Tasty travels

SINGAPORE - When Ms Wendy Liong and Mr Timothy Liew were deciding where to go for their honeymoon in April last year, one factor was the most important to them: food.

"We asked ourselves what we wanted from this trip and kept coming back to the fact that we really enjoy our food and wine," says Ms Liong, 32, an assistant general manager at a property firm.

Says Mr Liew, 36, a project manager at a construction firm: "We considered going to Eastern Europe because of the beautiful scenery we had heard about, but we also kept hearing that the food was bad."

Ms Liong adds: "In our hierarchy of enjoyment, good food trumps seeing an old castle." They ended up choosing Western Europe for their three-week honeymoon, eating at some of the top restaurants in London, Italy and France.

They are among an emerging breed of travellers who plan their trips around food.

In a survey commissioned by global hospitality company Hilton Worldwide in November last year, a third of the 300 Singaporeans surveyed said food was a "critical factor" when deciding on their travel destinations. Food is such a make-or-break factor in their itineraries that they often make restaurant reservations months before their trips.

The Liews, for instance, made reservations at celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England, 60 days ahead of time. Ms Liong says she was on the online reservation system the minute bookings for her preferred date were available. "Even so, we didn't get our preferred time. But I was still so thrilled to get seats at The Fat Duck."

For some travellers, the flight itself is secondary to snagging that coveted restaurant reservation.

Ms Marie Choo, 37, director of a public relations agency, says she made sure she had a reservation at The Krug Room in Hong Kong in April last year before buying a plane ticket. "I wanted to take my best friend to eat there, so the whole trip was dependent on getting a reservation, which is very hard because the dining room takes only 12 people at every seating."

The Krug Room, which serves molecular, modern Western food, is located in a private dining room in a secret location within the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Guests can access it only if the hotel's concierge takes them through a back door.

While travelling to eat may not be a new phenomenon, the burgeoning popularity of celebrity chefs and food-related media have caused the trend to gain steam, says Mr Allan Chia, head of the marketing programme at SIM University's School of Business.

"It is probably fuelled by an increasing interest in food due to greater exposure to food-related TV programmes, with dedicated cable channels, as well as travel documentaries that feature distinctive food at various destinations, and online social media platforms that rate, show pictures and even direct travellers to food locations," he says.

Foodie traveller Chan Kwai Sum, who recently returned from an eating holiday to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, says food is the medium through which he best experiences a new country. "To me, food is an integral part of the country you are visiting. I learn a lot about the culture through the food," says the investor, 39.

Food-loving travellers say that meticulous planning needs to go into an eating holiday.

Dr Adrian Tan, a family physician, went on a four-day trip to Hong Kong last month. Right after booking the flights, he, his wife and four friends counted the number of meals they could have - nine - and then proceeded to plan where they would eat every single one of them.

The group researched reviews on TripAdvisor as well as the Michelin food guide, made reservations at popular restaurants such as The Chairman, which serves Cantonese cuisine, and made sure to order six different appetisers and mains at each meal so that they could sample as much as possible.

Dr Tan, 46, adds that the group tried to walk off calories in between meals, but often ended up spotting some other eatery to try.

"Once, we spotted a line forming at a makeshift alfresco stall that a cook had just set up and was taking orders so we joined the line. We ended up having some great claypot chicken cooked in a wine sauce," he says.

"After a while, we stopped ordering so much at meals because we knew we would be eating in between too."

Many foodies have trouble fitting in all the restaurants they want to eat at in just one trip to a city and end up having two lunches or dinners.

Mr Chan was on an eating trip to Tokyo four years ago when he could get a reservation at the famed Nihonryori Ryugin only at 10.30pm. He ate an earlier dinner at another gourmet restaurant - Tapas MolecularBar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which has a limited seating of eight people, twice a night - at 7.30pm.

"We had a 25-course dinner at the first restaurant and a 15-course dinner at the second," he recalls. "Surprisingly, we still really enjoyed them both." He spent almost $800 on his two meals that night.

Even with every meal planned in advance, food fatigue can set in.

Ms Choo, who had reservations for both lunch and dinner lined up at restaurants for every one of the 10 days she was in New York last year, says she now regrets having packed her eating schedule so tightly.

The highlight of her trip was meant to be a 14-course birthday meal near the end of the trip, at chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, an American and French cuisine restaurant, which has been dubbed the best restaurant in the Big Apple by The New York Times.

"I had to keep excusing myself to go to the bathroom every three or four courses to walk it off. It was so good but I was just too full to really enjoy it," she says.

She also had to cancel one hard-to-get reservation, at three-Michelin-starred French Restaurant Jean Georges because she felt ill from over-eating.

Other travellers have their own system to make sure they enjoy all their meals.

Ms Liong and Mr Liew, for example, skip breakfast and stick strictly to a rule: have either a heavy lunch or a heavy dinner, but never both.

Mr Jen Shek Voon, 67, a chartered accountant and the founding chairman of Singapore Slow Food Convivum Society, has been on two or three eating holidays a year for the last 10 years to destinations such as France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, India, Chile and Turkey.

He says he walks "for at least 21/2 hours between meals and in the early hours of the morning" when on these eating trips, so as to work up an appetite for his meals. He adds that minimising carbohydrates at meals, by halving the portion of noodles or pasta, for example, also helps.

Writer Sim Ee Waun, who goes on food holidays every year, says first-time culinary travellers must remember not to try to eat everything the destination has to offer.

"Go at a pace you're comfortable with. If it's just one good spot a day, so be it. If you don't have enough time to cover all the spots you want, make that your excuse for a return visit," says the 46-year-old, who has been to Sydney, Bali, Cappadocia in Turkey, Vienna and Prague in search of food.

She adds that foodie travellers should not feel any pressure to eat at only top or famous restaurants when travelling.

"It's not a brag fest. If it's street food you're keen on, that's as good a food holiday as any other. In fact, that would probably bring you closer to the culture than other kinds of dining."


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