With food tourism in crisis, virtual pasta and paella courses take off

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For Traveling Spoon, the coronavirus pandemic was a body blow to a business that organizes bespoke meals and cooking lessons for intrepid travelers at the homes of local hosts.

Steph Lawrence, who launched the company in 2013, watched her business dry up virtually overnight. At the time, Traveling Spoon was close to break-even and preparing to hit up venture capitalists for a new round of financing. As the pandemic intensified, revenue fell by more than 95%, the funding round was postponed, and some of their local hosts were struggling to survive.

Lawrence and cofounder Aashi Vel rushed to save the business. First, they set up a a series of grants partly funded by previous customers to help sustain 19 of their most vulnerable hosts. About 80% are women, many of whom are heads of households relying on Traveling Spoon to make ends meet.

Then in April, they went virtual, tapping a network of hosts in 67 countries to offer online cooking classes. The initial six lessons quickly ballooned to 131, and with prices starting at $25, they are seen as a bargain. Some people are turning to Traveling Spoon in lieu of canceled holidays, while it’s also popular with travel enthusiasts who for health or financial reasons can’t move around as freely as they used to, she says.

The online shift hasn’t compensated for the revenue hit caused by the pandemic, but the classes are keeping the company alive and offer a new revenue stream that could add appeal when the business does seek fresh funding, Lawrence says.

Online Cooking

“The quality of the experience is so incredible, but where we often get pushback is that international travel is a low-frequency event,” Lawrence says. “Being able to layer in online cooking classes addresses that repeatability issue.”

Looking at the offerings, you sense the site’s Asian roots. Vel hails from Chennai, India, and Lawrence spent time living in China, learning Mandarin and seeking out local food experiences. So, if you fancy making Thai green curry you can connect with Pea, who lives with her son in a traditional teak house in Chiang Mai, or you can choose from an array of Indian classes, ranging from butter chicken to Goan seafood stew.

I started a little closer to home. I first connected with Juan in Spain’s Almeria to improve my paella. Juan, a retired civil servant, is from Valencia, the coastal city that gave the world the famed rice dish. When I looked at the ingredients, I realized this was the real deal, not some paella for tourists or a Jamie Oliver take that risked causing an international incident.

One problem—I was pretty sure my local Tesco Plc grocery store in London wasn’t going to carry chopped rabbit. After a few emails, we switched to a mixed paella of chicken, shrimp and squid. Paella may seem like a straightforward dish; after all, it’s prepared in a single pan with no tricky sauces. But I had made paella many times, and while it was always a crowd pleaser, I often felt I wasn’t nailing it and getting the rice “en su punto” — just right.

Juan showed me some great tricks like only heating the center of the pan when cooking the meat and seafood, creating a ring of salt outside the area to prevent burning and add flavor. More importantly, he offered tips on how to adjust the water levels as it was absorbed. It was definitely among the best paellas I’ve managed and I dared to serve it to a Spaniard, who gave it a thumbs up.

Mediterranean Adventure

I then moved across the Mediterranean to Sicily where I connected with Fabio and Annarella for fresh ravioli stuffed with ricotta. Traveling Spoon menus can be adjusted to taste, but I soon learned that authenticity trumps customer preference. My request to change the dessert from fried ravioli to panna cotta, a personal favorite, was turned down because it was a northern dish and not typical to Sicily. I’m glad Fabio stuck to his guns as the crispy ravioli oozing with creamy ricotta and melted chocolate was a big hit.

Fabio and Annarella walked me through kneading the eggless pasta and rolling out sheets. I then made a line of small piles of ricotta stuffing, before folding over the pasta and squeezing out air pockets to avoid the raviolis bursting in the boiling water. The stuffed pasta was topped with a local tomato sauce seasoned with fennel seeds and made thick with carrots and potatoes. Unusual and delicious.

Between courses, Fabio and Annarella gave me a mini tour of Zisolhouse, their organic farm where they produce almonds, oranges and olive oil.

After months of lockdown in London, both classes offered me a taste of better times, and while it would have been nice to down a glass of Rioja with Juan or sample Fabio and Annarella’s organic oil, I was at least able to serve up a piece of their world with friends and family and feel hopeful about trips to come some day.

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