Solo Travel and the Foods We Love

Bitter marmalade, the buzz about “seasonality,” and designing food menus for coffee fanatics

Marché Président Wilson, Paris

Marché Président Wilson, Paris

“So many new ideas can take shape when you travel alone. It’s healthy and almost necessary to feel vulnerable when you’re in a new place—you have to really listen to yourself. What am I doing next? How should I spend my time? What am I hungry for? It’s really all on you.”

Hedy Macferran, Director of Culinary at Blue Bottle Coffee, credits her travel experiences—particularly her solo adventures—with moments of revelation in the kitchen.

Here, she shares more about her travel philosophy, the food she loves, and the creative challenges of designing food menus for coffee people.

How have your travels shaped your perspective, culinary or otherwise? Was there a defining moment that shifted how you thought about food?

Yes, and it was quite simple, actually: I was 19 and I was having breakfast in Paris with a friend at our hostel. The breakfast was nothing more than warm bread, homemade butter, bitter marmalade, and café au lait. And yet, I had never experienced such joy. It was a real awakening—I almost felt like I was eating for the first time.

I grew up with so little I genuinely believed that one had to be rich and famous to experience wonderful food. I thought food was this complicated, unreachable thing. But this experience gave me access. It changed my perception. The simple ingredients were key. In Paris, I walked through markets and experienced tiny, hidden restaurants. For the first time, I understood the connection. All I needed was a devotion to simplicity, locality, seasonality.

What do those words mean, do you think? There’s so much hype about simplicity and seasonality—and people have come to accept these ideas as valuable—but what significance do they hold for you?

I remember traveling in Italy to visit a college friend, and I was astounded by the fact that he and his friends were so proud of their country—showing me what to eat in certain regions, in their small towns, the environment and seasonality of the place. There are definitely “rules” in Italy about what you eat when and where. This experience was eye-opening, and in a strange way, it made me feel more patriotic. I wanted to feel this way about my own country! I wanted to understand what my culinary identity was at its roots, because food really grounds me. Wherever I am in the world, food helps me create a sense of place, a sense of self.

To cook and serve something that speaks to my core, I have to have ingredients that are cared for and grown in a place where they thrive. I always look to farmers for inspiration—they’re closest to the food. Once you understand and trust your ingredients, cooking can be the simplest, truest act.

A lot of people feel a desire to travel, even if they can’t pinpoint exactly where that desire comes from. Why do you think travel is important?

Traveling is part of living. What I do in Israel or Bulgaria or The Netherlands or China is the same as what I do here—I’m still the same person with the same desires and interests, but in a different style, a different setting. You start to recognize connections between who you are at home and who you are somewhere else, which is why traveling alone can be so life-changing. If you’re lucky, you come to recognize your core impulses; only the peripherals change.

I grew up with a lot of noise, and in an attempt to redirect my life, I had to learn how to listen to myself and discover who I was and what I wanted. Solo traveling really helped me do that. More recently, my solo travel has become shorter, but there are still a lot of opportunities to do it—like taking a trip to Point Reyes for a weekend, or going on a hike by myself, or even eating at a restaurant alone. I love making time for these moments of solitude.

When you’re in a new place, especially by yourself, how do you know where to look for restaurants or other dining options?

It’s always fun to cast a net and ask for recommendations from trusted friends. I also love surprise discoveries—walking around in a new place until at last you stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant, cafe, or bar. If I am in a place that is completely new, I always, always go to farmers’ markets. That’s where you’ll find the best local color—and where you’ll also have the joy of meeting the people who produced your food. There’s nothing better.

How have your travel experiences informed the way you and your team developed the new menu?

Well, we started from scratch, but we didn’t really start from scratch. We started with coffee, of course, and an exceptional tradition of Blue Bottle pastries from Caitlin Freeman. We also had 22 cafes to start with. Think about that! There was a whole spectrum of cafe experiences in a variety of neighborhoods. We considered each individual place, as well as the overall experience. We used local cues and our surroundings to orient ourselves. Chef Scott Boggs guided our efforts in LA, and Chef Ryan Hart steered us forward in NY. And the menus are reflective of not only each region, but also each city block, each cafe.

If you think about a place like our Hayes Valley Kiosk, there’s no place to sit down and eat. So, that inspires a kind of street-food interpretation of a cafe menu—you need foods that you can pop into your mouth as you’re walking away. Like an espresso—you don’t walk down the street and sip it for an hour. What someone wants to eat at our Ferry Building Arcade is very different from what someone wants to eat at, say, our Echo Park location. And what’s in season in Japan currently is very different than what’s in season in Northern California. So, our New York cafes are currently using dates in their breakfast bars, while our LA cafes are using cherries. The food is connected to the place.

If you could eat any meal in any place right now, where would it be and what would you eat? 

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. While there, I purchased three different types of mole—mole poblano rojo, mole de ajonjoli, mole almendrado—from a vendor by the name of Chiles Secos, as a souvenir for my partner Paul. Tonight, we’re going to experience all three at home with seared chicken breast, Mexican rice, and homemade pickled carrots.

For me, cooking at home is so dictated by the moment that it always provides a sense of emotional completeness. Whether it’s consciously or casually undertaken, I think it’s the best way to enjoy a meal—even more so if you can be with the people you love.