Chefs Without Borders

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First published 20th September, 2009

Just walking down the footpath can be a memorable experience in Southeast Asia -- you could easily cross paths with an elephant, meander past a blind musicians or step aside to make way for a column of monks -- yet one of the most memorable facets is the food. Clayton, Chad, and Lyndon, three Canadian chef-travellers, decided to record their experience as they cooked -- and ate -- their way across Southeast Asia. Read on for the details.


What was the objective behind Without Borders?
We wanted to show travel, culture, and adventure on a budget. And the easiest way to do this was through food, which was the basis of the Chefs Without Borders videos. As you can see in our videos, food brings people and cultures together. We also wanted to highlight how cheap, easy and safe it is to travel. Many people are scared of going outside of their resort or backpacker area, but once you get out of the touristy areas, that's when you get a real taste of the culture and the people. The people in Asia are the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world. We have had locals who had almost nothing, invite us in to their homes, cook us dinner, and supply us with booze and night, and they wanted nothing in return.

What did you learn in doing this?
We have all been on other trips through Asia before but for the most part it usually ended up just seeing the main sights which usually included the best bars. I guess this time around we had learned that food is a great way to meet and talk with the locals and we learned a lot about the culture and the way they live. We realise now that the best memories we had weren't at the bar but instead it was all the other experiences we had, whether it was getting invited in to a local's wedding or even getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire. These are the experiences and stories that you will never forget and made the highlights of our trips.

Apart from that I guess the fact that we had basically no experience filming or even being in front of the camera (besides old skateboard videos) so we had learned really quick how to use a video camera properly, plan our shots, and even learned to edit as we were on our trip. If you see our first videos, I think you can definitely see the progression.

MALAYSIA

What would you say was the single most useful/important thing you learnt about filming?
Don't shoot towards the sun (in most cases). Try to take steady shots and use a tripod whenever you can. There's nothing worse than shaky videos. Also b-rolls are a life saver in lots of our editing. We have to make sure after we do a shoot to cover all the shots that we might have missed. Using just one camera made things really difficult. Also we learned to have a bit of variety in our shots including pans, tilts, and other creative shots. And definitely try to watch and log your footage so you know exactly what is on your tape, at the exact time. This way you can look back in your log book and easily find those important shots that would otherwise take hours to locate.

But this is everything we learnt on the way. Filming is a wicked hobby, and I can't think of a better way to remember your travels than to have an edited set of videos that you did yourself.

CAMBODIA

Would you still eat at street stalls having seen all you've seen?
Definitely! Street stalls make the best food around. They usually just cook one or two things, so just think... These people cook the same one or two dishes about 100 times per day, 5-6-7 days a week. So they are experts at it!

How has the experience influenced your cooking back at home?
We had just learned a lot about different ingredients and flavours. I think the sweet and sour aspect they do in all Asian cooking is fantastic! They all seem to use the perfect balance of sweet (palm sugar or fruit) to sour ( tamarind or lime juice).

THAILAND

What is your favourite street food?
There is just too much great food in Asia to pinpoint only one, but as far as going on a food tour, Bangkok and Penang were at the top of the list for great food and variety.

What advice would you offer travellers who are fearful/intimidated by street food?
Don't be scared! Some restaurants are probably dirtier than the street stalls and you can at least see what's going on in the kitchen. Just take a look at the hygiene, and if things are refrigerated properly and you'll be alright.

What was the most exotic thing you ate?
Live cobra hearts, tarantulas or bees larvae.... hmmm.. I guess you will have to watch all the videos.

INDONESIA

How did vendors react to the camera?
They actually loved it! Out of about 50 different food shoots we did, only about five said no. The camera enabled us to get in to a lot of places and see a lot of things we otherwise wouldn't have seen without it. I think that when people saw the camera, a lot of times they were drawn to it. It enabled us to meet a lot of great people and after meeting them, they were more than wiling to invite us in to their homes or restaurants. Without the camera, I don't think we would have learned as much about the people, their food and their culture as we did.

Also the fact that we were doing this project pushed us to get out and about and trying to immerse ourselves in the culture as much as possible. I think if we just walked up to some of these restaurants and street stalls and asked them to show us their most famous recipes without a camera, they probably wouldn't have been so willing if they didn't think they would get some kind of exposure from it. But for the most part, I think they showed us their dishes just because they liked the fact that someone was so interested in what they were preparing and also, they liked to see some random foreigner trying to cook a lizard or make a pad thai.

LAOS

What gear and equipment did you use to put the videos together?
We used a basic HD Canon HV30 handycam, a Rode microphone which we attached to a monopod and used as a boom microphone. We also used a wide angle lense tripod, and a skateboard as a dolley system. We have a behind the scenes video that shows it all. For editing, we use Corel Video 12. It is a pretty basic program to learn to use, and quite cheap too, around $200. Also we had a laptop with multiple portable hard drives we took around with us. We shot 100 hours of footage which took up 1.3 terabytes of space.

Which stall had the "best food ever"?
As far as restaurants go, Bale Well Restaurant in Hoi An. You pay one price, and the owner feeds you all her specialities until you are sick! She even wipes your face for you when you have finished! Kinabuch's restaurant in Puerto Princessa, Palawan Philippines, or Mommy and Daddys Canteen in El Nido Philippines.

The best food stall is really difficult to pin point , as most of the best food that we ate was on the streets -- individual stalls come to mind, Samsen Soi 12 in Bangkok for the Tom Yum and seafood salad, but normally wherever the locals are lining up is usually a good choice.

More information

Thanks to Clayton, Chad, and Lyndon for making the the time to answer our questions -- you can find out more about their project at the Chefs Without Borders website and you can see all the videos here.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


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