“Me, a culinary traveler? But I don’t go and eat at famous gourmet restaurants!” The lady does protest too much, I think. I’m paying a compliment to Meg Kiuchi, an Oakland painter, foodie — and yes, culinary traveler — who is acting like I’m trying to get her to eat slugs.
“So tell me, why did you stay in that rental apartment last time you were in Paris?” I ask.
“So that we could go to the markets and buy all the wonderful produce to prepare in our own kitchen at night,” she says. “We had this fanciful idea about the markets. As it turned out, while we (in the San Francisco Bay Area) are moving toward fresh and local produce, they (les Parisiennes) are moving the other way. At least that’s how it seemed. So we ate out more than we expected and took home breads, wines and cheeses.”
“And how much travel time, would you say, is your focus the food?” The retired social worker comes up with a guesstimate breakdown of one third food; one third art, architecture and visiting museums and galleries; and one third ambience, as in walking around and taking in the feel of the place and the people. “Wandering. I love to wander,” she says. “I love to find things down backstreets. And I like to fall upon little places to eat. Like, I would not go searching out the best escargot. But to discover a little restaurant serving the best escargot …”
“I don’t think a true culinary traveler would go eat at famous gourmet restaurants, except maybe once in a while out of curiosity,” I tell her. “Face it, you’re a culinary traveler.”
Culinary Travel 101
Edible journeys make the world tastier. One of the joys of culinary travel is that no matter how voracious your appetite or where a journey takes you, there is an endless repository of flavors and smells to savor, textures to bite into, recipes to sample, traditions to discover and a never-ending buffet to taste, learn about, and share. Or to write home about when the idea of sharing a particular item kills the appetite.
There is no cookie-cutter definition. And there are no rules, just good ideas and what works for you.
Culinary Travel or Culinary Tourism?
Given that every good idea at some point becomes a business opportunity, culinary tourism — what I think of as culinary travel made formal — is one of the fastest growing tourism niches worldwide.
For a down-home example of how things have changed, think of wine tasting. For many years any one of us, alone or with friends, could drive to the wine country in California and elsewhere, pop into a winery, hear about how the wine was made, do some sniffing, swirling and sipping and in some places a cellar tour, and be on our way. While this informality still exists in some places, an industry has developed around the wine country tour that ranges from doing wine country on a bicycle (wobbly), in a limo (drunken), to everything in between.
One of the funniest culinary tourism options to evolve, in my view, is the city taste tour. These are springing up all over. When friends from South Africa came to stay recently, we booked a taste tour of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than a dozen years and thought I knew North Beach. But I hadn’t eaten bread baked in a 125-year-old brick oven in an Italian bakery that’s been there all that time. I’d never noticed the bakery, let alone thought to explore its kitchen. I hadn’t met the truffle maker at XOX Truffles or eaten samples off his baking tray. And a good culinary tour gives a sense of place and includes history and city culture. Appropriate for North Beach, once the hang-out of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, we had an organized tour of the Beat Museum thrown in.
In San Francisco explore North Beach, Chinatown or the Mission district with Local Tastes of the City Tours.
Another U.S. culinary destination is New Orleans. Try New Orleans Culinary History Tours.
Help From Yelp
Culinary “tourism” options can make travel with a foodie focus easy and accessible. When prices are good and time is short, letting someone else do the planning can help you see and taste a lot in a relatively short time.
But culinary travel offers a smorgasbord of delights for the independent traveler. You can plan your own itinerary. You can do it yourself. Going to a city or a country? Google “food and wine festival” and the date and plan around that. Google to find the markets. Google to find the specialties. And don’t forget to google Yelp, where if you can read an assortment of reviews, written by all these fabulous people who love to eat and tell, you’ll get to know where you want to go. Play around on Yelp where they continue to evolve new categories. So, for example, a search for “Chicago Soul Food restaurants” brought up a list of Ten Chicago Soul Food restaurants. Not a bad place to start.
Bliss is Never Having to Eat the Same Thing Twice.
Is that extreme? The joy of culinary travel is that you can be extreme because there are no rules. Only what works.
Kiuchi’s one-third food focus seems good for starters. Carry a dedicated book and a pen to keep your culinary travel notes. The key, I think, is to put culinary on your travel menu then nibble and sample until you find what flavor — or mix of flavors — serves you best.