Photo Credit: Thomas R. Lechleiter

Focus onCulinary Travel


February 25, 2015

There was a time less than two generations ago when the only cooking show on TV was Julia Child's weekly take on French cuisine. That slowly began to change in the 1980s as a generation raised on fast food and TV dinners began discovering the delights their palates had been missing.

Today, viewers have their choice of hundreds of food-related programs each week, ranging from video manifestos by celebrity chefs and burger meisters to test kitchens and reality shows masquerading as cooking competitions. What each has in common is a quest for exquisite morsels to tickle our taste buds.

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At the same time, a rich ethnic variety has slowly found its way into the diets of many Americans who, as recently as a generation ago, took much of their nourishment in frozen dinners, canned pasta or a trip to KFC.

Enter the era of the foodie. A burgeoning passion for all things culinary has begun sweeping through the American middle and upper classes, and nowhere is that passion more evident than in the quest of travelers for the authentic cuisines that define destinations and, indeed, serve as the foundations of entire cultures. Food, the ultimate differentiator, has become a key component in the quest for the experiential fulfillment that drives today's wanderlust.

What follows are a few short essays by Travel Weekly reporters and editors, a well-traveled lot, describing their personal observations about how growing demand for the finest in food and drink is changing product assumptions for hotels, tour operators, cruise lines, even travel agents and consortia.

The mantra of today's travel industry, clearly, is becoming bon appetit!

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The 'pop-up' restaurant is popping up in more hotels

By Danny King

Unlike a hotel or resort, which can take years if not decades to design, finance and build, pop-up restaurants tend to be both spontaneous and a little more serendipitous.

The pop-up restaurant concept, in which an underused food-and-beverage space is temporarily taken over by an outside chef or repurposed for a particular theme, had already taken hold in parts of New York when Nikheel Advani, principal at Grace Bay Resorts, was in the Big Apple a few years ago to do research for his Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos.

"It was really an idea we stumbled upon, but it was a good stumble," said Advani, whose resort is beginning its third straight year featuring its own pop-up restaurant off one of its beach decks. "It's taken off really well.

Biere et Boules, a pop-up restaurant at Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos.
Biere et Boules, a pop-up restaurant at Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos.

Pop-up restaurants, a concept that started taking off in some U.S. cities about five years ago, have more frequently moved into the lodging space as hotel operators look for better ways to generate both extra money and publicity from their restaurant space.

Now, some of the world's better-known higher-end hotel operators are embracing the idea.

For eight weeks last year, Istanbul's Ciragan Palace Kempinski had MSA Culinary Arts Academy take over the kitchen of its lunch-only Okulun Mutfagi restaurant for dinner service. This year, Madrid's Hotel Urso launched the Table, a pop-up restaurant in which six local restaurants take over operations for a month each. This month featured Madrid restaurant L'escaleta. Also this month, Mandarin Oriental, New York brought in Michelin Star-winning Basque chef Eneko Atka to take over the hotel's Restaurant Asiate for a three-night run.

And in California's Napa Valley, the pop-up hotel restaurant might have reached an apex of sorts when celebrity chef Thomas Keller, whose iconic French Laundry restaurant in Yountville is undergoing renovations, last month opened Ad Lib within the Silverado Resort and Spa's Royal Oak restaurant 10 miles away in Napa.

The pop-up restaurant concept reflects a marriage of convenience, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based hospitality consultant Technomic.

"Hotels have traditionally had a hard time in food service, and a lot of [restaurant] space in hotels just isn't very profitable," Tristano said. "So this opens the doors for more entrepreneurs to utilize the space in the short term."

But while the reasons behind a pop-up hotel restaurant may have a common thread, the concepts run the gamut. Grace Bay Club's Biere et Boules ("Beer and Balls") pop-up, which debuted in December, is decidedly informal, with guests on average paying about $40 for the restaurant's selection of lamb, shrimp, chicken, lobster balls and craft beers. Ad Lib aims higher, with an a la carte menu that includes items such as a "fruitwood smoked kielbasa" appetizer ($15.50) and a chicken schnitzel entree ($28). While those items aren't exactly lowbrow, they're far less expensive than the $295 that diners pay for the chef's tasting menu at French Laundry.

