“Kitchen takeover” is the act of entering a food-serving establishment in a foreign country and attempting to conform both the staff and available ingredients to your specific desires. The assailant is often derisive, coercive, and relentless. He does not bend – he does not break. He needs his food, and he simply won’t leave until he’s had his fried rice with eggs and vegetables.
One evening in rural Azerbaijan, I cycled past a gas station at around 5:30pm. I hadn’t eaten in hours and I had no food in my panniers. I was starved, agitated, and in desperate need of a good dinner.
I opened the door to the gas station café and asked for food. “No food here,” the attendant motioned.
“The man sitting here is eating. There is a window full of raw hot dogs, cookies, fruit juices, and vegetables. Surely there must be something,” I reply.
“That’s the last of it. No more food for tonight. Have some potato chips if you’d like. I’m done cooking,” he shot back.
“Look. I cycled 140 kilometers today, and unfortunately, I misplayed this. I should have carried more food with me. I didn’t. This is the only food-serving establishment for 20 kilometers in either direction. If there is something edible in that kitchen, I’m going to need to eat it.”
I walk behind the counter and into the kitchen, motioning for the attendant to follow but indifferent as to whether he actually does. I open the cupboards and inspect their contents. I find eggs, raw hot dogs, a tomato and an onion. I see a stove and a frying pan in the corner.
“Look, this is perfect. Let me just eat this stuff, and you can charge me per item. I’ll even cook it myself. I just need to eat, and I need to eat now.”
It’s not pretty and I don’t do it often, but yes: that is kitchen takeover. A hungry human will go great lengths to fill his belly.
Before you dismiss kitchen takeover as some misguided act of ignorant assholery, allow me to dissect it into smaller parts. Then you can decide if you like what’s being served, or if you’re still keen to fight for a better solution. In this article, I offer a comprehensive analysis of kitchen takeover, highlighting its pros, cons, and its place in travel.
Why and When?
I only ever employed kitchen takeover during my cycle touring days – 6 collective months and ~10,000 collective kilometers of cycling – first from Istanbul, Turkey to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and then from Kunming, China to Vientiane, Laos. Cycling, I was often exhausted, delirious, and low on blood sugar. I required a ton of food to keep me going, and food-serving establishments were limited and far apart. In one instance, I covered a 500km stretch of Uzbek desert which had only 3 places at which to buy food and water.
Sometimes, I’d arrive at a café with friendly staff, a picture menu, and appealing dishes. I would eat bountifully and appease my hunger. This happened often.
Other times, the sailing wouldn’t be so smooth. Gripes included: the staff was too lazy to make food; the only thing being served were cubes of fatty lamb meat; the cook was on tea break – a two-hour tea break; the cook didn’t understand that eggs plus onions plus tomatoes is a far better cycle breakfast than huge cubes of fatty lamb meat. The list goes on. In these instances, and especially with low blood sugar and even less patience, I’d fight for an alternative. The “when” and “why” are in fact synonymous: I’d employ kitchen takeover when I both needed to eat, and needed to eat the most agreeable meal possible as dictated by the available ingredients.
What Are the Pros?
The pros are obvious: I get the best possible meal in my stomach. I’m cycling six to eight hours per day, and my body needs fuel to keep going. With the right food, perhaps beef and vegetables instead of deep fried cow intestine, I’ll feel physically much better going forward with my day.
What Are the Cons?
The cons are obvious too. Kitchen takeover is an asshole move. I’m walking into your country, into your restaurant, into your kitchen, and telling you how to do things. I deserve no authority over your property nor menu, yet I’m commanding it anyway. I’m telling you your restaurant is open when you’ve told me it’s closed. “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.”
Does Kitchen Takeover Have A Place in Travel?
When traveling on a bicycle, or outside the arena of tourist infrastructure, you need to “make things happen for yourself.” You can’t always call a taxi to take you to a Western restaurant. You can’t always find a clean bed to sleep in. Sometimes, without a little determination and creativity, you’ll find yourself going to sleep hungry.
