Jose Duarte is chef/owner of Taranta, a Peruvian-Southern Italian restaurant in the North End. He is going to be talking about all things food tourism (Peruvian and Italian, to be more specific) at the Taste Trekkers conference in Providence, RI, and event that bills itself as being "for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food." It takes place from September 20-22, 2013 and includes speakers, panel discussions, a "tasting pavilion," group dinners, and a food truck brunch.
Here, Duarte chats with Eater about the upcoming conference and shares his thoughts on food tourism, both locally and abroad.
What initially got you started and interested in the food and hospitality industry?
I think that it's all so genetic, really. You know, it's just in your genes, and that's your passion and tendency to want to discover new things in the culinary world. Obviously there are people that have more of an inclination for that than others, and I was able to discover that at a young age. I just felt really happy at that time interacting with food and trying new things, different flavors, textures, and going to markets, etc., so that was kind of the way I proceeded. When I was little, it just made me happy, and I liked it, so I stuck with what I liked.
What are your thoughts on food tourism, and, in your opinion, how has it changed over the years?
It is basically a growing field; it has been there for a long time, but the destinations have changed. You probably hear a lot of people saying that they took a cooking class in Tuscany, and they made pasta and had wine; that's common and has been happening for a long time. I went to Abruzzi, which is beautiful, and it has just as many things as Tuscany has — but it was a tougher sell, because people still wanted to go to Tuscany. But now I see a change in destinations.
Food is a part of culture, and food tourism has always been there, because there is always that connection and that typical dish that you just must have when you go there. For example, if you come to Boston, whether you go just for business, you have to have a lobster. The food component has always been there. Now, it's more about how it's packaged and really concentrated and dedicated, and now there are people that are specialized and others that are very commercial. So you have the people that do large wholesale groups that take people to the touristy places, and they are not creating this one-on-one relationship like they should.
But a lot of the trends that we see are getting more personal. Right now, South America is number one for culinary tourism, and it's just amazing to see what is happening there. Mexico is wonderful, and Europe itself is incredible, because there are regions and towns — and you can go just a little ways away and find something entirely different. So all that is specialized, and I think that with time, food tourism will get even more specialized.
For example, in one of my first trips to Peru, we specialized in potatoes where we looked at 3,000 varieties of potatoes, and we tried 20-30 of them. So the specialization of culinary tourism will be the be the next thing. Also, the destinations will change, and tours will move away from a higher level. To understand food well there is a process of starting at the land and the harvest as well as the labor involved with that, and then we go to the markets and to a restaurant (and we never go to the high-end restaurants.)
That's what you need to do to understand it well. I lead my tours myself, which I think makes it more special, and I wish I could lead more tours. But it's very tiring because it's a lot of work, and my goal is to train someone and set them up where I could host the group for a couple of days, and then we can do more tours a year.
Can you tell us a little about the tours that you run through the restaurant, both locally and internationally?
Yes, we do a chef-guided tour of the North End, and we take people behind the scenes of the smaller North End shops and get them to understand and try to learn a little bit about traditions that can sometimes can get lost. For example, we take them to butchers that are a species in extinction because you don't see many of those anymore. Out of the 15 to 20 butchers that were here, there's maybe one or two left. So we try to connect people with the products and with traditions.
After we come back from the markets, we have a cooking class back at the restaurant. We also do another tour for sustainable seafood where we meet the group at the waterfront and take them to see the seafood distributors and watch them trading and see what's coming in internationally — we try to understand the complicated world of sustainable seafood. So we are watching species that are being exported because they don't have commercial value here in the United States. They are very good for us to eat; we're just not eating them.
We're also very much into sustainability, and all of my trips to Peru are based around that too. Besides that, we also do corporate team-building cooking classes, and we do cooking challenges and demos. We're really focusing on the educational part. Internally, at the restaurant, we do a training every year either abroad or somewhere locally to get our staff a better understanding and to create that relationship between the product, the source, and our client. That's what we're really focusing on because we want to be able to tell that story of the relationship to people.
What advice would you give to someone who is planning a food-related trip?
The advantage that people have now is that you have the resources available through the internet. You could do pretty good research based on discussion groups and reputable media outlets, or you can even see the interior of the place through Google Earth to see how they are doing. So you can do a lot of research on your own. You can also participate in trips that have been organized by people that have a good reputation and a good plan for you. It's also up to you and what you want. Do you want to do the high-event, avant-garde, super fi-fi food, or do you want to be on the farm? You just need to see who specializes in that. I've seen tours in all countries, and each country will always have their expert. You just need to look for that expert.
Your restaurant is located in a "touristy" neighborhood; how does that impact your business?
We are a destination restaurant — we don't get a lot of foot traffic because of our menu, which is a marriage of Peruvian and Italian that is created by me. The cool thing about it is that with time, we are getting tourists to come here because they have heard of us, but most of the people that you'll see, they are people looking for "Little Italy," and they want spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, or lasagna. We don't do that here.
It's a very selective tourism, and about 80% of the people that come through here don't have that interest yet, though little by little we're seeing it in particular with our local tourists. I'm also planning a tour of East Boston where we'll do the hunt for the best papusa. And we can get a group of people to get together and understand why papusas are bigger here than in El Salvador, and we can look at how food can evolve as time changes and how influences impact it as well. We have a lot of El Salvadorians making the papusas, and then all of the sudden there's lobster in the papusa, and then that becomes a "New England-style" papusa, and then 100 years pass and it becomes a dish that isn't even in Boston. So sometimes food moves around, and there's a lot of potential locally (like Chinatown — I love Chinatown!),going around to all of the different places, and there's all of the different tastes. Here in Boston, we have a lot of potential, but there's a very select group of tourists that want that.
How did you get involved and connected with Taste Trekkers?
I have been working with food tourism for quite a while, and we're in our fifth year of organizing a yearly culinary adventure to Peru — we are planning different locations such as Chile, Argentina, Italy, and Spain. Right now we are also concentrating on developing other destinations within Peru, whether it's the chocolate (or cocoa) route, which is bringing a lot of people because of the species of cocoa that are unique and available in Peru right now. There's white cocoa and other interesting stuff. The organizer of the Taste Trekkers event was told that he should consider me for one of his panels or presentations because I've been trying to develop these destinations for the past five or six years and create these experiences for people.
What's going to be your role in the upcoming conference?
I am participating on a panel where we will discuss the present and future of food tourism. I will come in with my experience, my pros and cons, and information on how I build this relationship with people to produce this experience for my customers. I will basically be sharing my story and opening up to questions on my specific expertise in Peru and Italy as well. We just did a training for our staff in Italy.
The conference is a great thing because I think this is the first time that this has ever been done, and you can see that there is a lot of interest from people to make their travels around food. I just spent a couple of days in Sevilla learning about Iberico Ham because I can't find that here, but one of the things about culinary tourism is that you're going to get the essence of the product that you are trying. For example, I can tell you how a yellow Peruvian pepper tastes, but I cannot bring you one fresh, and the only way you're going to be able to have that experience is if you go to Peru. There are just things they have in other countries that you can't replicate here. There are just flavors that you can't get elsewhere, and that's what culinary tourism is about. That's one of the most important things. It's so important and human a need to try new things and satisfy that need through culinary tourism. If we want to taste the best, we have to go where it is the best and we need to go to the source.