When Katie Lee wants a break from experimenting with recipes for her cookbooks (she’s written three so far) or her duties as co-host of the Food Network show “The Kitchen,” she escapes to the beach. For short breaks, there are the beaches near her home in Watermill, N.Y., and for longer getaways, she heads to far-flung locations.
Given her love of the shore, her latest gig as host of the Cooking Channel show “Beach Bites,” where she visits popular beach destinations to explore the local cuisine, is something of a dream, she said.
“I moved from one beautiful beach to another, started off my days by swimming in the ocean and ate delicious food. You could hardly call it work,” she said.
Lee spent a month on the road for the series and ate her way through seaside spots in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.
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Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with her.
Q: How did you pick the destinations featured in “Beach Bites”?
A: We wanted a mix of exotic and accessible locations that would offer a diverse mix of culture and cuisine and have unique landscapes, and picked places based on our research that met this criteria.
Q: Which aspects of the local culture resonated with you the most in the spots you visited?
A: Even if there was a language barrier, I connected with the family-run restaurants. There was a deep sense of tradition and love within those places, much like the way I grew up in West Virginia cooking with my grandma. A restaurant that stands out was a small spot in Punta de Mita, Mexico, called Tacos y Papas. It’s run entirely by one family – the father and mother cook, the daughter waits tables and a few aunts hand-press tortillas. The food was incredible.
Q: What are some of your favorites of the dishes you tried while filming?
A: There are so many! In San Pancho, Mexico, I made sopes (thick corn tortillas) with the chef at a restaurant called Mexotik, and he topped them with local octopus in a hibiscus glaze that was awesome. I am still dreaming about the ice cream with guava paste, cream cheese and crushed Cuban cookies at Azucar Ice Cream in Miami’s Little Havana. There’s also the coconut arepas in Puerto Rico, grilled wild pink shrimp in Key West, Fla., and crispy crab hush puppies in St. Simons, Ga. And in St. Bart’s I was blown away by a roadside Portuguese barbecue joint with the greatest barbecue chicken I have ever eaten.
Q: Is there a destination you were most surprised by?
A: The sleeper hit was the Golden Isles of Georgia. St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island both had vast and beautiful beaches, the nicest locals that show you what true Southern hospitality is about and, of course, fantastic food. It’s a destination in our own backyard and yet still undiscovered.
Q: Popular beach destinations tend to be littered with tourist-trap restaurants where the food can be expensive and inauthentic. What advice do you have for finding great places to eat?
A: Get away from the resorts and all-inclusive buffets and talk to locals about where they like to eat. Taxi drivers always know the best spots, so ask them for sure. After I have a few recommendations, I usually check out the places on Instagram and look at pictures of their food and comments to get an idea of what I should order.
Q: How can you get a sense of culture at a beach destination?
A: Food is one of the best ways. When I was filming in Miami, Bobby Flay joined me and took me to his favorite spot for a Cuban sandwich, Tinta y Café in Little Havana. Over Cubanos, guava pastries and café con leches, we got to speak with the young owner about how he is updating traditional recipes, and chatted with local businessmen and even a police officer. I got a real feel of what day-to-day life is like there.
Q: You’ve said that staying active is important to you when you’re on the road. How do you manage that on a getaway to the beach?
A: Surfing is a big way. Many beach locales offer surf lessons, and you get a different perspective of the ocean when you’re out on the water. Hiking is another staple for me. Most beach destinations have trails where you can enjoy the scenic surroundings.