We’re fascinated by the fearlessness of solo travelers, so we asked Michelle Sander (a freelance writer and award-winning filmmaker) to find people living the solo-travel lifestyle and talk about what it’s really like behind the social feeds (with some honest language-learning advice, obviously). We’ll be publishing one every #TravelTuesday this month, so let us know what you think and if you’d like more articles like this.
Chef Brooke Siem Talks Solo-Travel and Cooking with Grandmas
In this installment, we dish with Brooke Siem, a solo-traveler who spent eight years as a New York City chef. She co-founded a sweet cupcake shop in the Big Apple and became a champion on Food Network’s Chopped before leaving the grind behind to travel and cook with grandmothers (yes, grandmothers!) highlighting traditional recipes from around the world.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
A: To me, making food for someone is a communication of love. I went to culinary school, cooked in restaurants, and then opened a boozy cupcake company in Manhattan. I was named one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 and am a Food Network’s Chopped champion. But I’m also a writer with over 200 published pieces in the past three years. I write about fitness, food, and travel. I also co-authored a cookbook titled Prohibition Bakery, and now I’m working on my second book.
“I found that as soon as something I loved became driven by money and customers in seats, I began to resent the thing I once loved so much.”
Q: What do you think drives your desire to head into the unknown?
A: I’ve never been able to sit still, and I get antsy when my surroundings don’t change.
Q: So, cooking with grandmothers? How’d that come about?
A: When I decided to leave my New York City life and travel around the world, I knew I wanted to eat well. I also knew, after nearly a decade in the food and wine industry, that I didn’t have any interest in eating in places dripping with accolades. I spent my career either working in or competing with those sorts of restaurants, and it killed my love for food and cooking. To me, making food for someone is a communication of love, and I found that as soon as something I loved became driven by money and customers in seats, I began to resent the thing I once loved so much. I decided that I would seek out food that meant something to the person who cooked it. That took me to the table, in private homes, with a grandmother watching over a simmering stove.
Generally speaking, Millennials all over the world have stopped cooking over a fire and are instead photographing açai bowls for their Instagram. It’s clear to me that there is a dying generation of women who are going to take their culinary and cultural traditions to the grave. I wanted to experience a sliver of their world before it disappears forever. At this point I’ve cooked with over a dozen grandmothers across four continents (and am currently searching for the right home to get this turned into a digital series.) They invite me into their home, and whether or not we speak the same verbal language, we find ways to communicate through food.
“All around the world, people are generally good. They want to help.”
Q: If you had to pick one, can you share your favorite travel story?
A: I can’t pick a favorite, but one that always comes to mind took place on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. I told the translator I was working with about my project, and she went out on the island and asked a bunch of old ladies if they’d be willing to cook with some crazy white lady. A woman named Ratchanee, who sold coffee and on the side of the road, said yes. On a rainy day in October, I wandered over to her stall. She did not speak any English, and in fact did not say much at all. She just got to work stuffing marble sized balls of glutinous rice dough with sweetened coconut. And so, I stuffed coconut into dough and dropped the bite sized pieces into boiling water. We continued like this all afternoon, soaking wet thanks to the rain. I asked a few questions about her life, and she answered through the translator in short sentences that made me wonder if I was intruding, or if she didn’t want me there.
When we finished our coconut balls, Ratchanee piled them up in a styrofoam container. She poured me a bright red, sticky sweet drink and handed me my bounty. I asked for a picture, unsure if she would be willing. I sat next to her while the translator took a picture, and she put her arm around me. When I looked at her face, her eyes were full of tears.
She said to the translator, “I am a very shy and I was nervous about agreeing to do this. Until now, I had three grown children but today, I have four.”
Q: What’s your biggest solo-travel insight?
A: All around the world, people are generally good. They want to help, not hurt. I don’t often witness people doing that in their own communities, but when traveling, I get help all the time.
Q: Do you think learning languages is an important aspect of being a global-focused traveler?
A: I think it’s always good to at least learn the basics of wherever you’re at. The hellos, thank yous, and one-coffee-pleases of the world. It shows respect for wherever you’re at and lets others know that you don’t expect them to bow down to you just because you’re a traveler.
“It’s always good to at least learn the basics of wherever you’re at. The hellos, thank yous, and one-coffee-pleases of the world. It shows respect for wherever you are.”
Q: Any advice or encouragement for other aspiring solo-travelers out there?
A: It’s not always about the places you see on Instagram. My best experiences have always been in the places I accidentally found, not the ones everyone else goes to.
“My best experiences have always been in the places I accidentally found, not the ones everyone else goes to.
Sending huge culinary snaps to Brooke for sharing her solo-travel insights. If you’d like to see more of Brooke’s adventures exploring traditional recipes with grandmothers from around the world, follow her on Instagram. If you’ve been inspired by Brooke to take off on a far-flung culinary adventure of your own, Rosetta Stone offers 25+ languages to help get you confidently speaking another language. Bonus, the app goes anywhere you can imagine thanks to downloadable lessons.