Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: A ‘Bon Appétit’ Editor on Traveling to Eat

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with Kate Kassin to talk about building the magazine's Best New Restaurants list, making reservations well in advance, and more.
Women Who Travel Podcast A ‘Bon Apptit Editor on Traveling to Eat

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Planning a trip around food is one of our favorite ways to travel, so Lale turns to a seasoned restaurant scouter for intel. Kate Kassin is the Editorial Operations Manager at Bon Appétit, which means she works on some of the magazine's biggest projects, including its Best New Restaurants list. They talk about what it takes to uncover some of the most exciting places to eat in the US right now, and her tips for finding the best spots to eat on any vacation.

Lale Arikoglu: Hello, and welcome to Women Who Travel. I'm Lale Arikoglu. One of the best parts of working as a magazine publisher is the fascinating work other people are doing in the building, particularly those who work at our food publications.

Kate Kassin: I, I don't, like, lick a plate at a restaurant, because I was raised to be a proper human being.

LA: Right.

KK: But I, I would—

LA: I understand if you want to lick the plate.

KK: I ask for, you know, for extra rice. I want to soak up every last drop of that sauce.

LA: Kate Kassin is the Editorial Operations Manager at Bon Appétit and Epicurious. This means she works on the brands' biggest projects. And one of the most seemingly exciting parts of her job is helping create Bon Appetit's annual Best New Restaurant list, which just dropped this week.

In the past, the magazine ranked the top 50 best restaurants in the US and whittled it down to an exclusive Hot 10 list. But this year, they're taking a new approach. We'll hear from Kate about why this year is different and the travel required to create a list like this. But first, we learn what kind of traveler she is and, of course, her tips for finding the best food on any trip. I'm really interested to know what sort of traveler you are.

KK: Well, I would say I'm always someone who travels to eat, and I always have been. When I was even 10 years old and planning family trips to whether it was Barcelona or LA, I would, you know, read every Bon Appétit, Eater, Infatuation, Traveler, every article I could get my hands on. My parents are also huge guidebook people, and they'd bring them to the city. I always say, like, "What a heavy thing to bring in your backpack." My mom's like, "I can read it on the plane."
So we're definitely people who, when someone asks like, "Oh, what are you doing on that trip?," I have my lunch-

LA: You're planners.

KK: ... my lunch and dinner at least picked out, and then everything kind of surrounds that.

LA: It's so funny that you say that you travel to eat, because I think I do, too. It's a huge part of what I want to do when I'm in a place. But recently, someone asked me for some recommendations for New York, and they specifically were like, "As a family, we're just not that interested in food. So don't worry about the restaurants." And I was, like, sitting there and I was like, "I don't know what to tell you to do." Like, so much of what I know about a city or a place and how I go about it is by eating.

KK: And it's a really great way, I actually find, to structure your trip. You know, you might pick a restaurant for dinner that happens to be in a certain neighborhood, and then, hey, that tells you exactly what you can do before. You can walk around that neighborhood. Maybe there's a bar nearby that you want to try as well.

I, you know, rely on the Maps feature. I'm someone who loves to walk. Um-

LA: Oh, me too. And, and then sometimes, like, too long. Like, it, it starts to get... Like, I decided to walk for dinner in Stockholm a couple of months ago and was like, "Oh, I'll walk the hour and 20 minutes to this place." And by the time I got there, I was kind of exhausted.

KK: It's funny because I've always thought that I traveled to eat. And then when I started, you know, our Best New Restaurants project, I was like, "I never traveled to eat. I traveled and I ate," versus for work, I was quite literally traveling to eat-

LA: Yeah.

KK: ... and I had no other purpose in that city but to eat and fill the time in between, you know, walking around. You're not going to a museum when you have two dinners to, uh, sit through later. But I think in terms of personal travel, instead of reading the guidebooks, I think I ask everyone I know, whether it's, you know, looking at people who I work with's Instagram story highlights and seeing where they went. These are people who I trust and who I think aren't just trying to go to the places that are the most expensive or Michelin-starred or most acclaimed.

