Culinary Tourism

TS12With an ever-connected planet and the growing popularity of global cuisine, culinary tourism is tastier than ever, with big-name cities and off-the-map small towns enticing every level of gourmand globe-trotter. “People just love food,” says Erik Wolf, founder of the World Food Travel Association. “Culinary tourism is the pursuit of unique and memorable food and drink experiences both near and far. You can even be a food traveler in your own backyard.”

In nearby San Sebastián, there’s Mugaritz, whose edible experiences include more than 20 creative courses by chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, largely considered the figurative heir to Basque Country cooking king, Ferran Adrià. There’s also Arzak, now in its fourth-generation with colorful, cutting-edge menus and a more-than-100,000-bottle wine cellar.

The sophisticated dining room at Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain (Courtesy of Arzak and José López)

And while cherished local wine abounds, due to the region’s proximity to La Rioja, vineyards give way to apple orchards, as cider is to the Basque as beer is to the Belgians. Here, rustic farmhouses like the century-old Zelaia and lauded Lizeaga offer extensive tastings and tours in the pastoral hillside.

“Unique destinations that haven’t always been synonymous with food are now embracing and showcasing what they have to offer,” says Kristen Fernandez, managing partner of the luxury Elli Travel Group in New York, who also notes the culinary rise of countries like Colombia, Nicaragua and Morocco. Even Russia is in the midst of a culinary awakening. “They’re taking a commodity within their culture and sharing it with people,” Fernandez says.


Locals Only

While global cuisine is attracting foodies near and far—think of all the Asian and Latin influences appearing on menus in America’s top restaurants—the allure is rooted in a strong focus on the origin of a dish. That’s everything from its cultural heritage to the sourcing, quality and care put into its preparation. “People are hyper-attuned to food and drink right now,” Wolf says. “They’re concerned about the pedigree of their food, be it regarding GMOs, the vegetarian and vegan movement, eating gluten-free and so on.”

This appetite for authentic eating actually beats out the desire to indulge in gourmet fare. In recent studies on foodie behaviors, “The top three categories are authentic, eclectic, and localist [eating],” Wolf says, all of which have increased since 2010. “It goes beyond just the nourishment component,” Fernandez adds. “There’s a sense of pride in telling the story of a food and its culture.”

In Lima, Peru, chefs are turning local ingredients into avant-garde art forms through which guests can truly taste the terrain. At Central, chef Virgilio Martinez forages through jungle, desert, mountain and sea to bring the diverse landscape to a diner’s plate at his “Chef’s Table”-famous Central, named the fifth best restaurant in the world. Using hyperlocal sourcing and natural elements, this Michelin-starred tasting menu uses its edible art as a means to travel across altitudes—from the Pacific to the Andes to the Amazon—giving guests a countrywide tour without even leaving the table.

Central Chef Virgilio Martinez scours the Peruvian countryside for unexpected ingredients. (Courtesy of Central and Daniel Silva)
DIY Delicious

Sure, dining “local” takes foodies on flavor journeys through new parts of the world, but it’s the hands-on experiences that truly immerse excursionists into the essence of a city. By hand-rolling sushi in Tokyo, pressing wine grapes in Tuscany, or meandering through the spice markets of Istanbul, bon vivants can intimately engage in a country’s traditions and culture.

“It’s very common for our clients, whether they be couples, families, or honeymooners, to want to weave some hands-on culinary experience into their trip,” Fernandez says. “And not just by going to a Michelin-starred restaurant to have a fabulous dinner with some fabulous wine, but by rolling up their sleeves, putting on an apron and learning to cook themselves.”

In Thailand, visitors can fine-dine at world-renowned restaurants, like Bangkok’s Gaggan, with its molecular masterpieces, or Nahm, with its dreamy takes on Thai classics, but cooking classes are where in-the-know tourists go to get their hands on not just noteworthy meals but skills and techniques they can take home. Set in a lush oasis with open-air pagodas and tranquil ponds, the five-star Baipai Thai Cooking School is a palatable paradise featuring private classes that teach students the ins and outs of this Asian culture’s vibrant cuisine.

Artisans of Leisure take guests to home-cooking classes in Thailand. (Courtesy of Artisans of Leisure)

Meanwhile, a short plane ride away, Chiang Mai is the sultan of street food—hailed “the best city in Asia” by Travel & Leisure magazine—and touts impressive options like A lot of Thai, where celebrity chef Yui hosts market tours and cooking classes on authentic staples like savory pad thai and salty-sweet panang curry. In the nearby countryside, the picturesque Thai Farm Cooking School offers guests a chance to pick their own produce from the extensive organic farm, followed by a full-day class using those very ingredients.

Not sure where to start? Specialty travel companies can help curate plans for your every want and need. With New York-based Artisans of Leisure, elite jet-setters can learn alongside Thailand’s leading cooking schools before indulging in spa appointments, exploring local landmarks and other tailored activities. The trendsetting Traveling Spoon, hailed by Forbes as “the next generation of culinary tourism,” also arranges private meals, cooking classes and market visits with expert home chefs.

Ultimately, whether it’s a sumptuous supper, lavish tasting tour or an enlightening cooking class in a new country, the epicurean experience is more about connections than consumption. “A lot of memories are made with food,” Fernandez says. “It brings people together and creates an unforgettable experience.”

  • Garlic mushrooms at Azurmendi in Larrabetzu, Spain (courtesy of Azurmendi)

  • Thick Stems at the Michelin-starred Central in Lima, Peru. (courtesy of Central and Daniel Silva Courtesy of Azurmendi)

  • The lauded Baipai Thai Cooking School offers upscale cooking classes in a lush green setting. (Courtesy of Baipai Thai Cooking)

  • Baipai Thai Cooking School, where travelers can learn the ancient techniques and recipes behind Thailand’s greatest dishes. (Courtesy of Baipai Thai Cooking)

  • The rustic cider house at the century-old Zelaia in San Sebastián (Courtesy of Zelaia)

By Lydia Woolever