Meanwhile, at the Mandarin Oriental, the pop-up charges $185 for a seven-course meal, plus another $110 for a wine pairing.

Whatever the price level, a temporary pop-up can help a hotel bring in diners other than the property's own guests, while erasing what Tristano calls the "stigmatism" of a hotel restaurant, which guests often associate with high prices and low quality.

"It's a captive audience, but I don't think any pop-ups are going to be successful without driving traffic from outside of the hotel," Tristano said.

Cruise lines partner with celebrity chefs

By Rebecca Tobin

A lunchtime event last month to promote the new talent on the Norwegian Escape was star-studded -- if you approach celebrity from a particular, gastronomic standpoint.

The boldface names included Philadelphia chef Jose Garces, who is lending his expertise and his name to tapas and Latin-focused restaurants on the Escape. And the creative team behind the acclaimed Pubbelly restaurants in Miami will craft a small-plate restaurant with global influences.  

Norwegian Cruise Line is prominently featuring the name Geoffrey Zakarian, a Food Network Iron Chef (like Garces) and the chef at the Lamb's Club in New York, previously of the Blue Door at the Delano in Miami and Patroon in New York. His restaurant, Ocean Blue by Geoffrey Zakarian, is on the Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway.

At Royal Caribbean International, meanwhile, Miami chef Michael Schwartz has a Michael's Genuine Pub in the center of the Quantum of the Seas, and Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef and star of "The Naked Chef," has a Jamie's Italian restaurant on the next deck.

Carnival Cruise Line is pushing forward with its partnership with "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" host Guy Fieri, who has his name on a poolside burger joint fleetwide. Some partnerships co-brand a ship's restaurant to a well-known food brand: MSC Cruises has restaurants on its two newest ships in a partnership with Eataly, which is affiliated with Mario Batali, among others.

"Dining is a major trend, and obviously with the rise of the Food Network and 'Top Chef' and celebrity chefs and all these restaurants, there's a very highly knowledgeable, educated consumer base that has a large choice of dining experiences to choose from," said Frank Weber, Norwegian's vice president of product development. "We're really responding to the needs of our guests, and the expectations of our guests."

At Norwegian, Weber said, the line will begin by conceiving of a dining concept, then search for an expert in that culinary niche with whom to partner. The line has worked with chefs behind the scenes.

Chef partnerships are not brand new. Seabourn, for example, had a collaboration with Charlie Palmer; Queen Mary 2 launched with a Todd English restaurant. Jacques Pepin is the executive culinary director at Oceania Cruises. And as ships, especially larger vessels, diversify their dining options and guests become more dining and brand savvy, the opportunities to co-brand are multiplying.

At a recent CLIA State of the Industry event, executives discussed the importance of co-branded partnerships to the rising "foodcation."

"I think from a foodie's perspective, those things are very nice, and each brand has a different focus based on what it's going for," Ken Muskat, executive vice president of sales for MSC Cruises USA, said in describing his line's focus on culinary offerings. "The foodcation is extremely popular; very, very important."

There are the beverage partnerships, such as craft brewer Wynwood Brewing and Mondavi wines on Norwegian, or even Starbucks on Royal Caribbean. Maria Miller, Norwegian Cruise Line's senior vice president of marketing, said the partnerships were about "trying to bring new and different experiences."

She added: "A lot of things are about making food more accessible to everybody. And bringing in some of the brand names I think helps address some of the misconceptions about cruising and give people confidence that, wow, these are names I know. ... I know kind of what I'm going to expect, and the quality's going to be great."

