Hill was not some hippy-dippy treehugger either (although he did literally found treehugger.com). He’s a dot-com millionaire, who filled his life with the trappings of success, then felt exactly that: Trapped. It wasn’t until a stint of extended traveling — living out of just two bags — that he truly began to feel happy and his quest for simplification began.

Today, he lives in a beautiful 420 Square foot apartment in Manhattan (that’s not a typo), and it’s breathtaking. Innovative design, and purposeful simplicity have come together to create a space — complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, and space to throw twelve-person dinner parties — that provides without becoming a burden.

As I’ve traveled — first in the US, then in Europe, always out of a backpack — I’ve found similar refuge in a life of simple things. I have one watch, one pair of shoes, and one jacket. I’ve carried the same two pens for the last four months, and (uncharacteristically) haven’t misplaced either of them. At any given time, I know exactly where everything I own is, and because I have to carry it all, there’s very little temptation to buy more.

Of course, there are things I wish to have more of in my life. Financial stability comes immediately to mind. Love or social connection is an obvious other. There are even material things which I’d like to have. But as I flip through the pages of The 4-Hour Chef its got me pondering how I might simplify my way into them.

It’s more than just a book on food. The 4-Hour Chef is really a book on how to learn anything, disguised as a cookbook, and Ferriss’ philosophy of simplicity is extended to everything from sports to language learning.

“I’ve listed the 100 most common words in written English,” Ferriss writes, “…the first 25 words on my list make up roughly 33% of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 50% of all written material. If we were to expand the list to the top 300, they would make up about 65% of all written material in English”

English has more than 150,000 words, closer to a quarter-million if you include variations and colloquialisms. If you were trying to learn English, you could spend a lifetime attempting to memorize each of those words. But if you properly select a mere 100 — hardly twice as many as are in this paragraph alone — you can quickly gain access to about half of all the material currently written in English.

If your goal is to learn to read English, simplicity can get you there faster.

Some people just don’t know that simplicity can be powerful. It’s innocent, really. We live in a world that champions hard work for the sake of working hard. Things that look simple are written off as underdeveloped, or the lazy way out.

Whether it’s ninety-nine problems or eleven herbs and spices, most of us default to doing things the difficult way.

Sure, complexity can impart a certain depth of taste. But in life, as in the kitchen, it often ends up totally overpowering the inherent flavor of whatever it is you’re really trying to experience.

Travels with a Seiko

I’ll be honest, when I first unwrapped the shining silver spectacle that was my Seiko Chronograph, I didn’t like it. I appreciated it — a gift from my parents given on the day I finally earned Eagle Scout — but I didn’t like it.

It was beautiful; sleek midnight-blue face-plate punctuated every twenty degrees with golden slivers that glittered in the sun. A shimmering clasp-closed stainless steel wrist-band and hands that were visible by day or night. No alarm, no beeps or boops, just twelve hours and the date laid out in a way that was elegant, but functional. It was a man’s watch, and it was given to me as a symbol of my having reached adulthood.

But of course, it was only a symbol, for a boy has not become a man until he’s able to recognize the wisdom of his parents, and sitting there in the early morning light I thought there’d surely been a mistake.

The watch was beautiful, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t live a life with room for beautiful things. I was an adventurer. A swashbuckling, bear-fighting, road-tramping dirtbag, or at least, that’s what I aspired to. In two weeks’ time I’d be embarking on a four-hundred mile kayaking journey. There would be rain, and mud, and blood, and hillbillies. Certainly no place for such a fine watch. And so while I appreciated it, I didn’t truly love it. Not then.

But my parents told me to hang onto it, for the day would come when I’d need to dress and act like an adult. I had my doubts. But of course, they were right.

It was two years before I had it properly sized; two links removed in preparation for a job I’d taken at Yale. Three months in, the timepiece, and the job, felt more like a shackle than an opportunity, and it wasn’t long before I left to pursue work as an adventure filmmaker.

In 2012 I nearly hawked it to buy a dive-watch. I was headed for a new life in Hawaii, and everything I owned needed either to fit into my backpack, or be sold, donated, or thrown away. The far-flung pacific islands seemed once again like no place for such a fine piece of craftsmanship, and after nearly half a decade of limited use, I was almost convinced it was time to part ways with the old Seiko.

But then, it surprised me. I noticed something I hadn’t seen before, printed right there on the face of it. A tiny inscription; 100M. Could that possibly be meters, I wondered?

Sure enough I flipped it over to find  Water Resistant 10 Bar stamped into the back. A quick Google search revealed that 10 Bar water resistance is quite suitable for swimming and even light snorkeling. I cracked a little smile. It wasn’t a dive watch, but my little Seiko was better suited to me than I thought.

We started hanging out more often.

Life continued on. I started a business, learned to dress like a grown-up, maybe even impress a girl or two. My watch was with me through it all.

It’s been nearly eight years since I first caught sight of how the hour markers glittered in the sun, and today  both the watch and I are very different than we were when we first met. We’re both a good deal smaller in circumference, it by three links, and I by more than twenty pounds.

