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Q&A with Ed Rudisell

While being a successful restaurateur often means fussing over the smallest of details and logging late hours poring over the books in the back office, many restaurateurs like to get away from time to time to take a break and see what ideas they can bring back from the larger world of food. One local restaurant owner with a serious case of wanderlust is Ed Rudisell, who somehow manages to rack up impressive frequent-flyer miles despite his responsibilities at hit restaurants Siam Square (936 Virginia Ave., 317-636-8424) and Black Market (922 Massachusetts Ave., 317-822-6757), as well as his soon-to-open Vietnamese banh mi emporium Rook (719 Virginia Ave.). Most recently, he returned from a trip to Thailand with his wife, Sasathorn.

Terry Kirts: So, where have you been this year?

Ed Rudisell: We went to Vegas twice, to Italy for two weeks in July, and to Thailand for nearly three weeks from mid-November to early December. We had wanted to go to Thailand in July, when Black Market was on its break, but that was the monsoon season there. So we went looking for good airfares. We narrowed it down to Barcelona or Rome, and the cheaper flight was to Rome.

TK: How much do you plan ahead for what you’ll eat on your trips?

ER: We decide on a location, then we look for the food. There’s great food almost everywhere, so we’re rarely disappointed. We usually have a couple of places in mind before we go, but we like to wait and ask the locals or the hotel staff for recommendations. It’s actually more fun this way, and we usually find the hot spots. When we came back from Italy, we pulled out some old magazines and watched some reruns of No Reservations, and we saw many of the places where we dined.

TK: What were some highlights from Italy?

ER: We got really lucky in Rome and ran into Philadelphia native Kenny Dunn, who runs Eating Italy Food Tours. With him, we got to tour Testaccio, one of the big meat-producing neighborhoods in Rome, where there are tons of second- and third-generation shop owners. It’s only one or two metro stops past the Colosseum, but not a lot of Americans know about it. It’s also the home of Gastronomia Volpetti, one of Rome’s most amazing specialty food stores. The guys there will not let you leave the store empty-handed. They will shove samples into your hands to make sure you try everything. We ate so much prosciutto San Daniele (made exclusively from the thighs of pigs bred in one of ten regions of Northern Central Italy) there.

TK: Where else did you travel in Italy?

ER: We spent almost a week in Sicily, including Palermo, Trapani, and Erice. We bumped around a little more in Palermo than in Rome, though we did eat at one fine-dining place, Osteria dei Vespri. We’d seen it on an episode of Bizarre Foods, where they warned about how hard it was to get a reservation. But we called and luckily were able to get in. Sadly, they were out of their famous cow nerves. In Erice, which at nearly 1,000 meters up Mt. Erice is accessible mainly by a ski lift, we spent a great night on the roof of our hotel admiring the view and drinking wine that was made just below us in Trapani. There was a little wine shop on the ground level, and we just kept running down there to get more wine.

TK: What other unusual things did you eat in Sicily?

ER: There’s no getting away from gelato in Palermo, so we ate a lot of that. At Pizzeria Bellini we didn’t have any pizza. There was so much great seafood on display in the front that we just ordered fish and more fish. We went to Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, famous for its spleen sandwiches, but when I got there and smelled how musty it was and how it was smeared on bread instead of cut in slabs, I just couldn’t do it.

TK: So you finally made it to Thailand in November. What parts of the country did you see?

ER: We saw it all, from the south way up to the Burmese border. Unlike in Italy, where it was a bit more of a stab in the dark, in Thailand, Sasathorn’s family had planned out all of the places they thought we should see and that they wanted to see. We covered so much territory is so little time.

TK: What impressed you the most about this trip to Thailand?

ER: We took a short flight to Krabi, where we were out on boats from morning to evening. We ate at little huts out on the water where we had this insanely spicy yellow curry. It was 90 degrees, so we downed a lot of Singha beer while we were there. We also sampled dog conch, which is reportedly indigenous to that region. Simply steamed, they were delicious.

Another highlight of the trip was in Ayutthaya, on the Chao Phraya River. It’s the old capital of Siam. There, we ate these enormous grilled river shrimp that were almost a pound each. They looked a little like the face suckers in Alien. They come with the brains, which have a sort of egg-yolk texture to them. You spoon them over the shrimp. The shrimp were around $18 a pound, but they were worth it.

In the north, where there are whole Chinese immigrant communities, we had some of the best Chinese food we’ve had. We ate pig leg with steamed buns and spicy pork soup in a restaurant with a dirt floor. We also went to a great roti stand at the night market before it started raining and everyone closed shop for the night.

TK: What about the food in Bangkok?

ER: Street food is beyond pervasive in the city. It’s something Americans, even those from bigger cities, can’t comprehend. Bangkok’s Chinatown is huge. It almost seems that no one in Bangkok cooks, and why should they when they can just stroll down the street and get such a variety of delicious snacks? Even in places where you think there can’t be a food stand, such as a dark alley, you’ll walk a few feet and see another stall. Their culture of eating out is like nothing in the United States.

TK: What ideas for your restaurants did you bring back from your travels?

ER: I don’t know that I bring back any specific dishes, since it’s often hard to get ingredients in the U.S. But I’m always thinking of how this or that relates to what I do. From Sicily, I got some ideas about their street food, and I especially fell in love with their panella, sort of like fried polenta but made with chickpea flour. I’ve made it at home, but I’m still working on perfecting it.

When we got back from Italy, Micah (Black Market’s chef Micah Frank) had just come back from a trip to France, so we sat down and shared stories about our favorite meals. While we both had fantastic meals at fine-dining places, we both were impressed with more of the casual stuff. We’re casual people, and we enjoyed the less stuffy, less reverent places. That translates a lot into what we do at Black Market.

TK: Do you have to work while you’re away?

ER: I’m always on the phone, even when I’m traveling. Thankfully, we were at a transitional point with Rook, so I didn’t have to make too many decisions about the new place while I was in Thailand.

TK: What do you miss the most about American food while you’re traveling?

ER: Hamburgers, definitely. They’re the first thing we both wanted when we got home from Thailand.