Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

Rani Cheema loves food.

Take, for instance, the way she recently described a particularly pungent piece of cheese: "It set my soul on fire."

Or her take on eating raw pheasant in South Korea: "Eating raw foods in general, yeah, it's tricky, because parasites or whatever." That didn't faze her, though. She ate the pheasant. And raw chicken in Japan. In fact, she said she's now more comfortable eating raw poultry than raw fish.

It stands to reason that Cheema channeled her love of food into a specialty when she became a travel advisor, but founding Cheema's Travel wasn't her first foray into the culinary world. At the Food Network, her first job out of the School of Visual Arts in New York, with her new degree in design, she worked as an art director designing fake food packaging (if Rachael Ray pulled out chicken stock on her show and you didn't recognize the label, that's because Cheema designed it).

It was her dream job, but after five years, she just wanted to travel. She picked up design jobs around the world, taught English, then took another design job in New York. That's when she met a luxury travel consultant. The career clicked.

Today, she has channeled her love of food into an agency that specializes in the lucrative field of culinary travel. She plans custom trips and leads small group culinary tours for women; at the moment, she has trips planned to Switzerland, Iran and South Korea.

"When it comes to culinary, it's everything from educational to just full-on gluttonous, eating everything," she said.

Her trips include everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to dining with locals to acquiring and preparing ingredients with an instructor. Her goal: "I really want to support the little guys and also spread the money out in destinations."

Cheema get her idea from magazines and watching "any and all food travel shows." One of her latest watches was the popular "Salt Fat Acid Heat" with chef Samin Nosrat on Netflix.

Media greatly influence travel, even when the medium's creator wasn't quite expecting to create any lasting impact.

Take Frances Mayes, for example. The author of "Under the Tuscan Sun," something of a love letter to her Italian villa, turned the sleepy Italian town of Cortona into a true destination (the eponymous 2003 Diane Lane flick didn't hurt, either).

"I had written poetry books before that, and I taught poetry at a university. My whole life was poetry," Mayes told me at an event feting her latest book, "See You in the Piazza." "So when I wrote this book, my editor expected it to sell like one of my books of poetry, which is kind of not at all."

Now, the book has been translated into dozens of languages, and people from all over the world are drawn to Cortona.

Media is "essential" to consumer travel decisions, said Kathy McCabe, host of the PBS travel series "Dream of Italy." The same event celebrating Mayes' book also spotlighted the second season of McCabe's show (Mayes is featured in a special episode). McCabe said she believes Mayes is one of the best examples of media impacting consumer travel.

"Look at Cortona as a case study in how many people go and how the economy has changed," McCabe said. "People have jobs. We were sitting in the piazza when we were filming and a man walked by -- not scripted, I swear -- and [told Mayes], 'Thank you for the gift.'"

Not surprisingly, McCabe often gets inquiries about traveling to Italy thanks to her show. She has a small cadre of tour operators and travel advisors she's known and worked with for years and acts as a bridge between travelers and the industry. McCabe is also open to working with others and is toying with the idea of leading some small groups herself.

Wherever McCabe -- or any traveler for that matter -- goes, Mayes undoubtedly hopes it is off the beaten path (the subtitle of her latest book is "New Places to Discover in Italy" for a reason).

"It's such a pleasure to rediscover the spontaneity of travel," Mayes said. "Because when you go to Rome and Venice and Florence, you kind of know what you're going to see. When you get off road, off the track, you're surprised, and I really like that element of surprise in travel."

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