Focus onCulinary Travel


March 02, 2016

As anyone who regularly scrolls through photos on Instagram knows, #foodporn is huge.

As is #foodie and, of course, #food.

Those three hashtags had been posted collectively almost 300 million times as of press time.

Our growing food obsession has taken on new vigor in the social media, food-porn era, where a meal doesn't go by that isn't splashed across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr, shared with millions of followers around the world.  

Nothing has been a better vehicle to both demonstrate and fuel the rapid growth of food tourism than social media, with culinary travelers giving their followers the opportunity to ogle dishes from Shanghai to Chicago, showing off different cultures through cuisine and whetting millions of appetites for a chance to experience a world of great dining.

What follows are essays by Travel Weekly reporters and editors identifying some of the trends that have emerged from the growing demand for unique culinary experiences on cruise ships, in hotels, on tours and even in the air.

We assume a few of them could even inspire #foodporn postings.

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For some travelers, it's all about the food

By Michelle Baran

Not long ago it became clear that dining experiences and culinary engagement during tours and as part of travel packages needed to improve, that travelers really cared about the quality and authenticity of the meals they ate while exploring the world.

Tour operators responded with greater investments in their food programs, researching unique dining venues and encounters: such as eating with locals in their homes or booking tables at Michelin-starred restaurants for their guests.

An even more fervent foodie traveler has now emerged: one who doesn't just want to taste more interesting food as a complement to a travel itinerary, but one for whom food is the itinerary.

In response to these increasingly obsessed travelers, a growing number of tour products are cropping up wherein food is no longer just a sideshow for the rest of the trip; it's the main attraction.

"As interest in food gains traction around the world, it's almost becoming a sport for many people," said Erik Wolf, founder of the World Food Travel Association. "People arrive in cities with itineraries of markets to visit, cafes to frequent and, of course, restaurants that have been prebooked for weeks or months."

Food tours first started gaining traction as a popular day-tour option in various cities, and there are countless local food-tour companies that still offer just that.

But with the growing number of media outlets constantly featuring food coverage and food magazines showcasing various destinations, the trend became so popular that travel companies now create intricate and ambitious multiday itineraries organized entirely around eating.

Intrepid Travel, for example, has an entire portfolio of product dedicated solely to food tours, or what it calls Intrepid's Real Food Adventures, a program that launched in 2013 with 10 itineraries and has grown to 22 this year.

"The surge of culinary travel-based TV shows, food magazines and food and travel blogs over the last decade has generated a segment of travelers seeking a style of travel in which cuisine, eating, drinking, cooking, dining, takes center stage," said Food Product Manager Erica Kritikides of Intrepid Travel.

Part of what drove Intrepid to create food-focused itineraries was that in destinations known for their rich culinary traditions such as India, China, Turkey and Mexico, travelers were often missing out on really great food experiences because of nervousness about what and where to eat, Kritikides said. This was where the company felt it could offer clients help.

To develop these itineraries, Intrepid consults with chefs, food bloggers, wine experts and foodie tour guides. The resulting trips include hands-on cooking classes, meals at authentic local restaurants, home-cooked meals, market tours, street-food crawls and alcoholic beverage tastings.

"We want our Food Adventures to be representative of local gastronomy, both past and present," Kritikides said. "For example, on a Food Adventure in Peru, you might find yourself partaking in an ancient pachamanca feast, cooked beneath the earth, as well as dining in a Chifa restaurant dedicated to modern Chinese-Peruvian fusion. We often find that some of the most interesting and tasty experiences lie at those unexpected points of culinary intersection."

Kritikides said that while travelers who book these tours are unapologetic about the fact that food is their focus, they aren't going to skip other sightseeing and important landmarks altogether.

"The foodie community is a very passionate bunch who unapologetically enjoy the best of both worlds," she said.

Gastropubs offer more creative fare

By Tom Stieghorst

Feel like eating someplace less formal than the main dining room on a cruise ship but more sophisticated than a pool grill or pizza parlor?

