Food experts in France, Italy, Mexico and Greece will help out-of-towners plan the perfect culinary vacation
If only I had known about Stephanie Curtis, culinary consultant extraordinaire, last summer when I was planning my trip to Lyons, France. Instead, I plowed through guidebooks and spoke with friends and friends of friends, most of whom were only vaguely familiar with the area. Curtis, an American in Paris, books her clients hotels, sends them on tours of vineyards, directs them to the best sausages (or chocolates or croissants) and gets them tables at the hottest restaurants. And she's not alone. Since my trip, I've discovered Americans like Curtis around the globe. Not only can they draft detailed itineraries--with cafés, farms and specialty food producers en route--they can also open doors to places where tourists are seldom allowed: wholesale markets, exclusive wine tastings, even home kitchens.
Note that consulting is a sideline for these people, who also work as writers, tour guides and teachers--so it can take a while for them to get back to you. When you connect, be specific about your interests, time frame and budget; the more they know, the better they can do their job.
Stephanie Curtis, France
Years Abroad 12
Background Curtis came to France to write and began working with food guru Robert Noah, who ran Paris en Cuisine, a travel service for Americans passionate about French food. In 1993, when Noah died, his friends and clients turned to her to help them navigate the French culinary world.
Services Books hotels and restaurants throughout France--some virtually inaccessible to the average traveler; draws up itineraries; organizes tastings and tours.
Missions Accomplished Arranging entrée to the famed Maison du Chocolat, for chocolate tastings; to Rungis, the largest market in Europe, just outside Paris and usually restricted to wholesalers; to both Lionel Poilane's and the Ganachauds' highly touted bakeries, to watch the bakers; and to the exclusive wine-making châteaus of Bordeaux.
Most Remarkable Coup Getting reservations at some of Paris's most impenetrable restaurants, like Pierre Gagnaire.
Recommendations For those Desperately Seeking Robuchon: Jamin, the restaurant where the lamentably retired Joël Robuchon first got three Michelin stars and where his former sous-chef, Benoît Guichard, now presides. For a new reasonably priced restaurant: Le 6 Bosquet in the Seventh Arrondissement.
Insider's Tip Finer restaurants will cancel reservations not confirmed 24 hours in advance; confirmations are part of Curtis's reservations service.
Rates $325 for a day of her planning time (a full week's itinerary usually requires a day to a day and a half); $80 for a tour of Rungis (5 A.M. to late morning, including transportation and breakfast); $20, per restaurant reservation for a party of up to six. Note: She quotes her fees (except those for the reservations) in francs, so dollar rates here are approximate.
Contact Information 10 Rue de Richelieu, Paris 75001; 011-33-1-40-15-0457; fax 011-33-1-40-15-0458.
Faith Willinger, Italy
Years Abroad 25
Background The author of Eating in Italy (William Morrow) and Red, White & Greens (HarperCollins); also a cooking teacher.
Why Italy? "I was fleeing a broken marriage and I booked an open-ended ticket to Italy. When I got here, I was blown away by the people and the food--remember, this was the era of spaghetti and meatballs in the United States. I studied with a professional chef and began cooking and writing and teaching. Eventually, I married an Italian."
Services Secures reservations at hotels and restaurants all over the country; points out specialty food shops not to miss; arranges visits to culinary artisans who still use traditional methods.
Missions Accomplished Opening the doors to Italian wineries, which rarely admit the public, and to a working farm in the village of Vignale Monferrato, where you can visit the truffle market of Asti, buy truffles and return to have them cooked for lunch. Setting up tastings of mozzarella handmade by the Cordiale family on the tip of the Amalfi coast; granita on the Aolian island of Salina, off Sicily; and grappa at the distillery of Vittorio Capovilla, north of Venice.
Recommendations "One of the best fish restaurants in Venice is Al Covo; as a bonus, the chef, Cesare Benelli, speaks perfect English. (He's married to a Texan.) The best gelato in Italy is at San Crispino's in Rome; the signature flavor is made with a wild Sardinian honey, but I prefer the fruit flavors."
Rates About $75 per travel day for groups of up to four people on trips of up to five days; the rates increase for larger groups but drop for longer trips.
Contact Information 7 Via della Chiesa, Florence 50125; phone and fax number 011-39-55-233-7014; E-mail email@example.com.
Marilyn Tausend, Mexico
Background The author, with Miguel Ravago, of Cocina de la Familia (Simon & Schuster).Tausend fell in love with Mexico and its food on a vacation 16 years ago and has been leading culinary tours there for 11 years with Carmen Barnard of Morelia, Michoacan.
Services Books hotels, plane tickets and car travel (complete with knowledgeable drivers); organizes detailed itineraries around such culinary specialties as vanilla, chocolate and tequila or around regional cuisines.
Missions Accomplished Scheduling visits to Justo Fernandez's sprawling coffee plantation and processing plant in the state of Veracruz; to the Gaya Montini family vanilla farm and factory, also in Veracruz; and to a traditional cochinata pibil (pit-roasted pork) meal with Silvio Campos in Yucatán.
Recommendations Since Mexico doesn't have a sophisticated restaurant tradition, the best examples of regional cooking are in family homes and local eateries, such as Abigail Mendoza's out-of-the-way Zapotec restaurant, Tlamanalli, in the small weaving town of Teotilan del Valle, Oaxaca.
Rates $65 to $85 for each travel day planned, depending on the complexity of the itinerary, plus communications charges.
Contact Information Culinary Adventures Inc., 6023 Reid Dr. N.W., Gig Harbor, Washington 98335; 253-851-7676; fax number 253-851-9532; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diane Kochilas, Greece
Years Abroad 6
Background A food writer and restaurant critic for Athens's largest newspaper, Ta Nea, and the author of The Food & Wine of Greece and The Greek Vegetarian (both St. Martin's Press).
Why Greece? A Greek-American, Kochilas has been traveling to Greece since early childhood.
Services Books restaurants; recommends hotels; organizes trips to specialty food makers; plans wine tours all around Greece; leads tours of the Central Market in Athens, with stops nearby for the best ouzo and meze.
Missions Accomplished Lining up visits to the olive oil producers of the Peloponnesos and artisanal cheese-makers in Epirus and the Cyclades, who normally don't open their doors to outsiders.
Recommendations Two favorite restaurants in Athens: Varoulko for seafood and Daphne's, in the historic Plaka, for traditional dishes.
Rates $350 for a day of her planning time (a week's trip takes about a day and a half to plan); $75 for a half-day market tour, including lunch.
Contact Information Phone and fax number 011-301-653-6800; E-mail email@example.com.
Marialisa Calta is a freelance writer and syndicated newspaper columnist.