We’ve both got our scars too. The second hand on the chronograph doesn’t reset perfectly to twelve, an injury sustained during the one and only battery changing the watch has needed during our time together. The clasp is scratched and marred from reaching into my pocket for keys to the four cars, the five cell phones, and countless dollar bills, movie tickets, pocket-knives, packs of gum, pens, notebooks, and house keys that have come into and gone out of my life over the last few years.

But each scratch is in some small way a reminder of the adventures we’ve had. The time we navigated a sailboat between reefs out in Kaneohe Bay, dinners with friends aboard the Queen Mary 2, stowing away on the Coast Starlight Express to San Francisco, and many more. And the watch still surprises me to this day. Indeed, the reason I sat down to write this was because I found a new feature just this afternoon, a tachymeter used to measure distance and speed, staring me right in the face all these years but completely unnoticed.

I still fight bears sometimes. But mostly I wrestle words onto the page. Bears, in many ways, were easier. At this point in time, I’m living out of a backpack, traveling through the south of England while reconnecting with what it is I truly love to do. It’s not a big backpack, and I can’t fit a lot into it. But there will always be room for my trusty little Seiko.

A Case for Short Term Goals and Un-Planning

Today’s December 2nd, which means today marks exactly three months since I put my business on hold, and set off on the Appalachian Trail.

My, how things have changed.

In August, I lived in my parents’ basement in Connecticut. Today, I live in a finished attic on a rural English estate with a walled garden and an indoor pool (and in a week I’ll live somewhere else entirely). Could I have seen any of this coming? Could I have planned it?

In his interview with Derek Halpern, three-time best-selling author Tim Ferriss says that the key to his shocking success hasn’t been strategic planning, as many might first think. Instead, he lives by a series of three to six month goals and micro experiments. There are at least two major benefits for doing this.

First, he says, it lets him treat the projects in his life as tests, rather than major life decisions. If you launch a podcast, or open an online store by saying to yourself Okay, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my career then you face a tremendous downside if it doesn’t work out. You’ve failed.

The mere threat of failure is what keeps many people from trying things, and so this idea of committing to some long-term goal or plan can sometimes keep you from ever getting started.

By contrast, if you view something as a test, then there can be no failure; There’s only feedback. If it tanks, you take a look at what happened, and incorporate that new knowledge into your next project. You’re not a failure, you’re just learning. That feels a lot less scary.

Second, when you avoid long-term planning it leaves you open to opportunities you didn’t know were waiting. To create long, multi-year plans is to ignore the fact that the future is actually unwritten. It’s to risk being over-committed to a plan that’s not working, or one that only realizes part of your potential.

When Derek Sivers started his company CD Baby, his boldest vision predicted 1,000 clients and three employees crammed into his living room. Reality had more in store.  When he sold the company for $22M, CD Baby had over 200,000 clients, eighty-five employees, more than twenty-thousand square feet of warehouse, and millions of transactions a year.

Staying agile allows you to take hold of opportunities that are even better than you imagined possible.

All of this has been rattling around in my mind today, as I look back on what the last three months have brought. It’s rung especially true as I look forward to the next year, and the resolutions that would typically accompany the changing of the calendar.

This year there will be no resolutions. No goal by which I judge the success or failure of 2016. No grand vision for my life or work.

Just a handful of three to six month experiments that I’m really excited about, and hopefully the courage not to take them too seriously.

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 3

This has been a fun little experiment, and I’m happy to present the third and (for now) final episode of my little cooking-show-slash-small-biz-advice session. In this bit I talk about the power of books, dealing with haters, and the oh-so-important question of whom you need to become in order to have what you want.

Here are links to the resources I mentioned:

This isn’t goodbye forever. I’ve enjoyed this format, and think we may be stumbling towards something cool. I’ve got a couple of changes I want to make to the overall focus, timing, and quality, but look forward to version 2.0

In the meantime, if you got any value out of this, have questions or feedback, or just want to say hey, reach out and find me on twitter @EthanDBrooks.

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2

For those of you who may have just stumbled across this, this is an experiment I’m doing where — in order to get away from my desk for a little while each day — I drop on down to the kitchen, cook a tasty meal, and discuss facets of travel, entrepreneurship, and small business that are on my mind from the day. In this episode, I whip up a quick favorite from Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Chef .

Here is a link to episode 1 are links to any of the resources I talked about: Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2”

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1

No, it’s definitely not a real TV show. Just a good excuse for me to get away from my desk once a day or so, get down to the kitchen, and cook a good meal. One part Random Show, one part Wine About It, with a little Ask Gary Vee mixed in, this is me standing in front of the camera cooking, and talking about some of the more interesting ideas, articles, and resources I’ve come across throughout the day.

Links to everything can be found below. Some are affiliate Amazon links, which definitely help to keep this ship afloat. If you’re thinking of buying any of the books I mention (and I won’t mention them unless I’d truly recommend them) it’d mean a lot if you’d do it by clicking the links here. Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1”