Cruise lines are starting to populate that in-between territory with restaurants that offer casual fine dining.

The appetizers at the Salty Dog gastropub on Princess Cruises include Parma ham and three sauces: BBQ, garlic mayo and piquillo.
The appetizers at the Salty Dog gastropub on Princess Cruises include Parma ham and three sauces: BBQ, garlic mayo and piquillo.

One example is the new Salty Dog gastropub on Princess Cruises, one of several pub ideas that have cropped up in the past two years.

The Salty Dog is a seagoing version of the gastropub that's proven popular on land. The essential concept is to take pub grub and give it a twist to make it more adventurous.

"It's a hair more 'chefy,' let's put it that way; a little more food-focused," said Los Angeles-based restaurant owner Ernesto Uchimura, who created the Salty Dog concept and menu for Princess.

"A pub in general can be an establishment that's for drinking mostly," Uchimura said. "A gastropub just takes it to that next level, creativity-wise. It's almost like it's a pub for today."

Uchimura features a dozen plates on the Salty Dog menu, such as a gruyere grilled cheese sandwich with white tomato soup or beef short ribs in a stout orange-blossom honey glaze.

Another plate includes the signature Ernesto burger, a ground rib-eye and short rib patty topped with grilled pork belly, caramelized kimchi, beer-battered jalapeno, gruyere cheese and charred onion aioli on a brioche bun.

Uchimura said the pale ale-braised pork cheeks are an example of how a gastropub transforms typical fare.

"In a pub you'll find almost any kind of braised item, whether it's a stew or beef pie, so ours would be a similar version done a little lighter with a nod to the traditional kind of style of it," Uchimura said.

So far, the Salty Dog has been installed on three ships: the Crown, the Emerald and the Ruby Princess.

The cost is $19 for three plates, but there's also an appetizer of Parma ham and Parmesan cheese and a choice of three desserts included in the price.

The Salty Dog opens in the Wheelhouse Bar each day from 6 p.m. to
10 p.m., with a selection of Princess custom-brewed beers also available.

Uchimura said the ambience of the Wheelhouse Bar makes it a good place to put a gastropub.

"You really want to capitalize on what a pub does best, which is that kind of communal feel-good quality of it," he said. "The atmosphere is really important. It should be warm and fun. Exemplifying the best parts of that is really what a gastropub is all about."

The Wheelhouse Bar also serves a traditional pub lunch for no extra charge. Rai Caluori, the executive vice president for fleet operations, said Princess didn't want to drop the lunch, but it wondered what else could be done with the concept.

"How can we put a twist on it without changing it too much for guests who like it?" he said.

Other lines have their own take on the gastropub. Royal Caribbean International on its newest ships has Michael's Genuine Pub, a more traditional venue but one that features dishes like venison and onion pie ($12.50) and chicken liver crostini ($5).

On its newest ship, the Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Cruise Line opened a craft brew hall next door to its Food Republic specialty restaurant.

A few Food Republic items are served at the District Brew House, including lobster roll ($7.50), Korean chicken wings ($4.50) and dates with chorizo ($8).

Food on a plane is not a joke for InFlight Feed's Loukas

By Robert Silk

In the U.S., most people are happy to stay away from airline food. At least, that's the common perception.

But Nikos Loukas, the Dublin-based administrator of the website and blog InFlight Feed, travels the world sampling airline cuisine. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've always been obsessed with aircraft. I've always been interested in food. So it's a perfect combination," he said.

Since 2012, Loukas has flown 333 times, traveling nearly 350,000 miles. His journeys, he said, have taken him to 114 airports in 41 countries, the majority at his own expense, mostly for the purpose of trying the food.

A Singapore Airlines’ six-course Japanese tasting menu, Kyo Kaiseki; airline food blogger Nikos Loukas said it was the best in the sky.
A Singapore Airlines’ six-course Japanese tasting menu, Kyo Kaiseki; airline food blogger Nikos Loukas said it was the best in the sky.

