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In 2006, Sona Creamery co-owners Genevieve and Conan O’Sullivan got engaged in front of a castle in Ireland once owned by one of his ancestors.
A year later, they returned to County Cork, Ireland to get married in one of the country’s smallest churches.
And for their eighth anniversary this September, they’ll return again—with 28 strangers.
This time, it’s all about their love of cheese. They’ll lead a five-day tour throughout southern Ireland, visiting creameries, meeting cheesemakers, and hosting cooking classes using cheeses they find along the way. (They’ll also visit the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin, of course.) The group will stay in the same hotel the O’Sullivans did when they got engaged and married.
Their personal connection to the country isn’t the only reason the Sona couple chose Ireland for the trip. The Irish were responsible for helping to kickstart the small-batch artisanal cheese movement in the 1970s when the industry was dominated by big brands, Genevieve O’Sullivan explains. Every year, the couple plans to host another artisan cheese tour to different countries around the world, including cheesemaking superpowers like France, Italy, and Spain.
The O’Sullivans are among a handful of D.C.-area restaurateurs and chefs who are looking to not just transport people through food, but literally transport them to the source. Sure, it’s an excuse for restaurant folks to travel, but these tours are just as much about bringing attention to certain types of cuisine and fostering cultural exchange in a way that’s not always easy from the dining room. From Ireland to India to Cuba, there are a number of locally led culinary trips in the pipeline this year.
“We’re really about education here, whether it’s the wine, the cheese, the cheesemaking,” Genevieve O’Sullivan says, explaining why they wanted to host these tours. The Capitol Hill restaurant already holds a number of classes, and they’ll soon have an exhibition cheesemaking operation. (They’re still awaiting the health department’s OK.) “For us, this is an opportunity to actually go and really get as in depth as we can.”
Unlike other restaurants that partner with professional tour companies, the O’Sullivans are organizing the whole trip themselves. The group will be about the same size as the one they had at their wedding, so they’ve done similar planning before. “There’s more food involved this time,” Genevieve O’Sullivan says.
Tickets will cost $1,750, including accommodations and most meals but not airfare. But for the O’Sullivans, and others who’ve led similar international food tours, it’s not the most lucrative business venture. Sona has already randomly selected one couple from its rewards program to go for free, and the O’Sullivans plan to make just enough that they can cover their own trip.
The cost of other locally led tours to more far-flung corners of the world reach up to nearly $5,000. Indique and Bombay Bistro chef and co-owner K.N. Vinod partnered with Vancouver-based Indus Travels, which recruits chefs for culinary trips to different parts of the world, to help lead a group of eight on a 12-day tour of southern India in 2012. He’s looking to do something similar again this November and hopes to have the details finalized in the next month or so.
The previous India trip cost around $4,000 and included pretty much everything but the flight. The higher price tag tends to attract an older crowd, Vinod found, and his small group consisted mostly of retirees. Vinod worked with Indus Travels to create the itinerary, which included tours of the markets, a visit to a cashew processing plant, and many cooking demonstrations. Aside from the typical list of sites and attractions, the group also made a pitstop at Vinod’s sister’s house for lunch one day.
While Vinod was compensated for his time by Indus Travels, he was much more interested in being a culinary ambassador. He says the tour is one small way that he can help Indian cuisine get the exposure it deserves. “People think of Indian cuisine as chicken tikka masala, and the menus are so predictable. You go to any Indian restaurant, you close your eyes and you know what the menu is for the most part,” he says. “India’s got so much to offer.” In the future, he’s interested in hosting a trip just for chefs.
For similar reasons, two D.C. restaurants—Cuba Libre and Busboys and Poets—host tours to Cuba. For Cuba Libre chef and partner Guillermo Pernot, it’s an opportunity to show people what Cuban food is really like beyond his restaurants. “A lot of people think that Cuban food is what you can get on Calle Ocho in Miami. That is, food that is over 50 years old basically,” says the Argentine-born chef, whose wife is Cuban. “That food came in with the revolution, and it stayed there and it got bastardized in Miami by the abundance of food, by the lack of culinary skills.”
Pernot traveled to Havana in 2011 to visit his sister-in-law, who was doing research there for a book about her family, and met a number of chefs. He came back with the idea to host some of these chefs in America for a culinary exchange, but the visas and paperwork took a long time to arrange. “Time really moves very slowly in Cuba,” Pernot says. “In the meantime, I said, ‘Why don’t we take a trip with a bunch of Americans who cannot go to Cuba by themselves?”
Within 24 hours of announcing the trip, it sold out. In April 2012, Pernot—along with an official Cuban government tour guide—led a group of 18 on a five-day trip that included markets, art exhibitions, mojito classes, rum tastings, cigars, an organic greenhouse, Ernest Hemingway’s villa, and lots of restaurants. It wasn’t always easy, even with the help of professional guides: “These are wealthy people that don’t like to be told what to do,” Pernot says. “It was like herding cats.”
Because of the extensive planning involved, Cuba Libre didn’t host trips during the last two years. The logistics of organizing a tour in Cuba can be tricky: “Everything is done by handshake,” Pernot says. “There’s not really a contract or anything like that, and Cubans change their minds constantly. So it was difficult to do it again.”
But Pernot was able to bring four Cuban chefs to his restaurants in D.C. and Philadelphia for a “pop-up paladar” series throughout 2012. (Paladares are mostly family-run restaurants, rather than state-operated ones, and often exist in people’s homes.) Now, Pernot is ready to bring a group back to Cuba this year. Although a trip was already in the cards, the loosening relationship between the U.S. and Cuba was incentive to go sooner rather than later. Although Cuba Libre hasn’t yet started promoting the date, Pernot is planning a trip for June.
Meanwhile, Busboys and Poets is teaming up with Global Exchange, an international human rights organization “dedicated to promoting social, economic, and environmental justice around the world,” for a tour of Cuba that begins April 26. (The $2,000 tour includes airfare from Miami and at least one meal per day.) Owner Andy Shallal says he’s long been fascinated by Cuban arts and culture as well as the connection that Langston Hughes, the inspiration for Busboys and Poets’ name, has to the country. (The poet and playwright lived there in the 1930s.) The back room at the Takoma location is named after Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, a contemporary of Hughes.
This will be the second Busboys and Poets trip to Cuba with Global Exchange. A group of 20 mostly locals went in 2012 for a tour that involved meeting writers, poets, artists, dancers, and others helping to shape the cultural landscape of the country. “Eating was definitely at the top of the agenda,” Shallal adds.
Cuba is not Busboys and Poets’ first international destination. Shallal says about eight years ago, the restaurant organized a trip to Senegal to retrace slave routes. Then in 2010, Shallal hosted a journey to Eatonville, Fla., the namesake of his 14th Street NW restaurant. In addition to plenty of dining, the group participated in the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.
Going forward, Shallal would like to host tours in places critical to the civil rights movement, such as Selma, Ala. He’s also interested in the idea of chartering a bus to take people from U Street NW to Harlem and back as a way to talk about the impact that the D.C. corridor had on the Harlem Renaissance.
“I always feel like it’s important to delve deeper into the cultural connections that we talk about,” Shallal says. “For us to just have a painting of Eatonville is very one dimensional.” But to go and stay with locals, eat the food, and walk the streets? “It was very much an immersion.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan