by Carly Schorman
I remember the first time I stopped in at Welcome Diner, even if I can’t remember the date. They had just settled into a convert trailer off of Roosevelt and 10th Street and I was in the neighborhood for a house show just across the street. There was furniture hobbled together in front of the trailer and iced tea was served in mason jars. Of course, I didn’t have time to order (that time) because the police were already busting up my boyfriend(now husband)’s show across the street because the homeowners forgot to secure permits for their impromptu First Friday concert.
There were (lots of) subsequent visits to follow. And, during the first few years my fella and I co-hosted the YabYum Music Hour on Radio Phoenix, we would usually stop by the diner first for dinner before the show, sit at the counter, and listen to Wayne Coats spouting out the daily drink specials and latest menu editions. And, occasionally catch sight of Michael Alan Babcock III running in and out of the kitchen. We’ve followed along through all the hard work, new concepts, and expanding locations. And we celebrated the team when they decided to step away from the project to embark on their next culinary endeavor, fresh from the success of Welcome Diner.
But, before the Babcock and his cohorts buckle down to work on cultivating their new concepts, they decided to set about some very serious research. And a grand foodie adventure – unofficially dubbed the “Global Bender” – took the four horseman of Instrumental Hospitality to some interesting corners of the world to imbibe food and drink in abundance. For research!
Like many other local fans, I followed along on Instagram and was eager to bombard Michael Babcock with questions as soon as he was back on home turf. And, he was kind enough to oblige me in a conversation about a food lover’s dream vacation, what’s next for this culinary crew, plus a whole lot more.
YabYum: You just returned from what looked like the BEST foodie vacation. Can you tell us where your travels took you?
Michael: Originally a 9 day trip to Vietnam turned into a 3 week trip to Tijuana, San Diego, Tokyo and Saigon. We had some visa issues trying to get to Vietnam and had to have our tripped completely rerouted. Thankfully all of us except Robert (he had to cut his trip a little short with us) are currently intentionally unemployed so we were able to turn a kind of a shitty situation into a truly once in a lifetime global food and beverage bender.
And what inspired this trip?
The trip was meant to inspire us in our two upcoming concepts with our newly formed company, Instrumental Hospitality. We plan to be heavily influenced by South East Asian and Japanese cooking.
Who were your traveling companions on this adventure?
Wayne Coats, Paul Waxmen, and Robert Cissell.
Are Wayne, Paul, and Robert all involved in Instrumental Hospitality?
Yes, we are all the founding partners in the new company.
And, if I’m not mistaken, this wasn’t your introduction to the food of Southeast Asia? That came earlier in life, correct?
That is correct! My grandmother was from Osaka and she played a major role in raising me. She was always very health conscious and pretty much only ate home-cooked Japanese food. So naturally that’s what I ate a lot as a kid. Also, in my early 20’s I became pretty obsessed with southeast asian cooking after experiencing places like the Slanted Door in San Fran and Pok Pok in Portland. I ended up buying both those restaurants cookbooks and cooked the day lights out of almost every recipes. I still own those books. They’re covered in food splatters, the binding is all fucked up and the covers are nearly destroyed from so much use. I love them that way! I’ve also been fortunate enough to have traveled to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam several times.
I couldn’t help but notice the music slant of your new endeavor – Instrumental Hospitality. That wouldn’t be a play on words because in addition to being an acclaimed chef you are also a musician, would it?
Yes, actually all of us in Instrumental grew up in AZ music scenes one way or another. Wayne was the drummer for several bands including Not Quite Burnadette. And Paul and Robert with both in Deer and The Headlights for several years.
Are you currently in a musical project?
Yes, recently I’ve been working more as a producer. I am almost finished recording a pop country record for local country songwriter Jaty Edwards and then I have a personal music project called Slwly with Gabe Santillan. We make synthy, slutty, groovy, pop songs. We’re almost finished recording a second EP together that we hope to release properly in a few months. Here is a link to one of our newest tunes from the upcoming EP…
Okay, back to the food tour… did you fellas have a nickname for the trip? Like “Chefs Gone Wild” or “Wayne Gets Worldly”?
I’m not sure we had an official nickname for the trip but personally I’ve likened it to a Global Bender on a few occasions. Cause that’s kind of what happened. We ate and drank some of the most amazing things at some of the most amazing restaurants in some of the most beautiful places in the world. It was magical in every sense of the word.
And, just to get the most difficult question out of the way, what was the best thing you ate on your trip?
Geez, that’s really tough because everything was incredible. I might have to narrow it down by country:
Japan: Probably my favorite experience was the Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo. It was the most over the top and high quality seafood I have ever seen and eaten. Everything had uni on it which is one of my favorite things ever.
Tijuana: Eating at Finca Altozano. I’ve been a fan of Chef Javier Plascensia for years. He has a few restaurants in TJ but Altozano is his open air kitchen on a winery in the Gaudalupe Valley about an hourish south of TJ. We sat and drank wine and ate for literally 6 hours. Just an amazing experience.
Vietnam: Oc Oanh “Seafood Street” This place is not to be missed. Incredible local seafood, spicy snails, marinated conch, giant prawns all for dirt cheap. It was soooo good.
What was the dish or eatery that most surprised you?
