What Is Culinary Travel?

Jim Kane and his son crossing a bridge in (Photo courtesy of Culture Xplorers.)
Jim Kane and his son crossing a bridge in Pacaya-Samiria Reserve in Peru. (Photo courtesy of Culture Xplorers.)

Recommend’s Associate Editor, Michelle Marie Arean, had the opportunity to chat with Jim Kane, founding director of Culture Xplorers and board member of the World Food Travel Association (WTFA), to find out a little more about culinary travel, why it’s trending, and what are some of the best places you should send your clients to for their own culinary experiences. 

Michelle Marie Arean (MMA): What’s your background prior to joining the WTFA? Why did you decide to join and what’s your role?

Jim Kane (JK): I’ve worked in one way or another in the educational travel field for nearly 20 years, the last 11 at the helm of Culture Xplorers (CX). We were founded on three guiding pillars: people, traditions, and impact. That is to say, meet and genuinely connect with the people of the countries and regions we visit, actively engage in and celebrate their living traditions, and make a positive impact through our travels. While there are many ways to do each of these, food often plays a role. Time and again, I’ve seen how connecting around the table over food creates magical moments and memories for both travelers and local hosts alike.

The more I research and scout, the more I see food travel evolving into fascinating new frontiers. I want to play an active role in this evolution and knew that at the WFTA, I’d have a voice at the heart of the food travel movement. With my background in business development and strategic alliances, I hope to play an active role in how the WFTA connects in coming years with other like-minded organizations, strategic partners, and tourism boards looking to boost the profile, opportunities, and experiences of food travel within their home countries.

MMA: What is culinary tourism and why has it increased?
JK: The WFTA defines food tourism as: “The pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near.” Food is one of humanity’s most universal connectors. It breaks down language barriers and helps people connect across cultures. Food is also an experience that uses all five senses, and perhaps because of this, experiences around food are often heightened and emotional. Food, in its broadest sense, is also a tremendous lens through which to understand our world, each other, and even ourselves in a whole new light. As travelers seek ever more authentic, rooted and connected experiences, food tourism is on the rise and will continue to grow as a central part of the travel experience in coming years.

(Photo courtesy of Culture Xplorers.)
Foraging for mushrooms with a botanist in Spain. (Photo courtesy of Culture Xplorers.)

MMA: What does food-related tourism look like now?
JK: Food-focused tourism is going through a dynamic shift from a more formal gourmet experience to one which is more physically active and more connected to local terrain. Farm-to-table travel is seeing a boom worldwide. At the same time, even many of the world’s finest restaurants are incorporating a strong emphasis on celebrating local ingredients, their own region’s biodiversity, and a deeper connection with the land. Many incorporate products grown in their own gardens and a handful even have trained botanists and agronomists on staff working directly with the chefs to source and forage unusual local products for their tables.

MMA: What are some of the most popular places to visit for food travel, and can you give us an example of a must-take trip? Also, what’s your favorite food travel vacation/trip?
JK: It’s so easy to fall in love with the places and local friends met on these types of programs—it’s a bit like choosing your favorite child! Within the portfolio of Culture Xplorers’ destinations, I do dearly love food travel in Oaxaca, Mexico, in Peru, in Northern Portugal and in Northern Spain. Outside of those, some of my favorite personal food travel experiences have been in Thailand and Laos. And as far as places I still haven’t been, but would love to delve deeply into, are Morocco, Japan, and Bulgaria. For foodies, there are few places that match the Basque Country in Spain in terms of food being at the root of social interactions and cultural institutions. From a pinto bar crawl in old San Sebastian to some of the world’s leading chefs and restaurants, the freshness-obsessed Basque fishermen along the coast, heritage pig and sheep breeders in the nearby mountains, from txakoli (an indigenous crisp white) to Basque cider houses—the Basque Country region offers an inexhaustible range of activities and experiences that any foodie would adore.

MMA: What has changed recently in the way food-focused trips are planned?
JK: Food-focused experiences are becoming more physically active—think foraging for coveted wild mushrooms in Cataluña in the autumn accompanied by a trained gastro-botanist; kayaking on an Andean lagoon followed by a lakeside pachamanca, a celebratory feast cooked underground over superheated stones whose origins pre-date the Inca empire. Travel is becoming more rooted to place—think shadowing a Basque shepherd on a fun variation of his morning routine, where trying your hand at milking a sheep is part of the experience, as is trying the sharp, nutty Idiazabel cheese produced on the farm, all washed down with a local txakoli wine. And finally, there are some visionaries using food as a tool for social change. I personally am very passionate about this new frontier of food travel and plan to be a catalyst for remarkable organizations doing life-changing work in the places we travel.

Touring a local farmer's market near Lima Peru. (Photo courtesy of <strong>Culture Xplorers</strong>.)
Touring a local farmer’s market near Lima, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Culture Xplorers.)

MMA: Why should travel agents get involved in selling food-focused itineraries and what’s a good place for them to start?
JK: Because it’s a growing phenomenon that clients are seeking more and more, because it’s a quest for an authentic experience and a genuine sense of place that becomes addictive once travelers try it—meaning they’ll be back for more trips with the agent after taking their first food-focused trip, and because food travel is so varied and so personal, this allows the agent’s own specialization, knowledge, and expertise to shine. The WFTA is an excellent resource for agents interested in learning more about food travel. Erik Wolf, the WFTA’s executive director, has written a practical handbook on culinary travel called “Have Fork Will Travel,” which is available on Amazon. Those agents seeking more in-depth expertise can take the WFTA’s highly regarded CCTP (Certified Culinary Travel Professional) program online. For more details about that program, visit worldfoodtravel.org/cctp. They could also start by attending the annual FoodWorx conference in Portland, worldfoodtravel.org/foodworx-conference.

MMA: Tell us a little more about food for social change movement, and how Culture Xplorers is involved?
JK: For me, this is one of the most exciting and promising new frontiers of food travel. There are visionaries who are leveraging the power of food to create needed social change in marginalized communities around the world—both at home and abroad. Latin America has some extraordinary models to emulate. For instance, in Lima, culinary superstar Gaston Acurio, hand-in-hand with a leading local NGO, helped launch a world-class cooking school in the coastal desert which recruits from marginalized communities around Lima. The Pachacutec Culinary Institute (ICP is its Spanish acronym) is a hyper competitive 2-year culinary degree program that is transforming the lives of those remarkable students who graduate each year and opening doors and opportunities beyond that would have been unthinkable before the existence of the ICP.

In terms of our partnership with the ICP, Culture Xplorers brings travelers who are interested in a unique hands-on culinary experience to the ICP to work side-by-side with the students for a half-day culinary workshop. Sharing this great meal they’ve prepared together is the perfect finish to an unforgettable day for both students and visitors alike.

For more information on Culture Xplorers, visit culturexplorers.com.