I just went to Paris with my parents. And we've all been a few times before. And we were really interested in going to places that were, you know, maybe a little newer and doing something different and that wouldn't have existed in the city the last time we were there.

LA: It's... Yeah, I think it's so great you say that, 'cause I feel similarly in that the drawers always to go to those big famous restaurants. And they have such a place, especially in somewhere like Paris. But usually, when I come back from a new place or a city, the things I'm most excited about that I ate often weren't at the fancy restaurant. Sometimes, they are, but it can a- also just be, like, a really great sandwich.

KK: Oh, yeah. I mean, France is the perfect example. I studied abroad there my junior year of college in Leone. And I lived with a host family, and we were provided breakfast and dinner, but not midday food. I say midday food because I eat lunch, but also have lots of snacks.

LA: [laughs].

KK: And so I really relied on the bakeries there to provide me sustenance. But also, it was such a wonderful way to run around the city. And I think, you know, every city has its equivalent or every country has its equivalent of bakeries. You know, in Italy, you're having to gelatos a day, right? In France, you're going to two bakeries a day. And I think that's such a wonderful way of also eating things in that city that maybe aren't those $200 tasting menus.

You know, you might have a pain au chocolat that costs, you know, two euro, where here, at the best bakeries in New York, it's like eight euro now. And there's something in the butter there. But I could probably just eat that all day long and have, like, one spaced out every two hours. That isn't what I do.

But there are wonderful institutions that, you know, show up on these Michelin and World's 50 Best lists. But the places that I love most are being run by young people who are starting their first restaurants. We went to a Filipino spot in Paris that I don't think I think of Paris and think, "Wow, I need to go out for Filipino food when I'm there." But they were applying French technique to all these different dishes that I wouldn't expect to have in Paris, but were some of the best versions I've ever had. You know, we were having, like, Filipino lechon, which I could eat crispy pork belly every day of the week. But this was done in such a thoughtful way and, like, didn't weigh me down the way that my souffle the next night at Bistrot Paul Bert did, which was wonderful.

But I think as we travel, I think as you were just saying, like, we're looking for meal experiences that are something a little different, that are distinct and of the city. You know, you want to be going to somewhere that's speaking to, let's say, you know, the Paris dining scene. But more

and more, I'm like, “Hm. When I'm in Copenhagen, I want to go eat Mexican food, because I've heard they have amazing tacos at this one spot.”

LA: Or it's like I went to Mexico City and had great Japanese food.

KK: Yeah. Yeah. Or in Japan, they have amazing pizza.

LA: What would be some of your tips to travelers who are maybe showing up in a place that they don't know and maybe they haven't actually planned that much, which I know you'll disapprove of? But how should they go about trying to tap into the dining scene there and find some things that might be exciting or interesting and also affordable?

KK: Definitely. I would say the, my biggest pro tip when you land in a city that you've never been to before is to walk around, also to take public transportation. I think when you're landing in a city and hopping from taxi cab to Uber to taxi cab and only going to the spots with the really long lines or that are packed outside, you might not discover that really exciting underbelly of a city's dining scene.

But also, ask around, whether it's, you know, someone at the hotel or you sit next to your first day at lunch, some locals. Ask them, “Where do you love dining around here?”

LA: I love asking the bartender.

KK: Yes. Asking even your server at a restaurant, you know, like, "I really trust your opinion. Where should I go for lunch tomorrow?" And I think especially people who work in the restaurant industry or hotels as well know what's going on. They're, you know, they're insiders in the scene. So I think asking people on the ground is really the best way to discover those places that you might not discover on the internet.

LA: Yeah. I love asking, if I'm in a restaurant and I'm trying to figure out where to go for a drink, after asking the server. And they'll always be like, "Oh, there's this really cool place that we all go to once we finish our shift." And it-

KK: Yeah.