You know, for a bunch of food professionals, we didn’t really plan or detail out many of the restaurants we went to. Don’t get me wrong, I did ass tons of research and watched countless Strictly Dumplings YouTube vids to gain insight on the places we were traveling to, but our day to day agenda was very much spur of the moment, which is how I prefer to travel.
The spontaneity was where we’d oftentimes have the greatest experiences. One of my personal favorites was stumbling upon the Isetan market in Shinjuku, Toyko. I had a habit of being the first one up on the trip so I’d usually go wander around and kill some time by myself and eventually meet up with the boys later on in the day.
During one of these solo walks I passed a sign that said Isetan Food Hall on the outside of a massive 10 story grey department store building and I realized that I had found what they call a depachika. A depachika are these food courts in the basement of a lot of commercial buildings, but this particular one was fucking crazy. It was so expansive that it must have been like a full football field worth of very high quality food products.
It had several dozen specialty purveyors selling handmade tofu, soymilk, misos, cured fish, varies meats and tons of other shit. A whole other section was dedicated to desserts and that section had several dozen purveyors, some of them were from high end famous fancy french chefs too. If that wasn’t enough they had an actual grocery store too with extremely top quality products like full slabs of uni for like $400, live rainbow prawns, waygu beef. It was absolute insanity. It was like a straight up city of food.
I ended up cutting my time there short so I could wake everyone up and make them experience this place with me. No joke. When we got back we got some sushi, a bunch of little street snacks, and, funny enough, a calzone. When we finished paying, we had all this food in our hands an no place to sit and eat. We were kind like, what the fuck? Where do I eat all this delicious shit? Eventually, a lovely employee instructed us to go to the roof of the building where they have formal dining seating.
So we get to the roof and it’s straight up like a park on the roof, with grass and trees and a garden and a few other restaurants. We got some beers and sat in the grass and had an impromptu picnic on the roof of this big ass building in the middle of fucking Tokyo. It was amazing. I barely do justice in explaining Isetan. I ended up looking it up when I got back to our Airbnb and found out that its like on everyone’s 10 must-see lists for Toyko.
Can you share an interesting flavor combination or recipe variation that you hadn’t encountered before?
Monjayaki was a dish I was really excited to try because I had read about it and heard about it for years, but it basically does not exist in the States as far as I am aware. It’s a bar snack found all over Japan. It’s a cousin to Okonomiyaki (which is my favorite Japanese bar food) but the batter is much wetter with the addition of dashi.
You take bean sprouts and cabbage and sauté them on the plancha while mincing them to death between two spatulas. Then you add a very wet batter of flour, dashi, nagaimo and egg, and whatever other toppings you’re feeling. In our case mentiako, kraft parmesan cheese and mochi. Then let it cook down into a molten blob of umami-packed goo. The result was like a mentiako and dashi flavored ragu that you eat right off the grill with special cute lil mouth spatulas. It was really weird and delicious.
I’m not much of a drinker these days so I always forget to ask about booze, but any strange beverage concoctions you sampled on your journey?
Oh man, too many. One of my favorite things I tried was some really good natural orange wine at the Tjisiki fish market. Orange wine is a bit more of a niche variety of wine where white wine grapes are left to ferment with the skin still on. Giving it a light orange hue. It was delicious and like 9am when I had it. Lol.
Now ignoring the food element, which city most spoke to you? Did you have a favorite place? Or can we not cut out the food parts? Is that an integral part of the experience of a place for you?
Every city spoke to us in different ways. As much as we were on a food bender we were also seeking to understand the culture of these places who’s food is so important to us. We loved making friends whereever we were if only we were friends for that night or moment. It was so special to meet locals and befriend them with a beer and Google Translate. Google translate straight up saved our asses on so many occasions. We had like a 4-hour conversation with 4 people in Toyko using mainly gestures and Google translate.
From my own cultural history it was amazing to go to Japan again. Especially because it wasn’t even on our original agenda. I love Japanese culture. It’s so strange and beautiful.
I think we kind of all ended up falling deeply for Saigon. Our introduction there was kind of rocky because when we got picked up at the airport our taxi driver kept trying to fleece for more money and he ended up not even dropping us off at our Airbnb on purpose because he wanted more money out of us. But after all that was over and we got some motorbikes Saigon turned out to be so vibrant and kind and kinda seedy and raunchy. I like cities to have a bit of grit to them and Saigon definitely doesn’t disappoint in that department. Haha.
How did you fill your time between meals? Motorbiking? Hitting the beach? Exploring the sights? Drinking?
Yeah, pretty much. I love to spend my days getting lost when I travel to big cities. We would typically start our day by checking out a new area and grab some lunch or breakfast depending on how late we slept in. Then we’d typically wander around the city and get lost, dipping in and out of different bars for a drink or two. Then we’d go home and relax for a few hours and then grab dinner and start the night life cycle until god knows when.
What’s next for Instrumental Hospitality? More trips? New recipes?
Most currently we have a building under construction and another space in the middle of it’s design phase. Wayne and I will be doing events with Cloth and Flame for the next several months leading up to the opening of our first concept.
We also plan to hopefully make some music together in my home studio.
Any details about the new locations that you can share with us? No is a perfectly acceptable answer.
We’ve got some big announcements coming up in the next few weeks. But real big picture the boys and I are planning on currently opening up 2 concepts within the next 15 months.