Christy Clark finished her four-hour shift in the kitchen of Kuleto's Italian Restaurant in downtown San Francisco, where she prepped a salad of blood oranges, blue cheese, and beets and rolled out freshly made pasta that would feed some 600 diners. Exhausted but exhilarated, she shed her toque at 6 p.m. and sat down to a meal in the dining room. Clark is no chef. She's a mother of two from Sacramento who, in late January, drove two hours with her husband and kids and paid $150 to toil in Kuleto's kitchen, staying in the adjacent Villa Florence Hotel. Clark was participating in the Chef for a Day program, which lets amateur cooks work in the restaurant's kitchen to raise money for the San Francisco Food Bank (sffoodbank.org/pdfs/chef4aday.pdf). "I'm not crazy enough to be a chef," says Clark, a former food photographer who loves to cook. "But I'm so interested in how it all works."
That enthusiasm is shared by a growing number of Americans who enjoy a steady diet of TV cooking shows and celebrity chefs. Like Clark, who combined her Chef for a Day stint with a visit to in-laws, they are fueling a boom in culinary travel.
Fine dining has long been a critical aspect of travel, as anyone who has ever planned a trip around a hard-to-get restaurant reservation can attest. Americans spent $131 billion on food while traveling domestically in 2004, more than they did on lodging, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. But these days vacationers are looking for more than just a good meal. They want to learn about their food's ingredients, understand how it's made, and even participate in the preparation.
Hotels, restaurants, and cruise lines are responding with innovative programs that offer food enthusiasts unique culinary experiences. From diving for your lobster dinner to cooking alongside your favorite chef, the offerings go beyond conventional cooking classes. "The behind-the-scenes experience is very important," says Jacques-Olivier Chauvin, chief executive of Paris-based Relais & Chateaux, the association of hotels known for fine dining and accommodations.
The Rosens of Raleigh, N.C., have become ardent culinary travelers. Three years ago, on a vacation in Italy, they stopped off at Dolada, a Michelin two-star restaurant and hotel in Pieve D'Alpago north of Venice. They enjoyed the meal so much they extended their stay by four days and persuaded the chef to teach them to cook specialties such as gnocchi. "We found out cooking as a family can be fun," says Alan Rosen, a radiologist.
For their next vacation, Rosen and his wife, Susan Levy, a psychiatrist, along with their three children, ages 8, 13, and 17, spent a week at a Four Seasons resort and cooking school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Under the tutelage of chef Pitak Srichan, they learned to make dishes such as pad thai and banana blossom salad (fourseasons.com/chiangmai).
The Four Seasons and other luxury chains have been in the forefront of the trend. Like the Chiang Mai cooking school, which opened in 2003 and costs $150 a day per person, most of the Four Seasons' 70 properties offer epicurean programs tailored to particular locations. At the Terre Blanche resort in Tourrettes in Provence, guests learn the basics of French cooking at nearby La Pitchoune, where Julia Child once whipped up soufflés. The Taste of Provence package, which includes breakfast, one dinner for two, three nights' lodging, and a trip to the local market, in addition to the cooking school, starts at $1,200.
For a mere $3,000 per couple, not including lodging, visitors to the Four Seasons Nevis in the Caribbean can take part in a new "Dive & Dine" program. Available to groups of two to six certified divers, it features a brief seminar on local marine life and a private dive with Chef Cyrille Pannier. He instructs guests on the fine art of lassoing local spiny lobster and later cooks up the catch at an intimate beach barbecue. "The experiences we are creating are very much in response to that intensified love of food," says Elizabeth Pizzinato, director of corporate public relations at Four Seasons Hotels Inc. (FS ), based in Toronto.
At Relais & Chateaux, the culinary experience has always been important. Surveys have shown that 83% of guests come for the food. Lately its properties are offering fresh options. At Restaurant l'Oasis near Cannes in southern France, diners can accompany the chef on his 6 a.m. rounds to the fish market. At Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford, England, travelers can sample rare herbs from the hotel's garden and take home cuttings.
Such culinary flourishes not only make a trip more memorable but also open windows. Epicurean travelers are often looking for an authentic experience. "You can really learn about the culture through the cuisine," says Michael Coon, travel director for the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor program, which operates tours of 12 to 18 amateur and professional cooks designed to give an insider's view of Vietnam, Italy, and Mexico, among other places (worldsofflavor.com).
Cruise line companies are applying that lesson to a mass audience. After extensive research identified food and wine as a growing area of interest among its customers, Holland America Line started equipping each of its ships with state-of-the-art Culinary Arts Centers, similar to the kitchens on food shows, at a price of $1 million each. Through a partnership with Food & Wine magazine, the cruise line brings in leading chefs and experts to conduct cooking demonstrations relating to ports of call -- margaritas and quesadillas for the Mexican Riviera, seafood stews in the Mediterranean. This season's lineup includes Iron Chef Cat Cora and Aaron Sanchez of New York's Paladar restaurant (hollandamerica.com).
Would-be gourmets can bring that experience home with them. Back in her spacious kitchen in Sacramento, former Chef for a Day Clark still marvels at how the staff at Kuleto's was able to prepare food so meticulously in such cramped quarters. She makes the blood orange salad for her family and hopes to return someday for the early-morning pastry shift.
Rolling dough and prepping vegetables for four hours may not be everyone's idea of a good time. But for more and more foodies, it sounds like the perfect vacation.
By Amy Cortese