Dig in, because Creole, Cajun, even Creole-Italian dishes are on the menu in this palate-driven tour of this Louisiana darling. A destination like New Orleans mesmerizes the mind with its enchanting architecture, alluring history, and ethereal ambiance. Here, ghosts still inhabit centuries-old mansions, quaint lampposts dot narrow, cobblestone streets, and picturesque courtyards invite travelers to delight in the moment. But there’s still another long-time staple of the city—the scrumptious cuisine.
“Travelers know that eating is something they are going to have to do in every city,” says Kim Priez, v.p. of tourism, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, “but I think that they take it to the next level in New Orleans because of the type of cuisine they find. It’s like eating has become an attraction in New Orleans.”
And Priez is quick to point out that in New Orleans—as opposed to other destinations—culinary vacations are not a recent trend. “We have people try to come in to do seminars on why culinary tourism is important, and we look at them like, you’re talking to New Orleans,” she says with a chuckle.
What has shifted are the demographics. “We’re finding that those people coming in to experience cooking schools, the fine dining or just the casual dining, are between the ages of 35 and 70,” Priez says. “We have a lot of baby boomers—they are incredibly strong with this because they know what they like and they don’t mind making a big night of it. But we’re also finding that the urban professionals who are trying to get away from the rat race for the weekend [are a big part of it]. We’re finding that as people get a little older, they are really concentrating more on the cuisine and what’s behind the cuisine, the history behind it, the different seasonings.”
An integral part of a culinary vacation is, of course, sampling the various restaurants offering local specialties—a feat not easily accomplished in New Orleans. “There are just so many fabulous restaurants in this town,” Priez says with pride, “but there are some that are just so consistent.” She recommends one of Emeril Lagasse’s, NOLA, in the French Quarter because “their shrimp and grits are amazing.” Galatoire’s, she says, is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s a place you go in at noon and leave at 6; it is the true New Orleans experience.” Arnaud’s is a must-stop, she adds, and for Italian, “…we have this wonderful restaurant called Tommy’s, it’s Creole-Italian, with crabmeat au gratin; eggplant casserole.” There’s also Mr. B’s, with more contemporary Creole, as well as Donald Link’s Cochon, which serves more than just pork, including alligator. “It’s a very Louisiana-type restaurant, but incredibly hip and contemporary.”
The Taste of the Big Easy package at the 285-room Loews New Orleans, located a stroll away from the French Quarter, is a good introduction to New Orleans cuisine. The package includes two nights in a grand king guestroom; welcome cocktail for two at the onsite Swizzle Stick Bar; $150 credit towards dinner for two at the onsite Cafe Adelaide; beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde for two; lunch at Mother’s Restaurant for two; and other goodies. Rates start at $579.
Another important facet of a culinary vacation—and one real foodies say is the raison d’etre for this type of travel—is a cooking school experience, which can be approached from two different angles.
“The first way to do a cooking school,” says Priez, “is with a much larger class and you’re really just learning how to make a basic dish and then you get to eat it at the end of the class. The New Orleans School of Cooking is an excellent example of that.
“Then you have the next level of visitors who want a very hands-on famous chef experience,” Priez continues. “You are literally in a kitchen with a chef going through the entire meal: the appetizer; the entree and then you fool around with a little dessert. And then they sit down with the chef and have wine and dinner with him. It’s so much fun—that’s the New Orleans Cooking Experience (NOCE).”
For clients who really want to get their hands dirty, recommend the latter, which offers 3- and 4-day cooking vacations at $290 and $385, respectively. Classes, which are limited to 10 participants, are conducted by such notable chefs as Frank Brigtsen, the James Beard Award-winning chef of New Orleans’ famed Brigtsen’s Restaurant. They focus on authentic Creole cooking with a dash of Cajun and offer insight into the culture and history of South Louisiana.