LA: It's always great. Always.

KK: Absolutely. And I'm not saying that the places with lines are not worth going to, you know? I think when it comes to bakeries, when it comes to, you know, some of these lunch spots, whether it's a falafel spot, or, you know, a dumpling spot, sometimes places with lines are because they are world renowned and incredible.

LA: And you've only got two people working there, right?

KK: Yes.

LA: Like, it's... Sometimes, a line is because it's delicious and it's small.

KK: Yeah. So I think that's really, I would agree with you, the best approach, asking people on the ground what excites them, where you should go, and kind of just being open-minded. I think, yeah, the same thing. Paris is a great example. You don't just go there to eat French food. While, yes, they have the best French food in the world, if your bartender or server's telling you, "Ooh, I really love this spot for Moroccan. You have to take the metro for 40 minutes to get there," get on that metro and go there. It is probably going to be some of the best food you've ever had and is always worth the trip.

LA: After the break, Kate reveals the secrets of a restaurant critic.
We work on the same floor of the same content tower, as we refer to it, too.

KK: [laughs].

LA: But I feel like magazines at Condé Nast are often, like, kind of... We, like, operate in our own universes. I'm in, like, the travel universe. You're in the food one. So I'm really excited to actually, like, find out how you work and how you put together your magazine and website, particularly this big list, which I know you're shaking up a bit this year at Bon Appetit. So explain what people can expect from it and then also what you've just released.

KK: Yeah. This year, we're doing something a little different, which I'm very excited about and kind of came up organically, that we really only wanted to have one list across both the website and the print magazine that would be somewhere between 20 and 30 restaurants. Um, so it is 24 Best New Restaurants of 2023 Across the United States of America. So we will be releasing that list. There's no ranking order. Every single one of these restaurants has something really special about it.

LA: I love that there's no ranking. Was that, like, a... I mean, it must have been a conscious decision. Why decide to not rank the restaurants? Why decide to not have the number one new restaurant in America?

KK: Right. I think we have a few answers to that. And the first I would give is that we do not only have one person trying all of these restaurants. So it's a little difficult to be like, "Oh, well, my number one was better than your number one." And I also just think these all are contributing something different to the dialogue of dining out right now. So there's no one restaurant that's maybe the food's slightly better at one, but the service is slightly better.

And it's just not about having the number one. It's about sharing places that we really loved, sharing places that we'd want to return to, versus, "Oh, this number one, I'd rather return to than number 24." They all have something super special about them.

LA: And you said you criss-crossed the US. You know, we make some similar lists at Condé Nast Traveler. We have our Gold List and our Hot List. And for that, we have the whole world. Are you doing the whole of the United States? And h- how are you even, like, tackling the map of the country and carving it up?

KK: Yeah. So I am the person who's sitting on Google, reading about the restaurant openings day in and day out in all the major cities, so New York, Austin, Texas, San Francisco, LA, Miami, but also really trying to find the nuggets opening in every single smaller town across the country. I do that by reading local news. I do that by scrolling on Instagram and stumbling down a rabbit hole of a new spot that maybe opened, you know, in Lubbock, Texas, or Kansas City that's not just the New York dining scene, where our entire team is based.

Discovering a city through its restaurants is the best way to do it. Obviously, on these work trips where you're trying restaurants for the purpose of this list, you're not staying there for a week and getting to do all the touristy attractions. But getting to go somewhere and try some of the new restaurants opening can be a really good window into what's happening in the city more generally culturally.

LA: So you hit the ground, you went to Miami, and then where else did you go?

KK: Yeah. So I did Miami this year. I did Savannah, Georgia, Charleston. I actually went to Atlanta as well. I did Detroit. I did Chicago and then New York. You know, we're all based here. So it's nice to, every Saturday night when I'm deciding where to go to dinner, to go to a new spot and check it out and call it work.

LA: What a slew of, like, amazing food cities that will have, like, such different identities. I've been to a few of them, but, like, I'm desperate to go to Atlanta. I hear there's a great scene there. And Chicago's amazing.