Crystal Cruises has long operated a restaurant in partnership with Nobu Matsuhisha, the chef behind perhaps one of the best-known modern restaurant franchises. "He is personally involved," said Crystal President and COO Edie Rodriguez. "It's his chefs; they come onboard, he comes onboard. He's coming on during my Presidents Cruise this July to cook a special Vintage Room dinner. It's $1,000 a person, and it's sold out."

Guests, locals meet, eat in hotel lobbies

By Johanna Jainchill

All it takes is a trip to New York's Ace Hotel, at any time of day, to know that the hotel lobby is no longer just a place for guests to check in.

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An array of room service desserts at the InterContinental San Francisco. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
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I found myself there on a recent weekday, hoping to kill an hour between meetings with a cup of the lobby cafe's Stumptown coffee and free WiFi. Alas, I couldn't find an empty seat among a mix of people staring at laptops, chatting over warm beverages or just soaking it all in.

Especially in urban markets, hotel lobbies have become gathering spots for guests and the larger community.

"It's a place where people do business, have a drink and do work," said Jamie Sabatier, president and COO of Destination Hotels. "I think there's a real comfort level being in a lobby and doing what you need to do. Fifteen years ago, most people were comfortable doing room service and not being by themselves in a lobby. Today, it's the opposite. They want to have a drink, do work and be part of the fabric of the hotel."

As a result, in all Destination Hotels, Sabatier said there's been "an absolute sea change" relative to how lobby experiences are being programmed. Destination has renovated and redesigned lobbies in many of its properties to be more "convivial and lively," with grab-and-go culinary concepts and seating designed to be more inviting and attractive

The Gordon Bar at the Sixty SoHo in New York.
The Gordon Bar at the Sixty SoHo in New York.

The increased use of the lobby has made the lobby bar a more important piece of the hotel experience for both guests and the community at large.

"It's a somewhat old-school, traditional approach to being an innkeeper," said Jason Pomeranc, co-owner of the Sixty Collective hotels. "It's not only a place for lodging but an eating and drinking establishment for the community. ... Nothing gives me more gratification than when I see real locals that live and work in the community on a consistent basis."

Pomeranc recently opened the Gordon Bar at the Sixty SoHo hotel, in the lobby lounge where Thom Bar used to be. The stylish space has a cozy gas fireplace, a zinc bar, a living plant wall and comfortable midcentury-modern furnishings. Its small menu includes beef sliders and arancini and inventive house cocktails such as Figs & Sage, which mixes bourbon with Xtabentun, a Mexican anise and honey-based liqueur.

Pomeranc noted that the spaces in hotel lobbies are more important today because people work differently than they used to. "During the day, [meetings] need to happen in a place where they can engage but is also comfortable and well-serviced," he said. "There is a focus on a higher-quality level of aesthetic and service."

As hoteliers have learned, guests are more satisfied when they know their hotel is a popular hangout among locals. "Hotel guests want to go where the locals want to go," Pomeranc said.

If that happens to be in the hotel, all the better for the proprietors.

"We do want our guests in-house to use the property to its fullest," he said. "If you don't feel like you have to leave the property, that's the ultimate compliment to the hotel."

Craft beers, brewing can differentiate cruises

By Tom Stieghorst

When the Carnival Vista debuts in 2016, it will be the first American cruise ship to brew its own beer at sea.

But the brewpub will be just the next step in a trend toward distinctive beers that has been fermenting in the cruise industry for a while. The four biggest lines all have exclusive craft beers onboard in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Carnival will brew three housemade beers in copper tanks behind a wall of glass in the ship's RedFrog Pub, where the brews will be served.

"Historically, the cruise lines have carried the very generic lager beers like Budweiser, Bud Light, Corona, Heineken," said Eddie Allen, Carnival's vice president of beverage operations. "It's 2015, and as a country, our tastes are changing, and our guests, especially our beer-drinking guests, are expecting a higher-quality beer onboard our ships."

