When chefs go on tour, culinary adventures follow

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

Focus on Culinary Travel

When chefs go on tour, culinary adventures follow

By Johanna Jainchill

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

SRV Chef Lombardi, bottom right, and the Oldways tour group eating at Pizzeria Impero in the heart of Verona, Italy.

BOSTON—Celebrity chefs have long gotten top billing in the hospitality sector, in hotels and resorts, on cruises and even in-flight.

But there is a subset of small-group culinary tours led by hometown chefs who are joined by the loyal clientele who fill their restaurants every week.

Among them are the chefs at SRV, a restaurant in this city’s South End neighborhood, where I had dinner on a freezing cold Friday night. The dimly lit industrial space accommodates a dining room as well as a standing-room-only, small plates, Venetian-style bacaro bar that the James Beard-nominated chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell learned to love during their years cooking together in Italy. 

Sinking my teeth into Brussels sprouts with tuna belly; beef cheek agnolotti; and squid ink risotto, it was clear why these patrons, who packed the space that night, want to spend their vacation with these cooks. 

Small plates at SRV in Boston's South End. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

Small plates at SRV in Boston's South End. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

Small plates at SRV in Boston's South End. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

A double dose of local flavor

Having a chef go to another country to lead a food tour might seem to belie the trend toward going local. But these chefs actually offer a double dose of local expertise. 

They learned to specialize in the cuisine of a region by spending significant time there and remain passionate about the place. For their fans, the tours enable them to go that much deeper with chefs they know and whose food they love, while experiencing the destination the way the chefs do.  

“It was a great opportunity to share the cooking of Venice with other Americans who may view it mostly as a tourist destination without getting to experience the deeply rooted local traditions that exist in the region,” Lombardi said. 

He and O’Donnell partnered with Boston-based nonprofit Oldways on a tour of Italy’s Venato region last year and will do it again this summer in Campania — home to Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. 

Oldways’ stated mission is to inspire people to embrace “the old ways of eating” and has long offered trips that explore a region’s food, wine and culinary traditions. 

Lombardi said that to craft the itinerary, he and Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways’ president, talked about what he thought would be feasible and valuable.  

“We brainstormed and worked together to map out what is important in that region as far as olive oil, wine, cheese and other regional specialties,” he said. 

While on tour, Lombardi leads a cooking class in which guests can make regional specialties, he cooks some meals, and he accompanies them along with Baer-Sinnott and a local guide to destinations that illustrate food and wine unique to the area. He said he answers questions from the guests with a chef’s perspective. 

“I eat meals with them and try to pass on as much knowledge as I can as often as I can,” he said, adding that a “free-flowing, intimate dialogue” with him and the local guides and chefs gives them a “multiperspective culinary travel experience one wouldn’t likely have on a self-guided tour or vacation.” 

Josh Ziskin, right, chef and co-owner of La Morra, and a local butcher on a DuVine tour of Tuscany.

Josh Ziskin, right, chef and co-owner of La Morra, and a local butcher on a DuVine tour of Tuscany.

Josh Ziskin, right, chef and co-owner of La Morra, and a local butcher on a DuVine tour of Tuscany.

In nearby Brookline, the owners of La Morra, known for being one of NFL star Tom Brady’s favorite haunts, also lead trips, partnering with bike tour specialist DuVine on more guilt-free culinary getaways.    

La Morra owners Josh and Jen Ziskin, first and second from left, on a DuVine culinary cycling tour of Sicily.

La Morra owners Josh and Jen Ziskin, first and second from left, on a DuVine culinary cycling tour of Sicily.

La Morra owners Josh and Jen Ziskin, first and second from left, on a DuVine culinary cycling tour of Sicily.

Wife and husband co-owners Jen and Josh Ziskin, he the chef and she the sommelier, have led four tours to different regions of Italy, where they lived together for a year before opening La Morra. They also lead a trip to Portugal that is more focused on wine and this fall will offer a Tuscany trip.   

“We do it to offer something different for our guests,” Jen said. 

She said they come up with the itineraries, menus and wine selections for meals, and Josh cooks at least one dinner with chefs they know. Jen said she and Josh enjoy experiencing the regions with their longtime patrons and have taken them to have meals with the families they met there and to their friends’ restaurants. 

“We were able to give them our experience living in Piemonte, with the wineries and restaurants we have relationships with, with the people we know and the places we worked,” Jen said.  

Almost all of the people who join the tours come through La Morra, whereas the SRV tours are also promoted by Oldways, which Lombardi said has a following  “you want to be engaging with, people who are truly passionate about food and travel.”

It’s a healthy mix, he said, of their clients and SRV “regulars who have become not just fans of the brand but family.” 

Both Lombardi and the Ziskins enjoy working with tour operators that take care of the all of the logistics. 

“They deal with everything except the ideas and the marketing,” Jen said of DuVine. 

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