For as far as I can see, lemon trees stretch toward the Santa Barbara horizon, their branches heavy with sweetly scented fruit. Beneath the California sun, Andrew Gibson, the chef de cuisine at Bacara Resort and Spa, is leading a small group of us along paths between the lush rows of organic vegetables, fruits and herbs grown here on the resort’s 1,000-acre ranch. Later, he’ll supervise a cooking class using the fresh ingredients we’ve gathered and reveal his secrets for preparing healthy, delicious meals with seasonal, sustainably produced ingredients. Though I’m only here overnight, I’ve been promised that my experience will help me jump-start a healthier way of cooking and eating.
In a culture overwhelmed by fast-food restaurants and prepackaged foods, it is this promise that’s driving vacationers like me to explore hands-on culinary experiences. While some are simply interested in expanding their already-rich kitchen knowledge, many others are just beginning to realize the value of cooking — for health and pleasure. They’re seeking expert resources to help them cultivate the skills necessary to make nourishing recipes and nutritious food preparation a regular part of their at-home repertoire — and they’re traveling far and wide to do it.
The Cultural Kitchen
If you think traveling to Florida to explore the secrets of preparing protein-rich seafood or jetting off to Napa to discover the amazing flavors of organic fruits and vegetables seems a little extreme, think again. Culinary tourism is one of the travel industry’s hottest trends.
A February 2007 survey conducted by Gourmet magazine and the Travel Industry Association (TIA) revealed that in the past three years, 27 million travelers specifically sought out food- and wine-related activities during their journeys. These included kitchen demonstrations with accomplished chefs, interactive cooking classes, visits to artisan cheese makers and other small-scale food producers, and tours of farms, vineyards, gourmet food shops and farmers’ markets.
“It is through food that people learn about different cultures,” says David Loy, president and founder of Epitourean, a Denver-based company specializing in culinary tourism. “When people take cooking classes while traveling, they not only learn about new techniques and how to prepare new dishes, they also gain an understanding of what’s involved from a cultural perspective. There’s a personal involvement.”
Immersing yourself in the local food scene — even for just a day or two — provides a unique portal to the history and culture of a place, whether that’s on the other side of the state or the other side of the world. “Food transcends language,” explains Leah Caplan, chef and proprietor of The Washington Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School in Washington Island, Wis. “It’s one of the most significant parts of a culture. I began traveling around the world when I was only 5 years old, and food was a way of
communicating with others.”
While cooking getaways can vary in focus, length and location, they generally accommodate all levels of experience. Some emphasize hands-on cooking or specific regional dishes, others involve more-active trips that include food-related side tours. Still others require only that you enjoy the chef-led demonstrations and then indulge in the finished dishes. Regardless of the getaway, there’s always a trick for you to take home and test in your own kitchen.
Susan Rogol of Boston came away from her first culinary vacation at The Inn at Essex in Essex Junction, Vt., with a newfound knowledge of how the textures and strengths of different salts can enhance simple recipes. She had traveled to The Inn — home of the New England Culinary Institute — with her husband, Michael, to take part in the Chef “Inn” Training program offered by Chef Courtney Contos.
Part of the class involved exploring the Institute’s gardens to pick edible flowers, herbs and vegetables for use in the day’s recipes. In the kitchen, Chef Contos assigned tasks, such as chopping herbs and preparing croutons, to different members of the small group. When one guest asked her to recommend her favorite brand of vanilla extract, she taught the group how to make their own using vanilla beans and cognac. Once the meal was prepared, the group sat down together to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Rogol went home with a valuable new set of kitchen skills and techniques, as well as a deeper sense of food inspiration. “We learned a lot about what it means to eat locally,” says Rogol, “and how much better foods taste when they’re picked fresh that day rather than shipped or transported from another part of the country.”
Beyond the Stove
While being handy in the kitchen isn’t a requirement for a culinary vacation, taking a local cooking class beforehand can help increase your enjoyment. You’ll acquire a few basic skills before leaving home, and you’ll get a better sense of the type of cooking trip you’d most enjoy.
“Take some classes at a local cooking school before your vacation to decide if you want demonstration classes, or if you want hands-on participation classes where you actually cook and work closely with a chef,” advises Claire Walter, author of Culinary Colorado: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide (Fulcrum Publishing, 2003). “In a participation class, you really learn, because you experience what the process feels like. You get used to the rhythm of working in a kitchen with several other people, and you become familiar with the use of various kitchen gadgets. If nothing else, I suggest at least taking a class that teaches some basic knife skills, which can be invaluable in both a class situation and when you’re back at home in your own kitchen.”
If you’re concerned that you’ll find yourself shackled to a stove the whole time you’re away, there’s no need to worry. Besides cooking classes, there’s usually ample time built in to itineraries for sightseeing, shopping, hiking or other activities. Be sure to choose a tour that allows you as much freedom as you need for solo excursions or the occasional spa treatment. Rogol and her husband, for instance, specifically chose The Inn at Essex because they wanted to spend time cycling and hiking in the countryside.
My goal at Bacara was to learn how to prepare healthier meals for myself and my family, without sacrificing flavor or satisfaction. As a bonus, I got firsthand tips from the chefs on growing my own herbs at home. Now I have a thriving windowsill garden of lemon balm, rosemary, mint, oregano and several types of basil.
My next trip? Learning how to cultivate tomatoes at the 8,500-foot elevation where I live. I already have my eye on a half-dozen seed packets of heirloom tomatoes and a fabulous recipe for gazpacho I can’t wait to try.