First of all, I’ve been cooking all my life and people always seem to be stunned at my ability to put together a meal, which is not that unique, and have always asked me for recipes or to show them how it’s done.
I’ve always helped friends set up their trips all over the world, and I love doing that. To me, planning a vacation is part and parcel of the fun of the vacation, and psychologists have shown that the anticipation of a vacation and how long that period is actually enhances the overall experience. I went to Provence with a group of friends a number of years ago and I put together a week of activities for them and they all said, “Why don’t you do this for a business?” and so I did.
What does a typical travelling day look like for you?
The trips are eight days and seven nights, so over the eight days, we will typically have two to three cooking classes, where we go to a local chef’s home, shop for ingredients at the market, then the chef will lead us through the preparation or a meal. We will typically sit down and have that meal, whether it’s lunch or dinner, wine paired. If it’s a lunch, then in the afternoon, depending on where we are, we either have time to tour the village or the town, see if there are any historical sites, or people have time to wander about and shop. We eat dinner in small, local restaurants and stay in much smaller hotels, and they’re intimate, because I want my clients to meet people, and to mix and mingle with locals in a way that they might not be able to do if they were travelling either by themselves or with a large group.
I actually want people to feel as though they’re travelling with friends. There’s no single supplement, it’s all inclusive, which means if you want a glass of champagne, have a glass of champagne. I speak the language, I know the area, I want it to be fun, I want people to enjoy themselves and to laugh. It is structured, there are things that I want my clients to experience but I also want to allow time to savour and understand what it’s like to sit at a café in Provence at six o’clock along with locals, and have an aperitif and listen to the conversation and participate in it.
What’s the most interesting or weirdest experience you’ve had on a tour or during a class?
I think it’s fun sometimes to get lost, because often times, you find hidden gems. A few years ago, we were at the Abbaye de Sénanque, the place that you go to see the lavender in Provence. Afterwards, we didn’t have reservations for lunch so I picked a dot on the map. When we got there, the streets were deserted. I saw a woman who said on the block parallel were a few restaurants, so we walked over and one of them for some reason I just said, “This is where you want to eat”. The owners were charming. The wife was the chef, the husband was the host and we had a phenomenal time; they were so warm and so much fun, and so interested in us and we in them. So since then, after the Abbaye de Sénanque, we always go to that place for lunch because it was one of those fortuitous places that you find that isn’t in any tour book and isn’t on any map but it was a genuine place with lovely people and great food.
The best part of taking people to Provence is seeing them experience the things that I think are so special and reliving it through their eyes. I’ve been many times, but it’s always new to me because I get great pleasure from seeing how people react to the places we visit, the markets we go to, the restaurants we eat at, the hotels we stay in.
Your website says you’ve travelled to more than 50 countries across two continents – what do you think is the key to making sure you have a great time when travelling?
I think when you travel, you have to allow yourself to be open to different experiences. When people ask who my trips are for, I say they are for people with a curious mind and an adventurous palette, and as long as you have those two, you’ll be fine. But you have to be willing to try new experiences, you have to be willing to try new foods, even just a bite, you have to be willing to get out of your daily comfort zone and do something a little bit different.
I have to say tapenade, an olive spread. Olive growing is very big in Provence and tapenade also has anchovies and oil and lots of garlic. It’s offered as a starter and also as something that you would have with an aperitif before dinner. I picked that because it has the flavours of Provence. It’s the dish that I think best represents in many ways my philosophy of cooking, which is that you really don’t need to do a lot to it: get good olives, good olive oil, have some fresh garlic and anchovies and it’s done, it comes together in five minutes.
As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?
If you want an authentic experience and you don’t want to be with a crowd of people, where, if it’s two o’clock we’re doing this, and if it’s Tuesday, we’re in Paris and if it’s Wednesday, we’re in Germany, then it’s worth having a guide such as me who will take you and spend time with you for a week.
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
I think you have to like people, be knowledgeable, organised, flexible and you have to do your research. I think the key is that you have to add value and be friendly, funny and people-oriented more than anything else. From my perspective, you need to have a unique point of view – my trip is not for everybody. If you’re interested in just shopping your way through Provence, there are probably other people who can do that for you. If you want to learn about the culture and how the food and wine are tied to it, then that’s an experience that I can provide you.