The Australian native uses his experiences as material for InFlight Feed. His exploits have earned coverage from media outlets such as the Washington Post and CNN.com. Along with reviews of airline cuisine, Loukas, 36, posts industry news on his website.

Want to learn about the special Peruvian dishes the Chilean carrier LAN is serving on select routes out of Lima? You'll find it on InFlight Feed. Looking for the Alaska Airlines in-flight menu, and want to know if the food is included? That's there, as well.

As a measure of how dedicated Loukas is to his unique calling, consider a trip he has planned for April. He'll leave Europe on a Norwegian Air flight from Oslo, Norway, to Bangkok.

After a short layover, Loukas will fly business class to New Delhi on Malaysia Airlines. Once in India, he'll take six domestic flights in three days, sampling food on Air India, Jet Airways, SpiceJet, Vistara, GoAir and IndiGo.

"They're meant to have amazing snacks," Loukas said of IndiGo, a low-cost carrier that had the largest market share of any domestic airline in India.

Airfare for the trip is approximately $3,000.

So what part of the world has the best airline food?

Loukas said that generally Asian carriers top the list.

"They pride themselves on really giving a nice level of meal," he said. "You fly Japan Airlines or ANA, you'd think you're sitting in a restaurant with some of the meals you are getting in economy."

And the worst?

"I think that the American-based airlines could do a lot more," Loukas said. "It seems people are always complaining about the American carriers, but I think they are on the road to recovery. I think the airlines are starting to see their wrongs."

Loukas added that he has had memorable meals, both good and bad, in his many travels. The best was the six-course Japanese dinner he enjoyed in the first-class cabin of Singapore Airlines.

"It was really like sitting in a Michelin-star restaurant," Loukas said.

Among the worst was the grilled chicken with vegetables and a potato mash in the business class of Swiss Airlines.

"Served stone cold two times! In the end, I gave up," he lamented.

High-end brands offering more healthy dining options

By Danny King

Within the past two years, two hotel brands have been launched with wellness as the core concept of their service offerings, while an upper-upscale mainstay has doubled down on its wellness quotient.

In all cases, the focus on wellness has been reflected in the kitchens.

Miami’s 1 Hotel South Beach features the restaurant Beachcraft, helmed by Tom Colicchio, with healthier options on the menu like this vegetable flatbread.
Miami’s 1 Hotel South Beach features the restaurant Beachcraft, helmed by Tom Colicchio, with healthier options on the menu like this vegetable flatbread.

The simplest approach has been taken by InterContinental Hotels Group's upscale Even Hotels, which debuted in mid-2014 in Norwalk, Conn., and has added properties in New York and Rockville, Md. Even is putting its own spin on the fast-casual concept with its Cork & Kale restaurants, featuring organic, vegetarian choices, paleo dishes (emphasizing meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, while eschewing grain and dairy products) and smoothies. The bar serves cocktails made with organic spirits and fresh herbs.

Taking that idea a step further is Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Westin upper-upscale brand, which increased its wellness emphasis in 2014 by introducing its Well-Being Movement. With that came the Eat Well concept, which augmented Westin's existing SuperFoodsRx program.

Eat Well emphasizes items with low-calorie, high-antioxidant ingredients, plus has components such as the Westin Fresh Juicery juice-and-smoothie offerings and the Eat Well Menu for Kids, which gives children the opportunity to build their own salmon nicoise salad or fruit crepe. Those items complement dishes such as smoked jalapeno-rubbed salmon tacos, Alaskan king crab and sweet potato cakes.

The most interesting approach, however, might have been taken by 1 Hotels & Resorts, the green-minded luxury concept headed by former Starwood Hotels chief Barry Sternlicht. Debuting with the 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami last March and continuing with New York's 6-month-old 1 Hotel Central Park, the brand brought in high-profile chefs known for environmentally sustainable approaches to helm restaurants designed to walk the line between indulgent and healthy by serving dishes made with fresh, local ingredients.

