One World, One Table

Culinary Tourism World Summit

Photos by Melissa Buote for Passable.

Early this week, Halifax hosted the 2010 Culinary Tourism Summit. The theme of the summit was “One World, One Table: Using Culinary Tourism for Economic Development.” Both Melissa Buote and myself were able to attend the three day conference, which began September 19th. (Note: stay tuned for Melissa’s upcoming post on the conference). With culinary tourism growing by leaps and bounds around the world (thai cooking lessons anyone?), could this be another way to bring tourism dollars to Nova Scotia and the rest of Atlantic Canada?

The conference promised to provide “two days of in-depth thought provoking sessions from world-renowned speakers and leaders in the food and tourism industries”, as well as “hands-on interactive sessions to garner best practices, examples and ideas from other food and tourism businesses and destinations around the world.” The first day, sunday, included a meet-and-greet, with most of the discussions and presentations taking place on monday, featuring talks by such people as Chef Michael Smith and director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.).

The host/moderator for many of the presentations was Erik Wolf, founder of Epicurean Ways and president of the International Culinary Tourism Association’s. On monday morning, he was the first to speak. He walked up to the podium and greeted the conference attendees. Wolf started to speak of how no matter what age, gender or ethnicity we are, we all have one thing in common: we all eat. Wolf went on to cite how countries such as France, Italy and Spain are hugely popular culinary destination sites, but that they were “resting on their laurels”. What he wanted to focus on was, “Where do we go next?”

According to him, where we go next is by using the internet as a marketing tool – through social media, blogging, smart phone applications and other online sources – to not only promote your destination, but to listen to what your potential clients are saying/talking about/want. Wolf spoke of how Brazil, Russia, India and China are becoming major sources for potential tourism dollars. In his view, one must not only think of how you can bring these people to your destination, but who these potential clients are. In referring to China, Wolf noted that even though there may be over a billion citizens in China, how many of them can afford to travel? And how do they travel? Are they travelling for business or pleasure? What kind of demographics do they fill?

Wolf’s speech set the tone for most of the day, with most speakers talking about the feasibility of tourism dollars, as well as the desirability and marketability prospects of culinary tourism. It wasn’t until Michael Smith spoke that anyone really spoke about actual people. Smith was charming and warm as soon as he hit the podium, inviting people to come up and sit at one of the empty tables at the front of the stage. “It’s a kitchen party”, he joked.

Smith’s only occasionally referred to his notes, choosing to tell stories of his life as a chef, as a television food host, and a resident of rural Prince Edward Island.

He pointed out that “It’s personal connections that help sustain the local food movement”, highlighting that these connections sustain the local tourism and agricultural industries, as well as foster good will and good relations on a local and individual scale.. These personal connections are, “extraordinarily powerful” that can be used to foster great business. He went on to talk how people are looking for authenticity in their experiences when they travel. “Authenticity is what we remember”

And at the end of the first day of the conference, it was Smith’s words that I remember the most.

lunch at the Culinary Tourism World Summit

The next day, Rebecca LeHeup walked onto the stage wearing a t-shirt with the word “Local” written on it, the “L”s replaced by a fork and knife at each end. “I love to share stories”, she said as she started. LeHeup is the executive director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance.

The first thing she starts to talk about is how she, a Toronto raised city girl, ended up selling cider with a guy named Grant, in a house where a John A MacDonald lived, in rural Prince Edward County, Ontario. LeHeup quickly fell in love with the area, the people and the unique product that they brought forth: good food.

LeHeup helped start up Taste The County, and what was once a sleepy little island community is now considered one of the best destinations for culinary tourism in Ontario. The area now boasts food festivals throughout the year, wineries, restaurants and farmers, all working together and helping promote and sustain not only their products, but the land and the people that produce them.

As the director of an organisation that promoted good food, LeHeup felt that it was important for her to understand who she was serving. So she spent time working on farms, milking cows and mucking stalls. She worked with artisanal bakers, wine makers, learning about their crafts. She felt it was necessary to know what and who she was representing, if she was going to protect and promote their interests. She started organising meet-and-greets for farmers and chefs, so that they could understand what is possible on both sides of the farm-to-fork equation.

LeHeup is a business woman, and this was a conference about business possibilities. But LeHeup’s approach to culinary tourism – and business in general – outshone many of the other speakers during the conference. She intrinsically understood the need for communication between all the necessary parts (farmers, chefs, hotels) to create a culinary tourism boom for her small community.

But the highlight of the conference was not the speakers, it was the four course lunch we had that day. The first course, by Bee Choo Char from Gio, was a large seared scallop, served next to a deep fried rice paper cup, filled with a mixed green salad and seasoned with a complex yet perfectly balanced vinaigrette. The flavours were bright and crisp, a perfect way to start a meal.

The second course came all the way from Switzerland via Nova Scotia. Chef Frank Widmer from the Park Hyatt in Zurich prepared a venison proscuitto (sourced here in Nova Scotia) with a medley of wild and cultivated mushrooms. All the flavours melded beautifully together. It was earthy, salty and sweet, all at once, and beautifully rich without being cloying. Jing Loh, a food blogger from Toronto who was sitting next to me, looked at me and was amazed at what he was eating. “Do you always eat like this?”

The main course was prepared by Dartmouth’s Renée Lavallée. She presented a swordfish coupled with a raw root veggie and snow pea salad. Sweet, savoury, and brightened with lemon juice and zest, the various textures and flavours were the perfect foil for the moist fish. Emcee and chef Alain Bossé had good reason to say that it was his favourite salad. This was made for lovers of fall food.

The dessert was whipped up by Tommy Klauber, who came all the way from Florida to play with the bounty of Nova Scotia’s apples. Klauber wanted to do something a little retro, extolling the virtues of tableside service and the “oohs” and “aahs” of flambéing foods. So he served up a simple apple crêpe, flambéed with armagnac, and topped with a luscious cinnamon ice cream.

All in all, “One World, One Table” was like any other conference: lots of bad powerpoint slideshows punctuated by really good powerpoint slideshows, with lots of networking happening on the sidelines. But I felt like something was missing at this conference – the people who produce the food. There were lots of academics, business people, a couple restaurateurs and chefs, but there was a distinct lack of farmers, winemakers and food producers at the meetings. Yes, they were present via their food – thanks to the wonderful work of Taste of Nova Scotia – but I would have liked to hear from people who could really benefit from culinary tourism. However, to their credit, the organisers of the conference did have the occasion to go and visit some of the local producers, namely Fox Hill Cheese and L’Acadie Vineyards, but I would’ve liked to hear from the people who are producing the foodstuffs we would like to promote here in Nova Scotia. Because their food is worth promoting. It is worth talking about, showcasing and sourcing. Conferences are about dialogue. Hopefully now that the delegates are gone, the conversation will continue.