Learning to prepare local delicacies in Seville or Verona while soaking in the beauty and character of each destination sounds so much better than our average day in the kitchen. We’ll take the first option—an authentic experience of food and culture carefully put together by Gourmet Safari.
The concept had long been a dream of Jackie DeKnock, who was inspired by her love of food and travel and had also spent time studying the culinary arts in Ontario and abroad. This led her “…to the idea of helping others with similar interests to enjoy the little gems that I was discovering in my travels.” Her previous experience as an airline account executive, combined with her personal cooking school and destination knowledge, led to Gourmet Safari. In 2005, DeKnock launched the company with the still-existingChianti Classico program.
Gourmet Safari packages are infused with local flavor, so to speak, connecting participants with area residents, fresh ingredients and hands-on instruction. Each one is designed for both cultural and culinary immersion, with local chefs or regional experts teaching small groups, gourmet dinners at day’s end, the occasional wine tasting and excursions to area markets, towns and sites. Clients learn traditional techniques and taste new flavors while staying (for the most part) in small, often family-operated inns and villas with their own history to tell—a farmhouse in Tuscany, perhaps, or a B&B in the Loire Valley.
According to partner Blair Westgate, who manages the Culinary Vacations division, they’re encouraged by a recent survey commissioned by Preferred Hotel Group and led by YPartnership—among the key findings, the study determined that baby boomers, who constitute almost one half of active American leisure travelers, are all foodies, with culinary tourism very high on their list. Additionally, the study found a strong trend toward thematic, experiential and interactive trips. “Our focus in 2011 is to help that demographic find out about Gourmet Safari culinary vacations to fulfill their desires,” says Westgate.
DeKnock reveals that the most popular tours to date are The Tuscan Chef, where guests stay in an ancient monastery and wine estate in Chianti as they learn the tricks of regional cuisine and the intricacies of the area’s wines, and Passport to Provence, where clients stay and learn at chef Patrick Payet’s B&B.
But the Gourmet Safari roster also includes a few undiscovered gems. Among these is Exotic Morocco, which Westgate says is a journey “…to a delightful Saharan oasis near the ancient imperial city of Marrakesh that has culinary influences from China, India, Spain, Persia and France.” Clients stay in the villa of Dar Liqama, “the house of green mint,” a gorgeous space of archways, interior courtyards and intricate doors with just eight inspiring rooms, a hammam and an upper terrace with views of the Atlas and Jebl Ette mountains. Clients visit local markets, hike along the nearby mountain range or go camel riding if they wish, but also learn about traditional Moroccan and fusion cuisine firsthand in a customized kitchen through almost daily (and sometimes twice daily) cooking lessons. On the list for visiting culinarians: beef or fish tajine, crescent-shaped cornes de gazelle pastries, traditional soups and lots more. They also enjoy visits to local museums, villages and historic monuments, and have free time to enjoy the villa’s amenities and surroundings or indulge in a bit of retail therapy. The 8-day tour’s next travel dates are in October and includes most meals but, like the rest of the Gourmet Safari packages, excludes airfare. Contact Gourmet Safari for rates.
The latest addition to the Gourmet Safari family is the flagship Mt. Pleasant Country B&B and Culinary Studio, nestled in Canada’s Kawartha Lakes district and just an hour’s drive from metropolitan Toronto. The B&B is set to open this spring with just two bedrooms—one Victorian, one Oriental in theme, with shared facilities. The Culinary Studio is up and running, with hands-on cooking classes available for all types of groups—even kids—as well as themed seasonal lessons.
Despite her new ventures, DeKnock still finds time on Wednesday mornings to be a contributor on a Canadian radio station, Kruz FM, and recently began offering men’s cooking classes at the Gourmet Safari Culinary Studio. Gourmet Safari also supports Breakfast for Learning, dedicated to ensuring that each child in Canada is well nourished prior to his school day.