In Miami, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's Beachcraft has a seafood-heavy menu with items such as yellowfin tuna crudo with fennel and peppers and black grouper with zucchini. The hotel will soon feature the pop-up restaurant Prey, where chef Bun Lai pairs local seafood dishes with beverages such as berry and plant sake.

In New York, chef Jonathan Waxman shoehorned a juicing operation into his Jams restaurant, mixing seasonal dishes with less-healthy fare, such as a bacon cheeseburger.

Given hotels' traditional food and beverage choices and that traveling is often perceived as a reason to indulge, an effort to spotlight healthier options could prove risky.

"I don't think people into health and wellness want to be segregated in any way, shape or form," Commune Hotels & Resorts CEO and ex-Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants President Niki Leondakis, said on a panel last month at the Americas Lodging Investment Symposium. "With all due respect to those brands, a hotel based on health and wellness is like having a hotel based on women."

Still, Kane Sarhan, the vice president of marketing for 1 Hotels parent, the SH Group, said he doesn't think it's an either/or approach, and he argued that health, wellness and environmental sustainability can be integrated seamlessly into a hotel's service and culinary offerings without being preachy or sacrificing quality.

"You can live green and you can live well and still have luxury in your life," said Sarhan. "We've spent the time and the money so the guest doesn't have to think about it."

Agents have several paths for culinary-travel knowledge

By Jamie Biesiada

While some agents might view culinary travel as a vast, sometimes daunting area to specialize in, the right education can open them up to a larger market of travelers.

"Everyone eats and drinks," said Erik Wolf, founder of the World Food Travel Association.

In 2008, the association started its Certified Culinary Travel Professional (CCTP) program, open to anyone interested in culinary travel, including agents, Wolf said. The $497 program is also popular with tour operators and destination marketers.

Wolf said course work ranges from an overview of what food and beverage tourism means to the psychographics of culinary travelers to business guidelines and best practices.

The program includes online videos, interviews with experts such as Alanna Rodgers, founder of Tru Bahamian Food Tours, and one-on-one meetings with a faculty adviser.

Participants have up to eight weeks to get through the online materials and four weeks to complete a final test or business plan.

Graduates receive a diploma with the organization's logo for display as well as marketing support. The logo and CCTP designation is a key, Wolf said, as graduates often "leverage this in their own marketing materials."

"For travel agents, I think it helps them to become experts in food travel and to understand and narrow down things like what food travel is, who to go after in terms of marketing," Wolf said. "We see a lot of misunderstanding about who the end customer is, so we have to really help them understand who food travelers are."

They are not necessarily wealthy, he said. Rather, they tend to skew younger (the early 20s to 50 range is the largest segment) and are often well-educated.

Many agents who gain their CCTP designation go on to focus on culinary travel in the region where they are located, Wolf said.

"Food and beverage [travel] can be very approachable. People interested in gourmet are only 8.1% of the market," he said, citing the association's research. "So if people are scared off by it, they think that it's just about the Michelin-starred restaurants or expensive wineries. That's really misleading."

Edible Destinations, a company that offers a variety of culinary tours, is in the process of creating another educational resource: designating travel agents as Certified Culinary Travel Specialists (CCTS). The program is expected to launch in June along with a suite of tools that will give agents the ability to book culinary tours through Edible Destinations and create their own itineraries that they can sell through their websites, said founder and President David Loy.

The educational product will be available for free (as will most of the suite of tools to book, track and design culinary tours) and will feature some segments on Edible Destinations' products, but it will also aim to give agents an overall education on culinary travel. Loy estimated the course work could be completed in 30 days or less, and there will be a final exam. Agents who succeed will be given CCTS designation as well as a seal to use in their marketing material.

JoAnn Bundock, the vice president of experience development, said those agents will receive an education about wine, food and different regions where culinary travel is popular or up and coming to make them "feel a little bit more comfortable in talking about a foodie experience." He said it will explain concepts like the slow food movement, sustainability and components of a culinary tour that agents need to understand.

For more information visit: www.worldfoodtravel.org/product/certified-culinary-travel-profession-program/ and www.epitourean.com/agents/sign-up.