When you hit the ground in these places, what's your game plan? Do you have, like, a really strict itinerary scheduled out for when you're there? I mean, clearly, you've been kind of keeping tabs and you know places you want to check out. And how much is left to spontaneity?

KK: So nothing is left to spontaneity, both in-

LA: [laughs].

KK: ... both in work trips and my personal trips, if I'm being completely honest, not to sound like a tyrant. So when we're doing the research, we're kind of looking at everything that opened. Obviously, it's impossible to capture every single restaurant that opened in every single city across the country. But that being said, you know, we're really putting together a master doc that has any place that looks exciting to go to, also places that maybe look slightly less exciting, but we put it on there, even if it's, you know, a fifth location of a restaurant opening in Dallas that started in New York 15 years ago, just to have it on there.

But from there, we start to narrow down, like, from their Instagram, from their menu, from word of mouth, like, where's really exciting, where it looks like they're doing something that's a little out of the ordinary and different, and where just looks, you know, downright delicious.

So from there, we're paring it back to... We're not going to the cities for longer than we need to, both for, you know, budgetary reasons, but also just for our time and needing to kind of hit everywhere that we need to hit. So Detroit and Savannah, I went to both for 24 hours each or maybe less, maybe 16 hours.

LA: That is so intense. How many meals are you having in that 24 hours?

KK: So in Savannah, I arrived and I took all my... You're going during the workweek for a lot of these. So I try to take my meetings while I'm walking around the city, especially if it's a new city, just because how many times do I get to go to Savannah in February-

LA: Right.

KK: ... and have it be 75 degrees when it's freezing here? Um-

LA: And like you said, I imagine, you know, these restaurants are a window into what's happening in a city. And so you need to get to know it. And if you're sitting in a hotel room on Zoom in between meals-

KK: Definitely

LA: ... what's the point of going?

KK: Yeah. The funniest thing is that we're not going to these, like, legacy restaurants that have been open forever. So when I was in Savannah, everyone was like, "Oh my gosh. Are you going to The Grey for dinner?" Um, I was like, "I'd absolutely love to, but I have two new restaurants to hit for dinner." So Savannah, I got it in the afternoon, went out for two dinners. We're not going to these meals alone for the most part. You're encouraged to bring a friend, bring a family member, bring a stranger.

LA: I imagine part of that is just so you can try more stuff.

KK: Yes, exactly.

LA: Because if you're eating alone, and I love eating alone, but you're very limited on how much you can sample.

KK: Yeah. And we're... You're not trying to just get an appetizer and an entrée. You're wanting to experience the drink menu, to experience dessert. So yes, it's a great excuse to have dessert at lunch. So Savannah, I went out for two different dinners. Um, I had a friend who was passing through the city at the same time as me. I told her to buckle up and bring her appetite. And yeah, some of these trips, you're really planning around going to one restaurant. So I, you know, went to Savannah for 16 hours on my way to Charleston, essentially to go eat dinner at one restaurant, which ended up being fantastic and is on the list. And I had written about their opening when they opened a little earlier this year. And you're going out for two dinners some of these nights. So you're trying to eat a lot, but also eat not enough that you have space left in your stomach.

LA: I do do this on vacation sometimes. I was in Montreal earlier this year. And every night, we booked two dinners.

KK: Yeah. It's-

LA: Which was kind of insane, but-

KK: It's insane. I also don't know if it's good for my physical health.

LA: Oh, no. I came out of that trip, like, potential gout i- in my future-

KK: Yes.

LA: ... for sure.

KK: No. I always say, like, you get back to your hotel room and you lie down, and you wonder, like, "Do I have to do this for many more years?"-

LA: [laughs].

KK: ... which is, it's an incredible privilege to travel and eat for work, but it definitely is like, "Wow, I just ate, you know, a whole fried chicken dinner and two slices of pie and 24 Oysters, and I'm somehow still standing." Um-

LA: And I have to do it all over again tomorrow.