Beyond the Vista, Allen has been sourcing craft beer for Carnival ships from homeports such as New Orleans (Abita), Galveston (Shiner Bock) and in Florida ports from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa. The goal is to get enough fresh beer to meet Carnival's large demand, ease logistics and give different Carnival ships something distinctive, especially for repeat cruisers.

Other cruise lines are also hopping on the craft beer wagon. With the debut of a Michael's Genuine Pub on the Quantum of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International began serving the restaurant's signature brew.

Chef Michael Schwartz began producing Michael's Genuine Home Brew in 2012 for his restaurant in Miami's Design District. It is brewed from locally sourced rice grown as a rotation crop on a sugar cane plantation. Schwartz said the brew is an ale, golden in color, light-bodied with a citrusy sweetness, a hint of floral hops and a dry finish. It is brewed under contract by Back Forty Beer Co., of Gadsden, Ala., and is distributed to dozens of restaurants and specialty stores in south and central Florida.

Also brewed under contract by a craft brewer is Seawitch West Coast IPA, which was introduced on Princess Cruises ships in 2014 in honor of the line's 50th anniversary this year. Produced by Strike Brewing Co. of San Francisco, it is a typically hoppy India pale ale that was launched on the Regal Princess in November when it arrived in Fort Lauderdale for Caribbean cruises. Princess expects to offer it fleetwide soon and plans more Seawitch craft beers in partnership with other regional brewers.

Later this year, Norwegian Cruise Line will get into the act with a venue aboard the Norwegian Escape called District Brew House, which will be a "craft brew hall" with a keg room and 24 beers on tap.

Among them will be a beer made exclusively for Norwegian by Wynwood Brewing Co., Miami's first craft brewer.  Also available will be Wynwood's signature brew, La Rubia Blonde Ale, which Norwegian said was designed for the warm Caribbean weather.

Today's traveler wants to 'taste the place'

By Kate Rice

For many travelers, eating is a key travel metric. "For some people, it's how many countries they've been in," Joe Diaz, co-founder of Afar Magazine, said in an address during the Young Travel Professionals Futurelab event in New York last month. "For me, it's how many kitchen tables I've been to."

Travelers literally want to taste the place they're visiting, but the best local dining experience varies with the client. For some, it could be fried frog on a stick in a remote Cambodian village market. For others, it could be eating in the kitchen while watching a chef prepare their meal.

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The challenge for agents is to find those idiosyncratic experiences for their clients, be it the little-known Michelin star restaurant without a website or the beachfront surfer hangout whose waiters serve sublime coconut shrimp on tables set in the sand.

Consortia partnerships with local providers around the world are giving agents that foodie intel about under-the-radar culinary experiences delivering over-the-top deliciousness.

Travel Leaders In-Country Partners, Ensemble's On Location program and Virtuoso's On Sites are just three examples of programs that are partnerships with in-destination specialists that give agents that kind of boots-on-the-ground knowledge.

"Obviously, culinary and wine travel is a booming segment of the market," said Marnie Brown, manager of Travel Leaders' In-Country Partners. "We've been seeing this trend for several years, and all of our suppliers have been moving to support agents and provide products that address culinary interests."

Culinary travel requests are the most popular for In-Country Partners, Brown said, adding that it has gone beyond cooking classes in Paris and making pasta in Italy: It's not just eating food but seeing where food products are grown or how they're prepared.

Deasy’s Harbor Bar and Seafood Restaurant in Clonakilty, Ireland.
Deasy’s Harbor Bar and Seafood Restaurant in Clonakilty, Ireland.

One example of this kind of experience is Babylonstoren, a luxury working farm (a Relais & Chateau) in South Africa's Cape Winelands. Its Cape Dutch farmhouse dates to 1777, and visitors can not only enjoy the cuisine but see where it's grown and prepared.

"The difference in using In-Country Partners is they know the unique properties and culinary experiences that impress the more sophisticated traveler," Brown said.

