Chef Tom Hits the Road – A Multi-Part Foodie Travel Adventure


Three years ago, I started to put together what was going to be my fourth culinary tour to Europe. My first was called Ten Days to Tuscany. We did Florence, Sienna, Rome, and some of the hill towns in Tuscany. Twelve people. The second and third were both a week’s cruise along the Canal di Midi in the South of France, on a slow-moving hotel barge, then most of a week in Paris. Twelve people each. One big reason I wanted the barges was because of their pace. Sometimes you could actually walk along the shore faster than the barge would meander up the canal. You were given a clear opportunity to slow down and savor the moment.

On the Canal di Midi

On these adventures, we did agritourismo cooking classes; shopped the local farmers markets; hunted for wild asparagus along the canal; visited goat cheese, sea salt, and olive oil factories; tasted local wines; cooked as a group for the barges and their crews; saw a lot of beautiful country, history and art; and, mostly, ate and drank our little hearts out. We even did a cooking class at the famous Cordon Bleu in Paris. Despite the inevitable human drama that happens with group travel, the trips were glorious. Plus, putting these trips together allowed Dan and I to see some country.

A couple of years had passed, and it was time for the next one. People kept asking me when. So, I came up with a new adventure and called it Bordeaux to Barcelona. We’d see three cities, including Bordeaux, Barcelona, and San Sebastián, Spain (which happened to be within a few hour’s drive of Bordeaux). I contacted my friend Jean-Francois who runs a barge-cruise company called France Cruises, out of San Antonio. Jean helped me put trips two and three together. He said there was a special boat in Bordeaux with a captain who was an avid food and a wine aficionado. Though bigger than a barge, we’d still have the entire boat to ourselves.

The Dordogne River

We’d spend a few days cruising the Dordogne River around Bordeaux and its tributaries, visiting wineries, local markets, and restaurants, then take a bus south along the coast of France, just over the Spanish border to a former fishing village called San Sebastián. There, we’d connect with a wonderful company that was then called San Sebastián Food and now called Mimo Food. We would do three things: a pintxos tour (pintxos are small Basque appetizers), dinner at a sidrería (traditional cider house) and a meal with a local txoko (a Basque fraternal order of gourmands – some have been around for a hundred years). Then off to Barcelona for most of a week to connect with an international food tour company called Culinary Backstreets, for more food adventures and special meals.

Barcelona Culinary Backstreets Typical Market

Despite what I thought was a good amount of genuine interest in what my next culinary adventure would be, I had a hard time selling the trip. So frustrating. Could have been timing. Might have been the price, or the itinerary. I never did find out, and the deadlines for deposits and such kept getting closer and closer until, in great disappointment and frustration, I ultimately called the trip off completely. Man was that tough.

At one point in the subsequent few weeks I spent mourning the loss of this grand adventure, Dan looks at me and my long face and compassionately says, “OK, here’s what you should do. Just go. Go by yourself. Go and just stay. You’ve done all the research and the hard work putting the trip together, so go. Enjoy yourself.”

He said a few more things, but I had stopped listening after “go and just stay.” In my heart I was already gone.

God, I love my husband.

So I went. My itinerary changed quite a bit because I wanted to see what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it. Ended up with the first stop being Paris for four days (where I’d spend my birthday), then Barcelona for a week, then San Sebastián for most of a week, then, because it was there and I was craving something exotic, I would spend a week in Istanbul! After about a week in Istanbul, Dan would join me for a few more days, and then I’d show him Barcelona. Now THAT was going to be one hell of a culinary adventure! A thought that informed a lot of my decision-making while putting this journey together was, “I want to stay in one place long enough to feel more like a local than a tourist.”

Before I left, I told my peeps that I would be sending out blog posts and that they would have the opportunity to vote on where I went and what I ate. What follows over the next few weeks are my blog posts from that nearly six-week excursion, including a lot of my culinary adventures.  You’ll read references to the voting process throughout.

Thought you might enjoy the ride.

June 25, 2015

Preamble: Small Happiness

I read something today that turned the lights on.*


It was from an author by the name of Sparrow who lives with his wife, Violet Snow, in the misty Catskills. I love that. Not Bill and Lorraine, or Jim and Barbara, or even Brandon and Tyler.

“Hi, my name is Sparrow and this is my wife Violet.” Tiny sparkles of golden light danced around his moss green hair like fireflies. His voice was as wet and smooth as river rock. Violet sat quietly in the garden on a bench made of woven vine, surrounded by climbing trees of white rose and jasmine. She smiled at me, and opening her hand, released a tiny hummingbird.  


He was talking about travel.  He said, in essence, next time I go on an adventure (to Tanzania or Target), to loosen my expectations. Travel with no fixed ideas. Expect neither bliss nor misery. Notice how life feels without a future.

That’s the part that stuck. Notice how life feels without a future.

Reminded me of a quote from Lao Tzu I found long ago which also got in and stayed there. “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Paris. Istanbul. Barcelona. San Sebastián. Traveling solo. My next adventure. Six long weeks. I will have a TON of time to notice how life feels without a future; to practice having no intention on arriving.