KK: And all again.

LA: Um, I have to ask, do the restaurants know you're coming?

KK: We actually don't want restaurants to know. We want to have the experience that everyone else is having. We do not make... I mean, my name is not recognized. But we do not make, you know, reservations under fake names. We just-

LA: Or I imagine your work email, which would be one, one-

KK: No, absolutely not.

LA: ... giveaway.

KK: I, I, use my G—

LA: [laughs].

KK: I use my Gmail, although our work emails are Conde Nast. So I could work at any publication here. But, no. So we really do like to go in, and I love a place where you don't make a reservation, because, you know, you're just showing up and really getting that baseline authentic experience. But there are some cases in which, you know, I have to ask like, “Will you be open? I'm planning my trip around coming for dinner at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.”

LA: And you're like, “Please don't make me say why this is so important.”

KK: Exactly. But yeah, I think you really just want to have that experience that any diner is going to have at the restaurant.

LA: I feel like we've touched on this a bit already in terms of it has to be new. You want it to be reflective of the whole country. But is there, like, a certain criteria you're following and that you're like, "Okay, we've got so many sit-down restaurants? Do we want a food cart? Do we want somewhere that's walk-in only? do we want somewhere that's family run?" I... Kind of what are you trying to cover in it?

Kate Kassin: Yeah.

LA: 'Cause 24 is a lot, but also not that much.

KK: Right. And I think this past year, we saw so many restaurants that started as pop-ups during the pandemic or started as stalls in a food hall, because it was 2020 and life was different.
But yeah, I think that we're trying to cover a large spectrum of those maybe more expensive special occasion restaurants that you reserve for a birthday or when a family member's in town.

And yeah, we're also trying to cover a restaurant that's, you know, in the back of a gas station and opened and operated by one person. I wouldn't say that we, like, specifically are like, "Okay. we have a quota. We need to have-

LA: Yeah. We need the gas station restaurant. [laughs].

KK: "... five, five fine dining restaurants and four restaurants where you can spend less than 100 per person. I love when, you know, it's family owned or maybe it's someone cooking the recipes of their grandparents. You know, I think we gravitate towards that story as much as the readers do. We have a lot of restaurants this year on the list that are people who have, chefs who have trained in maybe fine dining restaurants and finally are opening up their own solo ventures and cooking the foods of their childhoods or their families. And kind of maybe when they first started their careers, they didn't want to open these Peruvian or Haitian or Hong Kong style cafe restaurants because they wanted to, you know, earn their stripes and work in fine dining. But now, they're taking a step back and asking like, “What food do I love to eat? What food is most comforting to me?”

LA: And I imagine then is the most fun to make.

KK: Exactly. And I think those are the places that we're gravitating towards. So in terms of criteria, I would say when you leave a restaurant that you think is the best new restaurant, you feel it. And that was something that I hadn't experienced, you know, as a reader of the list.
But I had a few meals this year where I left and maybe my stomach hurt or I wondered if I would wake up the next morning from the amount of food that I consumed, but where you leave and you're like, “Wow, I really felt taken care of here. Everything I ate, I wanted to spoon every last drop into my mouth.”

LA: [laughs].

KK: And I'm not afra-... I, I don't, like, lick a plate at a restaurant, because I was raised to be a proper human being. But I've

LA: I, I wouldn't judge anyone.

KK: Yeah.

LA: I understand if you want to lick the plate.

KK: I ask for you know... If they... If it's a restaurant that serves rice, I will ask for extra rice. I want to soak up every last drop of that sauce.That's probably a good indication that it was really delicious.

LA: We're going to take one last break. Then, Kate tells us the best part of the job and the food experience that she just can't stop thinking about.
How much of criss-crossing across the country feels fun for this list, and how much of it just gets tiring?