Kitchen takeover has applications beyond food as well. In fact, it’s my broad term for “taking travel matters into your own hands.” It can be applied to situations like loading your bike onto a train: the attendant insists that he put your bike in the cargo car, but you refuse and insist on doing it yourself. The bicycle is your home, and you’re going to make sure that thing is secured and bungee’d the way you want it to be. Another example is dealing with a Chinese post office, taken from Carry on Cycling:
“My first call: the post office where six weeks ago I had applied to have my new passport delivered. At first the staff denied operating a poste restante service at all. Of course, good old-fashioned persistence paid-off and in the end they showed me through to a warehouse around the back. The warehouse couldn’t have been more disorganized. There were mountains of thousands of different sized parcels piled high against the walls, some having evidently collapsed to lie scattered over make-shift corridors. I approached the only person in sight, a man sitting near the entrance behind a computer. I intimated that I’d like to collect my package to which he beckoned me closer to look at the monitor. To my horror, the blue screen of death stared back at me, the insides of the computer no doubt crashed and mangled by a life of dealing with the Kunming postal service.
‘Come back tomorrow’, he stuttered in broken English. Predictably I refused and after several heated minutes he agreed to pass me a sheaf of documents that looked like a list of all parcel arrivals for the last few weeks. Painstakingly, I ran my finger over the entries, stopping excitedly every time I passed a name with English characters. As the number of pages to search became fewer and fewer I became more anxious and finally, having exhausted the list, I started rummaging around the smaller, envelope-sized parcels for any sign of my name. Speaking of a needle in a haystack would be an understatement though given the chaos existing in that place. I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up though. The language barrier gave me the impression they couldn’t quite understand what I was after.
Half an hour of enquiry later with the front desk and a better English speaker had produced a few more lists where again my name was absent. Close to the point of resigning myself to the fact that the new passport simply hadn’t arrived yet and that the ever-present visa hydra had suddenly sprung 50 new heads, a final list was thrust towards me. A name sprung out at me, three rows from the bottom, written in sloppy English scrawl and black ink: ‘W.Johson’. Disregarding the possibility there might indeed be a person named ‘W.Johson’ (as opposed to my name: ‘W.Johnston’), I tore off the packaging and there it lay, fresh off the presses, the dark red cover shining with gold lions and a sparkling new crown. I now have a new passport! Over 40 crisp new pages of joy to spend at will. I can’t wait.”
Kitchen takeover is more than being a dick in a restaurant: it’s persistence and strong will in the face of language barrier, laziness, and the often asinine Rubik’s cube of foreign bureaucracy. With this definition, the generalized alternative then becomes submissive laissez-faire, a timid shoulder-shrug of “welp, that’s travel, I’ll go with the flow and hope for the best!” Perhaps, “kitchen takeover” does have its place after all?
Does Kitchen Takeover Make Us Bad Travelers?
Kitchen takeover is an act of defiance. However, we do it because we feel justified. “No, I won’t leave this office, you should help me find my document.” “No, it’s 1pm on a Wednesday, I don’t believe you when you say this place is closed.” “No, a piece of bread is not a sufficient meal.”
The thing about these “justifications” is that they are inherently ignorant of local customs, and perhaps suggest that we are unwilling to even consider them. Maybe tea time from 12pm to 3pm is common, and not an act of laziness. Maybe mixing eggs with tomatoes is some sort of religious taboo. Maybe helping you navigate a list of names in the post office goes stratospheres beyond the implied duty of a government worker. These statements sound ridiculous, and when you’ve pedaled the previous four hours without food they are well beyond the point of contemplation.
A traveler should try to understand the culture they are exploring. They should be patient, open, and considerate. Kitchen takeover is none of these things. However, without it, I submit that you simply can’t pull off a major trip outside of the context of comprehensive tourist infrastructure. You can’t ride a motorcycle from Kilkenny to Cape Town and back again. You can’t cycle from Portland to Ushuaia. Sometimes, you just need to be assertive to get things done. Sometimes, you need to take over the ship.
So where does this leave us? You tell me. Or perhaps just answer the question: what would I like for breakfast – the lamb or the omelette?
From a lovely cafe in Kuala Lumpur, where I order from the menu with a smile on my face,
This is a rewarding and convincing discussion of the complexity and cultural savvy necessary to be a successful traveler and escape the tourist-industrial complex. Well done!! You should look into getting some of these posts published. Here are some links that may be useful in that regard:
Can’t wait to see you!
Safe remaining travels,
PS–Our next family trip Feb 27-Mar 8 is to CUBA!!
Thanks for the response Karyn! I checked the link and may submit articles to both Bootsnall and Philadelphia Inquirer.
Also, family trip to Cuba sounds great. Español obligatorio: que tengan un viaje hermoso!