When I prepare for a cooking class, I do my homework. I love doing research, it’s one of my favorite parts of the adventure. Over time, I end up developing a working relationship with the anticipated hundred or so moving parts. But once the class starts, once the machine starts whirring and turning, things seldom go as expected. As far as having expectations going in, all bets are off. What there is to do is trust my instincts, let go of how it’s supposed to be, and be in the moment. Risk, vulnerability, and anxiety are always along for the ride. Invariably the disparate hundred or so moving parts, at the end, come together into a cohesive whole when everyone sits at the table, laughs, eats and toasts our success. It’s always a triumph, always a surprise. I needed to trust this same practice with one of the biggest events I’ve ever organized. Six weeks in Europe!

Sparrow also said, “Happiness must expand. Find a new source of delight you’ve never known before. Learn to appreciate Siberian dancing or the smell of oleander. Spend time at your desk designing the prefect pillow.” 

I liked this guy.

Although the order of the cities I was to visit was Paris, Barcelona, San Sebastián, and then Istanbul, these next few installments will not be in that order.

Patience, grasshopper. Remember, no intent on arriving.

*Excerpts from “Small Happiness” in The Sun, July 2015, issue 475

September 30, 2015

San Sebastián, Part One: Arrival

Flying into San Sebastián, a giant full moon guides us into a wide circle around the bay, the blue-gray water dotted with a hundred fishing boats. Climbing down off the passenger stairway, the sun is just rising over Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastián), a dramatic sweep of clouds over the distant mountains painted shades of gold and red.  An auspicious welcome indeed.

The city is greener and lusher than I expected. After the intriguing Gothic flatscape of Barcelona, with its gray stones and narrow lanes, it was a welcome respite to see verdant trees, rolling hills, a wide river, and the sea.

Parte Vieja

Once again, I find my home in the old part of the city. This time it’s called Parte Vieja. I have found that old sections of a city are much more picturesque, more storied, and more likely to transport me to another time. The architecture connects me directly with the town’s history. I become part of the continuum. I am in context.

Lesson du jour. Lesson al dia. I need to plan my flights to land within an hour of check-in time at my apartment (as opposed to landing at eight in the morning and not being able to check in until noon). Having to sit in a café for hours, drowning in cups of café con leche (café crème in Paris), is appealing – the first time. I wait for my host to show up. No WiFi to communicate, so I hope for the best.

I hadn’t eaten in a few hours, so while I was waiting, I opted for a simple ham, cheese, and egg breakfast sandwich. Actually, it was all that was offered at the time besides a café con leche. Place was called  Chocolateria Santa Lucia, right on the outside border of Parte Vieja, butting up against the edge of modern San Sebastián. The sandwich arrived with a little shape cut out of the top slice of bread so that the egg yolk poked out like a small, golden heart. The cutout lay next to the egg. I love attention to detail like this, It turns a simple experience into something much more satisfying.

After a frenetic and overcrowded week in Barcelona, with the annual street fair called La Mercè in town, I make the choice to let go of packing my schedule full of stuff to do and things to see.  Even places to eat. Nothing. Wide open space. Room to breathe. Take it all in. Leave “what’s next” to be a surprise. Although a couple of times this week, I do knock on the hallowed and virtual doors of three-star Michelin restaurant Arzak, a culinary mecca for the sophisticated palate, asking humbly for a table sometime in the next few days. Nada. No way. Right out of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy pulls the long cord, ringing the doorbell of the Emerald City. “Who rang that bell?!” As if having rung the bell was a rude interruption. We’ll see if I can get past the gatekeeper.

When I was in mid-planning stage for what was to be my next culinary tour, San Sebastián represented the heart of the two-week tour, more so than Bordeaux or Barcelona. Seriously, this little former fishing village sports no less than sixteen Michelin stars. More, in fact, per square meter, than any other city. Big deal, right? Maybe. Michelin is one measure of many, but you can’t argue with the fact that this part of Spain is home to a very serious culinary culture.

So, have I shot myself in the foot by not making reservations ahead of time? Will I be able to partake in the good stuff if I just wander the streets and remain open to whatever’s next? Perhaps some discernment is in order. Although I’m a tad pintxo-ed  out after Barcelona, San Sebastián pintxos are supposed to be off the charts. Maybe I can insert myself into a structured crawl and meet a few hungry expats. Possibly, I could find a sidrería and find out firsthand if the hullabaloo was accurate, that these places are extraordinary and truly a Basque country experience. Maybe I can connect with someone who knows someone who can get me into a cooking class or dinner at a local txoko.

These three food-happenings (pintxos crawl, sidreria, and txoko cooking class) were part of the original tour plan. I’d spent hours figuring out what to do while in San Sebastián, trading lots of emails back and forth with a local company, with which I fell in love, called (at this writing) San Sebastián Foods (they have since changed their name to Mimo Foods).  It would be nice at least to get a taste of what had been planned.

No voting, though, in San Sebastián.  Sorry, this one’s mine.  Me. Me. Me.  But I will send pics and report my food-findings and write about my foodscapades.

Stay frosty.

UPDATE: I opted for the pintxos crawl and am really glad I did. Holy cats was that fun. We lucked out, too, because our guide was a local girl. Basque through and through. She grew up in Parte Vieja, the old town section where the crawl happened. She knew all the chefs and shop owners, told great stories, and took us to some of HER favorite places. 

I will do a comprehensive report on the crawl in my next post.


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

One Response to “Chef Tom Hits the Road – A Multi-Part Foodie Travel Adventure”

  1. Marlene Schuler Says:

    Your lush words paint so many pictures. I am in context.

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