U.S. consumers have acquired global palates, so it makes sense for chefs to extend their own brands by leading culinary trips abroad. That’s what Mark McDonald, chef-owner of Old Vine Café in Costa Mesa, California, believes. Inspired by Chef John Nocita at the Italian Culinary Institute, McDonald leads two such trips annually. “Chef Nocita and I have traveled extensively through all of Italy searching for the best regional gastronomic traditions and history,” he says, adding that the restaurant’s guests often travel with them. “This is the best continued education a chef or guest can pursue. I am constantly learning from my travels and applying the knowledge and technique to the menu at Old Vine Café.”
In similar fashion, Carmella Fragassi, chef-owner of La Campagna in Westlake, Ohio, has been taking groups to Italy since 2009. Leading tours to Orsara di Puglia, the village where her grandparents were born, and to Liguria, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Lombardia. Her goal is to ensure that customers understand “there really is no single Italian cuisine. Each region has its own culinary repertoire."
Her business improves after every trip: Most of the travelers “consider themselves family instead of customers,” she explains. “And, when they return to my restaurant with guests, it’s fun to hear them explain our chalkboard menu as similar to one seen in the local restaurants of the small villages we visited.”
Other chefs have eyes on the abroad prize from the start. “From the time I arrived in the U.S., my goal was to educate [my patrons about] the cultures and the cuisines of India,” notes Chef Prasad Chirnomula, who runs a group of restaurants in Connecticut. “I wanted my customers to experience my hometown cuisine while immersing themselves in the culture. Actually sampling street food on the streets of India, with the aromas of all the spices in the air, is a special experience. A chef is able to give personal descriptions of the spices and the preparation techniques that would otherwise not be easily translated.”
Likewise, Chef José Chesa, a native of Barcelona who owns and operates Spanish restaurants Ataula and Chesa in Portland, Oregon, enjoys leading trips to his homeland. He and Cristina Baéz, his wife and business partner, began the journeys after countless customers asked for recommendations about where to eat in Spain. “José gives you a behind-the-scenes perspective,” Baéz says. “Because of our background, we get to go into some of the best restaurants in Spain … and we do private classes with these incredible chefs, so even professionals traveling with us [get] a big plus.”
Chef Jared Sippel, who opened his first restaurant, Italienne, in New York City last month, took his entire management staff of 10 to Italy, Spain, and France to tour wineries, taste olive oil, pick figs, and dine with locals. He plans to close the restaurant for a week annually to repeat the trip. “I can preach all day about the inspiration for the restaurant, but now I don’t have to. I have all of my team relating their personal stories of the food, wine, and landscape.”