It’s Earth Day 2022, marking yet another year on this planet with our outward cries on climate change and way too empty preachings on practicing sustainability. We all know for greener travel, change starts from the top down, or in the case of food tourism, from the Earth up. So ... who is really doing something?
Food, a necessity in life and a universally-agreed upon way to the soul, has long been a strong stimulus for traveling the globe. With the growing reliance on the digitized, mass sharing of experiences over the past decade, expectations for food tourism have increasingly evolved in recent years.
But as the celebration of Earth Day on Friday reminds us, food tourism can serve as a strong way to make sustainable travel easier, and even more desirable. Here are few ways:
Sustainable Food Itineraries
Group adventure travel agency Intrepid Travel has operated Real Food Adventures, a range of tours that focus on food experience-based travel itineraries, since 2013. When it originally launched, only six trips were available. After the pandemic, a total of fifteen tours are a part of the program, with new venues such as South Korea, the Balkans, Israel, and Palestine. The travel plans are characterized by intimate experiences that immerse travelers in the local culture, such as indulging in vegan samosas in the bustling streets of Delhi, sourcing local seasonal ingredients in the Tuscan sun, or enjoying a home-cooked meal in Morocco’s Blue City, Chefchaouen.
Intrepid’s climate journey dates all the way back to 2005. They became carbon neutral in 2010, until realizing that carbon neutrality wasn’t enough, and they came out with an emission reduction target in 2020.
“The tourism sector has the forefront set in the climate crisis because destinations are getting impacted by these extreme weather events,” said Intrepid’s Global Environmental Impact Manager Susanne Etti. “We have a clear warning from the science community. By setting that emission reduction target, we basically now have a clear path to decarbonize our offices, but also our trips: transportation, accommodation, and the experiences.”
Plant-based meals are recorded to typically have ten to fifteen times smaller climate impact than that of animal products, and the most recent climate change report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, said Etti.
Intrepid also offers Vegan Real Adventures — travel plans that are not only focused on vegan food, but strive towards a vegan lifestyle with the most minimal global footprint possible. Every step of the journey, such as transportation and accommodation, are all taken into consideration as Intrepid works with nearby suppliers, tailoring the entire travel experience to local conditions and the traveler’s personal preference.
Recent feedback for these food adventures have been highly encouraging, to say the least. Travelers reported that the experience was really life-changing to their well-being.
“Some customers take changes home, and come back and say that it has impacted even their career choices,” said Etti. “It’s really about experiencing a good vegetarian meal and realizing, ‘Hey, I’m not really missing out.’”
Cultural Context Matters Always
However, Intrepid also recognizes the importance of cultural context, and that sustainability looks different for everyone.
“You can’t assume that every location, every country is the same,” said Etti. “We see different levels of climate action at the government level, but also in the advancements in energy supply or food. You have to look into local plant-based options, but still celebrate the culture and ensure that you reflect the culture in a way that the customer would like to experience the country.”
While Etti works to find sustainable suppliers from Intrepid’s Melbourne headquarters, Real Food Adventures prides itself on its ability to be flexible, thanks to their tour leaders on the ground. As true ambassadors, they are specially trained to understand how climate change is impacting their own country and what they can do at a local level, so that they also can make specific suggestions to travelers when asked questions around a plant-based meal.
The Michelin Revolution
When it comes to making monumental rifts in institutions backed by centuries of tradition, leaders are expected to take charge, to lead by example. That is exactly what the Michelin Guide’s Green Star Rating is doing for food tourism and the dining industry.
The Michelin Green Star was introduced in 2020 as an annual award, much like its famous red star cousin, to recognize restaurants that are paving the way when it comes to sustainable dining experiences. These restaurants are expected to “hold themselves accountable for both their ethical and environmental standards”, according to the Michelin website, whilst also working to avoid or reduce waste of other non-recyclable materials from their supply chain.
“The Green Star was designed to put the spotlight on role models,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guide. “To those who are influencing their peers, their customers, and the whole ecosystem around the restaurant, from produce suppliers to recycling.”
The idea for the award came to light when Michelin inspectors began seeing a sense of real willingness towards climate-friendly meals both in their chefs and their gourmets. Still, the Michelin Guide wasn’t prepared for the enormous response and waves of influence their program would make.
“Even after just a few years, we are all really impressed by the positive impact it has had within the industry,” said Poullennec. “It’s been a real trigger, igniting revelations between the restaurants. Originally, the three Michelin stars, the gold, was the benchmark. Today, the Green Star is the real benchmark for the industry.”
Like Intrepid, the Michelin team understands that sustainability looks different for different communities. To the inquiries he receives everyday from chefs all around the world asking how to get the Green Star, his answer is the same: “Share insights with chefs around you who do have the Green Star, because there are different ways to be sustainable, depending on where you are, in the context in which you operate.”
Ironically, while the origin of the program began far earlier than the pandemic, lockdown accelerated its growth and success.
“During the Covid pandemic, chefs and their teams had time to reflect on their own practices,” said Poullennec. “Now, many of them pay much more attention to local sourcing and taking care of the community. We’ve seen them challenge and change their approach to sustainability without compromising on the quality of the food.”
When Michelin inspectors started going back to restaurants after the announcement of the Green Star, they found chefs more committed to the cause than ever — the “green” topic had turned into an appealing one. Chefs were changing their mindset and the way they train their teams. Many of them, even with three Michelin stars, are reportedly looking for a fourth green one. Others are much more willing to target the green star even before the original red one based on the quality of food.
Chefs weren’t the only ones who were busy reflecting. Diners are also paying a great deal more attention to the way they eat, and this has changed the way customers view the restaurant experience.
As the creative mind behind the only plant-based French fine dining experience in London, world-renown Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier is one of many catering to a new realm of diners.
His first restaurant and second restaurant, Michelin-starred Gauthier Soho, were both classical restaurants embodying the epitome of French gastronomy — scallops, foie gras, filet of beef, and “every piece of animal you can think of” on the menu.
In 2016, Gauthier made the decision to go vegan, and his restaurants with him. Since going plant-based, Gauthier Soho received a new wave of customers. The influx of new diners are younger, more willing to have discussions of cruelty-free dining, and understanding of conversations about sustainable eating.
“It’s an easy concept for them,” said Gauthier. “And when they find it on the plate, they are happy to pay for it, which is really wonderful.”
Gauthier has always been transparent about his optimism around plant-based fine-dining in French cuisine, which is notorious for its traditionalism. Now, he wants others, especially the next generation of chefs, to recognize that there is an entirely new space for creation while still practicing sustainably.
“It’s like discovering a new planet,” said Gauthier. “The young chefs are going to be able to express their own creativity, and have so much more identity in the food they are going to make. This is not only good for the one that creates, but also for the one that’s going to pay for the creativity.”
Gauthier is one of many at the forefront of breaking traditionalistic ideals in the food world and, for many tourists who travel just to taste good food, the entire Michelin experience.
Photo credit: Roadside chef cooking in Hua Hin District Prachuap Khiri Khan Province Thailand. jittawit.21 / Adobe