Thirteen years ago, I was working as a chef in a boutique hotel and ready to make the move to open my own restaurant, a distant dream I had had since I was in the second grade, since I started working as a dishwasher when I was 13.
But before I made the move to open my own business, I knew that I needed something more. I needed to broaden my education beyond what I had gotten in culinary school in the U.S. had offered me. I started researching culinary programs and institutes abroad and discovered the Italian Culinary Institute in southern Italy. I ended up enrolling in a three-month full immersion master’s program that focuses on regional Italian cuisine in an extremely in-depth way, including butchery, and making charcuterie, cheese, gelato, bread, pastry and more.
Once I returned from my studies and travels, I had a whole new outlook on life, not to mention a whole new outlook on cooking and raw ingredients. I knew if there was any time to take the next step, that was it. I put in notice at my job, and seven months later, I opened Old Vine Café in Orange County, California. And I knew that at some point, once I got the business going, I would lead culinary tours of southern Italy since it was so untouched and so unique from the rest of the country. I even had an itinerary in my head.
Two years after I got the business up and running, I launched our first Splendors of South Italy tour in collaboration with the ICI. I just returned from leading the eighth annual trip. We’re up to two trips a year now, and we’re still accepting reservations for our October trip, Splendors of Ancient Italy. Both tours are jam-packed wine tastings, cooking lessons and sightseeing, offering a glimpse of Italy that visitors rarely see.
It’s a special experience and I take a personal approach to leading the tours. To me, it’s the real Italy, especially down in Calabria, where the institute is located. You hear all about Tuscany, and I’ve been to Tuscany, it’s beautiful. But this area is what I think Tuscany was like 100 years ago. It’s underdeveloped, it’s untouched. The agriculture is phenomenal. The raw products are amazing. The seafood off the coastline is some of the best I’ve had in the world. It’s just a magical place.
I also teach at ICI, which is run by chef John Nocita, my mentor, colleague and good friend. He’s been hosting international students for 21 years, so the infrastructure for our trips is well established. We work with a family-owned transportation company, and while in Calabria, we stay in the hotel where ICI is located. The hotel is perched up on a bluff and all of the hotel rooms have panoramic views of the Ionian Sea.
“Most of them have been my customers at some point, but even if they haven’t, it goes beyond even just gaining a customer for life.” -Mark McDonald
We have relationships with local restaurants and other hotels that we have frequented for years. Once we get there, it’s like clockwork. We have drivers waiting for guests when they arrive at the airport, and everything is taken care of from that point on. Airfare is up to the individual, but I assist in any way that I can by finding good deals. I also handle all the marketing, correspondence and booking.
It can be a lot of work, but it’s worth it for the experience I can provide to my guests. Initially, everybody who traveled with us was a customer, since I did my marketing through Old Vine Cafe. I still do, with social media and printed flyers on the tabletops. But now word of mouth has spread even further than the restaurant walls. The last tour I led had almost 30 people who were from Washington, Texas, Michigan and across California. It’s not just a southern California crowd anymore.
One of my favorite parts about the tours is really getting to know these people. Most of them have been my customers at some point, but even if they haven’t, it goes beyond even just gaining a customer for life. It has developed some fantastic friendships and a different level of a client relationship.
It’s pretty common these days to be in the restaurant and have a couple people dining who have been on the tours. It’s almost like a reunion. Then, the next thing you know, there are a few more people who went on a tour a different year. They strike up a conversation with the people who they’ve never met because they can share the same experiences. It becomes this cool community of people who have either directly or indirectly traveled together at some point.
I created my business wanting to offer more than an average restaurant, and I’ve always operated that way. That’s the real benefit of running these trips. It is not just a local place to dine; it is a vast community of like-minded people, some of whom have become family.
These trips benefit the restaurant and the business and my reputation in a pretty significant way because we do more than just serve three meals a day. I teach culinary courses in Italy and here in the United States. We lead these tours outside of what we do on a daily basis, offering an experience like no other. Our client base not only enjoys a good meal, but they feel like they’re a part of something bigger, and something never-ending.