KK: Yeah. I think, you know, I'm very new at doing it. But I think I keep on telling myself to take a step back and realize like, wow, if you had told me 10 years ago or even five years ago, like, "Kate, you will be working on the Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant list and getting to, on the company's dime, travel to new cities and try new restaurants and befriend the chefs and the servers," I would have laughed at you, because that would have never happened and that would have been, you know, beyond my wildest dreams.

I think out of everything that I do at my job, the coolest, truly most remarkable part of the job is getting to tell these restaurants, like, you know, it's usually via email, but, “Hi. We'd love to inform you that we're loving everything you're doing and you will be on our Best New Restaurants list this year.”

LA: Ah, such a fun email to send.

KK: It's a fun email to send. We love reading the replies. we do try to keep it kind of top secret for a while, but eventually do need to tell the restaurants. And whether it's a restaurant that I visited in person and whether it's a restaurant where I know the chef, there's really no better feeling than knowing that putting a restaurant on this list could change the trajectory of the business and also is shaping where people are going when they're dining in these cities. So I-

LA: And where they're spending their money.

KK: Where they're spending their money, the new foods that they're discovering. You know, I love to send out recommendations to friends. Here, I get to send out recommendations to a lot more than my friends. There are thousands and thousands of people getting to read my quick little 150-word writeup of a place that is a lot more special than 150 words. So I would say you know, as you said, we can often forget while we're on the job the impact that we can have on these businesses, many of them very small, where, you know, maybe they need to close for a weekend because people are showing up in hordes to try the incredible food that they're putting out.
But I think you know, making these lasting relationships with the people behind these businesses is truly the greatest part of the job.

LA: Is there, like, one food experience you've had in all of your travels that you still just can't stop thinking about?

KK: Yeah. I think I... I get asked all the time, as you were saying, like, "What are your favorite places to dine in New York City? What, where are your favorite places to dine kind of all over the world?" And a lot of the time, it's not that, you know, 10-course tasting menu that I got to go to, as incredible as it was. But it's a place that…

You know, I'll speak to the list this year. I think about one meal that I had, back to Savannah, at this restaurant that is essentially family run. The chef was in fine dining in Chicago, moved to Savannah because his wife's family was there during the pandemic, and it's called Brochu's Family Tradition. And family is truly at the center of what they're doing. You know, every server and every bartender is a friend of a friend and quite literally moved the city to open this restaurant.
And I think about, you know, all the dining experiences I've had in my entire life, whether it's at Shake Shack or a fine dining restaurant or my favorite local Thai spot, and it's restaurants like Brochu's that are just... You know, you sit down and you immediately know that you're in good hands that I want to return to and that I really think back to. Yes, the food's also amazing, but I think it's, like, a feeling that you have when you're there-

LA: Yeah.

KK: ... that you're like, “Huh. I don't feel this when I sit down at every restaurant, especially the ones in New York that are, you know, rushing me out and asking me if I'm ready for the check.”

LA: Yeah.

KK: You kind of feel like, "Wow, I could, I could sit here forever and they wouldn't ask me to leave, and they would just keep feeding me." And that is just the spirit of the restaurant. So I think, you know, on my travels this year, there were a few spots like that, that I really just felt like they were excited to have me there and excited to have every single person in the dining room there. And I think it's just, like, mutual gratitude of the restaurant feeding you and obviously you're paying for it, but also then sharing with everyone you know or maybe, in the case of the list, a very large readership how much you just felt cared for there.

LA: You've made me very hungry and desperate to travel around the US and try so many of the places that are on this list. Congrats on the list, and we'll have to get you back on.

KK: Thank you.

LA: I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram @LaleHannah. If you want to follow Kate…

KK: I'm on Instagram @KateAKassin. I also love to receive messages. I love to chat, love to engage. Instagram's my main platform. I will answer on LinkedIn, but definitely not my main platform.

LA: Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. And thanks to Jordan Bell for production support on this episode. Next week, singer-songwriter Faouzia share stories of Morocco and Canada, plus some new music.