It's about discovering the great foods in exotic destinations such as India and Asia, for example, or finding new entrants or secret spots in established destinations such as Ireland, Brown said.

Travelers are increasingly seeking an authentic experience, said Suzanne Hall, senior director of land supplier partnerships for Ensemble Travel Group, and food is an integral part of that. There's nothing like being able to pull off the road on a drive in the Lorraine to sample the Mirabelle plums for which a local farmer is famed.

Hall described the wide variety of culinary experiences that await travelers. It could be touring the Cusco home of Peruvian artists Pablo Seminario and Marilu Behar, whose ceramics are in the Chicago Field Museum, drinking wine with them and talking art. Or it could be visiting a rural village in Vietnam where an elderly woman who loves beetle nut rolls some up for visitors to chew. She told her visitors how to do it, as well.

"No English required," Hall said, remembering the experience.

The drive to experience a locale through its food has always been there, Hall said, adding, "I think the focus is just deeper today."

On Location partners have relationships not just with restaurants but with local farmers, dairies and vineyards. And those relationships mean agents have even more to offer clients.

Hall said one Ensemble agent positions On Location partners as an extension of his own office. "He calls them 'my people in France,' or 'my people in Italy,'" she said.

And given the expertise and support they provide, they really are.

On tours, food is 'essential ingredient'

By Michelle Baran

It used to be that food on tours was viewed as sustenance, a means to an end. But in the past few years, operators are increasingly highlighting food as a key component of the touring experience. The shifting focus is essential in order to stay competitive and to satisfy today's more food-focused travelers.

"We do a lot more food-inspired trips than we have in the past," said Scott Wiseman, president for the Americas of Cox & Kings.

Wiseman went back to the company's 2011 and 2012 brochures to see how many itineraries highlighted culinary experiences, and he counted nine. For 2015, he stopped counting at about 50.

In 2013, Cox & Kings partnered with the Fox cooking show "MasterChef" to create MasterChef Travel, a series of culinary-themed itineraries featuring "MasterChef" personalities and local culinary experts.

Since then, the trend has exploded. "It's definitely more and more you have to put [food experiences] forward and just not wait for people to ask about it," Wiseman said, adding that Cox & Kings' product development teams are now tasked with finding everything from the latest, hot-spot restaurants to hard-to-find, hole-in-the-wall local food gems to incorporate into itineraries.

And they aren't just looking for them in the obvious destinations that people associate with food, such as Italy or China. They're also on food quests in places like Peru and Bolivia.

For instance, Cox & Kings has a new itinerary called Beyond Curry that introduces travelers to India's less-known regions and cuisines, as well as a new Napa and Sonoma trip that includes a visit to oyster and cheese farms in addition to the traditional wine tastings and vineyard visits.

Trafalgar, too, has noticed that food has become an increasingly important part of the tour experience, and it has responded in kind. "We have seen guests ask more about the dining and food experiences when choosing an itinerary in recent years," said Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar's global CEO.  

Consequently, for its tours for 2015, Trafalgar has integrated more than 100 Be My Guest experiences, in which clients are treated to a home-cooked meal with locals in their homes. Tollman said that on average, Trafalgar pays three times more for the Be My Guest meals than what a regular meal would cost, but he said the investment pays off from a customer-satisfaction point of view.

Like many operators, Trafalgar has also added rich culinary experiences to more of its itineraries, such as shopping at a local market, preparing a meal with a chef in his or her restaurant or cooking or wine-making lessons.

The foodie trend has become so strong that a whole host of smaller, niche tour operators have cropped up in recent years focusing solely on food. In addition to companies like Epitourean, Tour de Forks and Gourmet on Tour, media brands such as Saveur magazine and the Travel Channel offer foodie tours of their own.

"Food is an essential ingredient to travel," Tollman said. "As we evolved escorted tours, enabling guests to get a genuine understanding of the destination, we have understood that there is no better insight into the soul of a culture than the food of the locals."