International Dining Adventures with a Southern Accent

Chef-led culinary trips bring guests to the flavors of Mexico, France, and beyond

Two women prepare quesadillas with squash blossoms in Teotitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca.

Photo: David Alvarado

Two women prepare quesadillas with squash blossoms in Teotitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca.

Is there a popular restaurant dish that hasn’t been endlessly photographed, filtered, and fine-tuned on social media? Probably not. But be thankful that no one has yet found a way to send taste through your gadget. For the adventurous eater, travel brings new horizons. 

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Taking a trip with an accomplished chef is among the most fulfilling ways to bring context to cuisine. Chefs put words to flavors and aromas that can be elusive, and encourage travelers to understand food through their own experiences and stories, building a bridge between near and far. 

Here are three tours to expand your gustatory horizons.

Mezcal Memories

Southern Mexico

photo: Matt Dutile/Gallery Stock
A view of Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo church.

The cooking legend Bill Smith ran the kitchen at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a quarter century and played a pivotal role in elevating Southern cuisine from regional curiosity to national phenomenon—the New York Times once called his restaurant “sacred ground for Southern foodies.”

Smith retired in 2019, but in 2022, as the world emerged from the pandemic, his friend Jane Robison recruited him to help launch a food tour in southern Mexico. Robison owns the boutique hotel Casa Colonial in Oaxaca, and the first tour was just for friends of theirs. “I was planning to do just one,” Smith says, but soon more “people who are curious about the world” wanted to join. Smith and Robison are now offering tours two or three times a year. Dubbed “Bill and Jane’s Amazing Oaxacan Food Tour,” the ten-day adventures involve trips to meet mezcal makers, weavers, and “the woman who makes candles for the church,” Smith says. “But most of it is going to a million restaurants.”

A highlight of the tours, which are limited to ten people, is a day spent with Susana Trilling, a chef, cookbook author, and host of a PBS series on Mexican cuisine. Smith also leads a cooking class one day, but the real joy comes from seeing the region through his eyes. “We go to the market in the morning, and we’ve done it so many times the chicken lady knows my name, and the shrimp guy hollers at me,” Smith says. Among his favorite visits: to an octogenarian mezcal distiller. “He makes mezcal so good it makes me cry.”

Flavors of France

Toulouse and the Loire Valley

Lisa Donovan, a pastry chef and writer whose first book, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, won a 2021 M.F.K. Fisher Prize for Excellence in Culinary Writing, began teaming up with friends to host yoga and artist retreats in places like New Mexico and Costa Rica in 2016. “I did the food and took people to markets,” she says. At a retreat where she cooked for painters in Toulouse, France, she noticed that those attending “always made their way into the kitchen,” she says. “I started thinking about this being the shaper of an actual business.” She partnered with Julie Belcher, a baker she knew from Nashville who had lived in France. They named the company Rêverie, with the mission of having attendees “build relationships, meet the local makers,” and immerse themselves in European foodways.

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After they announced the first tours in late 2019, they quickly sold out. Then almost as soon, the onset of COVID led to their cancellation. Since Donovan and Belcher relaunched the idea in 2022, demand has been strong—Rêverie offered seven tours this year and aims to double that in 2025. Up to sixteen guests can attend each six-day retreat, and accommodations might include a thirteenth-century château or a Georgian manor. They’ve added other tours and chef-guides, such as Nashville’s Trevor Moran in Ireland and New Orleans’ Nina Compton, who will lead guests in July on a culinary adventure in her native St. Lucia. “My goal is to open the kitchen,” Donovan says. “To give people access to a space that has become a bit intimidating because of the celebrity chef culture.”

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Cruising the World

Trips by sea

Those new to culinary tours might prefer more traditional travel options, such as wading into the pool with Windstar. The boutique cruise line has teamed up with the James Beard Foundation to offer five food-themed expeditions in 2025, led by accomplished chefs.

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Planned journeys include a twelve-day voyage from Montreal to New York with Larry Forgione, who opened An American Place in New York in 1983, with stops in Quebec City; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Portland, Maine, all of which should delight seafood lovers. As should an eleven-day loop through the Baltic Sea from Stockholm to Copenhagen (with ports of call in Finland and Estonia) featuring Jennifer Hill Booker, author of Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent.

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Next March, Jamilka Borges, a native of Puerto Rico, will lead an island hop through the West Indies. Borges’s seven-day jaunt from Aruba to Barbados takes place aboard the 312-passenger Star Pride and will include a chef-hosted dinner and wine pairing, cooking demonstrations, and a market tour.