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What did you do on your summer vacation? Lounge at the beach? Hike the trails around Aspen? Visit Hershey Park? If so, you had a fairly typical family holiday.

Or did you spend your time off sticking potato strips on soft-shell crabs on Anguilla, taking pictures of plates of food in Venice or tasting barrel samples with winemakers in the Napa Valley? Then you must be a food professional.

Because those were ideal idyllic vacation activities for some local chefs and caterers, who say they devote 50 to 100 percent of their time away from work exploring the wide world of food and wine.

Emily Garber, a chef at Hampton's in the Harbor Court Hotel, spent part of May touring Italy with her mother, eating all kinds of seafood - including flash-fried anchovies - sampling wine, talking to waiters and chefs and taking pictures. "We had some great food experiences," she says.

Chef and restaurant entrepreneur Spike Gjerde spent a week in July in the Caribbean, where he was among half a dozen invited chefs, French winemakers and about 50 guests gathered at an island resort for a week of sparkling menus and carefully chosen wines. Gjerde - whose colleagues at the resort included Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco - says, "It was the most hedonistic vacation you can imagine."

Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions catering spent a week in June in South Africa, touring wineries and eating at restaurants and visiting fellow caterers. "We call that research and development," he says, laughing. "We don't call it eating out."

When chefs and restaurateurs eat out, they are doing so partly for love of the game of good dining. Because, as Edwards puts it, "I love to eat, and I love to drink good wine."

But besides tasting everything in sight, they collect menus and business cards, ask for recipes, check out computer systems and menu styles, evaluate food presentations, discover new ingredients or old ingredients used in new ways, and study particularly good- or particularly bad - service. Most take notes. The goal is not to find things to copy, but to gather ideas and discover new things that might work, in some form, at home.

"It's always an opportunity to check out other operations," says David Derewicz, general manager of the Prime Rib, who likes staff members to explore other venues. "It's something we encourage when people travel. You can collect a vast amount of information."

Derewicz was about to leave for California, a popular destination for food folks because it is the place where most food trends are born (baby vegetables, sushi, mesclun salad mixes, organic food and American wine, just to name a few). He planned to visit San Francisco and the trendy and wildly popular French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Thomas Keller, the unassuming but by now famous chef-owner of the Yountville restaurant, is credited with producing some of the most innovative, and most delicious, food anywhere on the planet.

Derewicz - who'll be accompanied by his wife - also will be checking out several wineries that supply wine to the Prime Rib. "We'll be tasting current vintages and barrel samplings," he says, noting that that's why this visit coincides with harvest.

Innovation is the je ne sais quoi that nudges a good restaurant into becoming a great one - an edge most dining-experience purveyors would love to have. And it may be getting harder to get.

Brian Boston, chef and partner at the Milton Inn, who recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, says, "Nice restaurants around the world are pretty much up to international standards." But still, he was surprised at the amount of good food to be found during his recent island vacation with a friend. "We went to nice restaurants every night," he says. "A lot of them had French-based menus - a lot of the sauces were French-based reduction sauces."

His favorite was Pamela's. "The restaurant is all glass, and the ocean is right outside." But it was the food that captivated him. He particularly liked grilled shrimp with black bean sauce, chili sauce and mashed plantains. "I can't think of any meal I've ever had better than that."

Sometimes when chefs travel, they are looking at specific kinds of restaurants. Eddie Dopkin of the Classic Catering People (which runs Loco Hombre and Alonso's, among other restaurants in the area) just returned from San Diego, where he checked out casual dining spots with Mexican or Italian themes. "I try to work in four meals a day," he says. "I don't necessarily eat it all, but I taste everything."

He was so impressed with a couple of the places that he is sending Loco Hombre's chef, Jason Hancock, back to sample them. "It will enhance his knowledge of what's out there." But even if Hancock finds something he just has to serve at Loco Hombre, "he'll put his own spin on it," Dopkin says.

For Dopkin, all culinary trips are educational experiences. "I'm not a chef," he says, "but I love food, so it helps me" in spotting trends and finding new approaches. Like most of his fellow foodies, he brings back souvenirs as well as ideas. His menu collection totals "500 or 600."

Garber, a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., carted back wine, olive oil ("We brought bubble wrap from home"), menus, cards and photos home from Italy.

"My favorite part was Umbria," she says. When her tour group went to restaurants, the guide usually mentioned that she was a chef. "They were so excited - 'Wow, a woman chef.' " (Her father, Sidney Garber, was also a CIA graduate and Baltimore chef who worked at the Mount Washington Tavern, among other places.)

She also brought back recipes and ideas for new foods to serve at Harbor Court - such as bream, a fish rarely offered in any form in U.S. restaurants. She was most impressed by "the simplicity of fresh ingredients" that characterize Italian food in Italy. Her favorite meal was in Rome, at a place called Settimio all'Aranci, where she found an empathetic waiter who spoke English and helped her order a five-course, off-the-menu meal for herself and her mother.

The first course was risotto with braised calamari. "Amazing!!" she wrote in her trip diary.

Her boss, executive chef Galen Sampson, says the hotel not only encourages such ventures, it often backs them.

"We travel a lot," says Sampson, who was in the midst of planning a staff visit to Daniel, noted French chef Daniel Boulud's latest contribution to the New York restaurant scene. "Pretty much on days off, we go sample some things."

On his Caribbean holiday, Gjerde prepared avocado bisque with spiny lobster ceviche and yellow tomato puree, soft-shell crab, ratatouille of christophene (a kind of summer squash), kingfish with braised fennel and chickpea cake, with a black olive and cured lemon drizzle, guinea hen stuffed with forcemeat (partly fois gras), hearts of palm and ravioli filled with wild mushrooms, corn pudding, and dried papaya and roasted pineapple ice cream.

"I'd cook this way every night if I could," he says.

But not every culinary trip is a high-style extravaganza. Gjerde also spends a week every summer cooking at a music camp in Nova Scotia run by his friend Chris Norman (fans of the group Helicon will know the name).

"Me and a couple of other guys cooked lunch and dinner for 65 people, Sunday through Friday," Gjerde says. The "other guys" included his wife, Amy, and the chef at the Joy America cafM-i, Jason Horwitz, and Horwitz's friend Tina Hartman.

Gjerde was amazed by the bounty of the ocean-bound province. "Every other guy down the road was raising [organic, free-range] chickens. We were getting beautiful haddock right off the fishing boat."

There was also a small mussel farming operation nearby. "The guy was pulling mussels for us right out of the water."

There are a lot of these music workshop camps, Gjerde says, but most have no emphasis on food. "Chris kind of puts food in front."

Which is right where most food pros want it: on the plate in front of them, wherever they are.

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