Experiencing your country and your world, one delicious bite at a time.
First of all, you should know I’m wholly unqualified to write this article. When my editor called with this assignment—to share tips with readers on how they can enhance their culinary experiences when traveling—I should have backed away slowly, dabbing at the Dorito stains at the corners of my mouth. If there’s a term that means the opposite of a foodie, that would be me. My culinary tastes are low-brow and pedestrian, my spice cabinet is woefully inept, and I wouldn’t know an heirloom from an earworm. I’m that one friend you have who annoyingly orders the same thing all the time when you eat out together because she doesn’t know any better.
I do love to travel, though, and I know how it can bring out the richness, colors, and textures in life. But when I was in Namibia, Africa, recently, while my traveling companions were washing down their meals of springbok with a slosh of African wine, I was twirling my fork in a plate of flavorless spaghetti. That’s right: Namibian spaghetti. Which, I should clarify, isn’t really a thing. And every time I’ve traveled to Cuba (or Guatemala, or Costa Rica, or just about any country I’ve visited), my suitcase was packed with so many packets of tuna—my go-to bring-along food—that dolphins could have been trailing our plane for miles, and I would have never known.
I’m thinking my editor gave me this assignment for therapeutic reasons, as if to say, “Girl, you need to get out of your same-old, same-old food habits. Stop eating peanut butter and yogurt when you’re in Iceland.” (In my defense, I was eating Skyr, Iceland’s cultured dairy product. That felt pretty exotic to me.)
So I confess I don’t practice what this article will preach. At least, not yet. Luckily, I tracked down a smorgasbord of local experts and food-loving globetrotters who were full of insightful tips for how even the least culinary among us can enhance our travel experiences through food.
Foodies Are Travelers
I’m talking about folks like Shelbi Nation, executive chef at Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro in Clifton. “I am the biggest food nerd, and I travel to eat—that’s pretty much all I do in my spare time,” declares Nation, who grew up in a family that owned a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Salina, OH. “In my family, we travel a lot for holidays. We research breweries, wineries. I try to find articles about up-and-coming chefs, top restaurants, and we check them all out when we travel.”
While studying at the University of Cincinnati, she took a semester abroad, living in Torino, Italy, for five months. “I chose Torino because it was a big part of the slow-food movement, and of course, it’s Italy, so it’s a huge culinary capital.” While traveling around Europe, Nation checked out wine shops, butcher shops, creameries, and farms—all of which helped her engage in the local culture.
But she’s quick to point out that it’s just as easy to make the most of your culinary experiences when you’re traveling in the States and on a smaller budget. “You can take off for Nashville or Indianapolis, anywhere within a 4-hour radius of Cincinnati, hit a great restaurant or high-end cocktail bar and come back the next morning,” Nation says.
Enhancing Your Experience
Travel can open up new food horizons, even change the direction of your life. Paul Picton, proprietor of Maverick Chocolate Co. at Findlay Market, says travel is what led him to his current career as a craft chocolate maker. In his previous job, he sold jet engines and traveled 20+ days a month. Chocolate has always been his food passion, and he was forever on a quest to find the best chocolate wherever his travels took him. “I would bring samples home from all my travels,” he says, adding that Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, and Seattle are among some of the cities where he has found delicious and unique chocolates. “For me, the quest was chocolate; for other people, it might be hot sauce. But whatever your food passion is, you can pursue it when you travel.”
Now he and his wife, Marlene, take an annual tour of chocolate factories in North Carolina. “There are eight bean-to-bar chocolate makers in North Carolina, and they make some of the world’s best chocolate,” Picton says. “And bean-to-bar chocolate making is almost a uniquely American tradition. We travel from town to town, visiting different chocolate factories in the state, and we have so much fun doing it.”
Expanding your culinary experiences when you travel gives more purpose to each trip, Picton says. As a bonus, it can enhance your relationships with your fellow travelers. “As a couple, it gives us more shared memories, an opportunity to do something together and grow closer,” he says. “That’s a rare thing these days, as busy as everyone always is.”
Emily and Justin Carabello, the duo behind Carabello Coffee in Newport, KY, would agree. They’ve traveled throughout Europe and Central America and are always seeking unique culinary experiences. They’ve taken oodles of farm and food tours—like visiting Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar factories in Italy. “Plus, of course, we always want to experience coffee culture in other countries, since we’re in the business of coffee,” Justin says, so they seek out the best coffee roasters and specialty shops wherever they go.
Exploring Through Food
For anyone whose job involves travel, taking advantage of a few extra hours or extra days at the destination can open up a whole world of culinary experiences. Carrie Walters, chef and culinary director at the Dorothy Lane Market Culinary Center in Dayton, Ohio, has traveled to 49 U.S. states—she’s only missing Alaska—and 44 countries. It helps that her husband is a United Airlines pilot, so she loves to tag along with him to conferences, making the most out of work-related travel. “You should take every opportunity you can get to see the world,” Walters says.
Her own work involves a lot of travel, too. In addition to the travel she does as a chef, to explore new recipes and food sources, she also has helped with group trips organized by Dorothy Lane Market—such as a memorable trip to Sicily, Italy, a few years ago. “We went to a chocolatier, an olive grove, a winery, we watched tomatoes dry in the sun, we went to a jam company, a tuna/sardine canning factory,” Walters recalls. “We basically ate and drank from the time we got up until the time we went to sleep—which is what travel is all about, as far as I’m concerned!”
Group trips can be virtual goldmines for culinary experiences abroad. Leigh Barnhart Ochs, director of The Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s International Market, who has been teaching cooking classes there since 2005, leads annual group trips to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, every May with 20 or so folks in tow. “We keep it small because we go to places that can’t always accommodate big groups,” she says. “We go to off-the-beaten-path places where tourists don’t go. We go see where the best Parmesan is made, where cured meats are made, we go to a pasta factory, a winery—it’s all culinary-based.”
The payoff for getting the most out of your culinary experiences when you travel is priceless, these culinary experts say. “We live in a global society, and food is a primary social experience,” Picton explains. “That is how you really learn about a culture, by eating their food. It’s a key element to any kind of travel. Have an open mind. Food is an opportunity to connect and experience culture in a meaningful way.”
So maybe there’s hope for all of us, even the tuna-packing, Namibian-spaghetti-eating types. After all, I’m sure Reykjavik has more culinary delights to offer beyond those yummy Skyrs.
Jenny Wohlfarth is an award-winning journalist and journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati with more than 20 years of experience. She has worked as a staff editor at several national magazines, and her work has appeared in many others, covering topics ranging from art/design and agriculture to nature and travel. She has traveled to Cuba, Guatemala, Iceland, and Namibia.