When you travel, do you think you become more or less who you truly are?
Or is this a false question? Are you the same person at home, at work, and beyond the confines of your daily environment and routine?
I have an easy answer to the question above: when I travel, especially with people I don't know, I become quiet. It takes a good, long while -- days, at a minimum -- for me to peel off the protective layers I don before leaving home. I melt into the background, scratch notes in a moleskine, hide behind a camera lens, and generally withdraw. The DNA of my natal personality -- introverted, for sure -- once again becomes dominant, though at home I've sloughed it off like a snake sheds its skin.
So I guess I become more the person I naturally am when I travel, and less the person I've chosen to be over time. If that makes sense.
Remember that culinary trip to Israel I took last fall? One of my co-travelers was a man named Maury Rubin. I connected with him early on because he was quiet, and I was quiet, too. He revealed precious little about himself, at least at first.
A few nights into the trip, our group was hosted at a beautiful inn called Pausa in the Upper Galilee region. Though we five food folks had already spent several days together and shared a number of meals, it wasn't until Pausa when we really told our stories at length. We may never have, actually, but the meal was long, our hosts were inquisitive, and they asked us each pointed questions about ourselves and our businesses as we nibbled leg of lamb, potatoes baked on laurel leaves, and carrot and kohlrabi salad, their dachshund Pizza Pepperoni wandering underfoot.
Maury, a former producer and director, took a six day pastry class in Paris in the 1980s, and it changed the course of his career. He moved to Paris to apprentice and, when he returned to New York City, decided to open a small bakery a half-block from the farmers' market. The City Bakery opened in 1990 with a staff of 11.
He now owns six bakeries and employs a staff of 150. "I spend all day every day running the kitchen. All the guys I've taught -- they're better than me now."
At one point, our host asked the group why so many U.S. chefs go "so deep into television" and never return to the kitchen, and why only a handful of New York-based chefs get any play at all in the international press.
This lit a fire around the table.
"You'll never hear about the majority of people doing good work in the City," Maury said. "There are thousands of restaurants in New York City, and Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud don't run all of them."
Over the next few days, not one but two women approached Maury to introduce themselves and talk about how much his bakeries meant to them. One was Netta Korin, the owner of Bakery 29 in Tel Aviv, who gushed when she met him. She said she spent a lot of time at City Bakery when she was an investment banker in New York.
Another was a fellow guest at one of our hotels. She approached Maury in the large dining room and gave him a big hug. A satisfied customer, an ocean away.
So, a big name, a television presence, they're useful, but they're not everything. They're not the only way to make an impact, to build a reputation, to gain fans the world over.
When I flew to New York a few weeks ago to visit my family, I wanted to visit Maury. Really, I wanted to see City Bakery. I needed to connect the man I'd met with the business I'd heard about on that trip.
The flagship in Maury's business portfolio (he also owns several outposts of Birdbath bakery), City Bakery is a big, beautiful, bustling space at 3 West 18th Street with huge ceilings, gorgeous natural light, and a diverse clientele that comes as much for the salad bar, the prepared-onsite foods, and the fresh juices (I had one with fennel, cucumber, and sugar cane) as for the bakery's mainstay: the pastries. Please go there and try the pretzel croissant.
If you don't live in New York or visit that often, you may have never heard of it -- it's not featured on TV, and it may not get press coverage overseas -- but that doesn't mean it's not worth your while. Better than your while, in fact, even if your while is pretty damn good.
I sat upstairs, marveling at the action below: the steady line of customers at the counter, the piles of muffins, cookies, and croissants moving swiftly, the older women, the younger men, the moms with strollers, the bike messengers, the suits. I even glimpsed this guy.
Mostly, though, I saw a piece of a puzzle finally set into place.
When we travel, we may not reveal all of who we are.
We may -- some of us -- hold back the very best parts for the most important people in our lives, be they family, friends, or customers waiting eagerly for us to return back home.