By Brian Jewell
Twenty years ago, the words “celebrity” and “chef” rarely found their way into the same sentence. But thanks to a surge of food-related programming on television and the elevation of culinary experiences in contemporary culture, numerous chefs around the country have attained rock star status, and their restaurants have become high-profile destinations for tourists.
Individual travelers flock to the establishments owned by celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen, Guy Fieri and Emeril Lagasse. And with the surge in food travel among group travel, a significant question emerges: Is it possible — or practical — for tour groups to eat in restaurants owned by celebrity chefs?
We posed that question to tourism officials in various culinary hot spots around the United States and got a variety of answers.
When her Food Network program made Paula Deen the unofficial queen of Southern cuisine, her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, became one of Savannah, Georgia’s most coveted culinary destinations. Mindy Shea, director of tour and travel sales at Visit Savannah, said that groups can eat at Deen’s restaurant but may not meet members of the Deen family.
“There’s not an official policy at this point about having someone in the Deen family meet and greet a group, although efforts are being made to have some of the family members around the restaurant more,” Shea said. “They accept group reservations and have a special dining room for groups, and most of our tour operators are booking those six to 12 months in advance.”
Shea said that in lieu of Deen family appearances, some groups choose to have a performer entertain them with a life-sized Paula Deen puppet while they dine. Others choose to eat at similar Southern food establishments instead, such as Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room or the Pirates House.
New Orleans is recognized as one of the nation’s leading culinary destinations and is home to three Emeril Lagasse restaurants. But Lisa Holland, tourism sales manager at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the high price point of Lagasse’s restaurants keeps most tour groups away.
“A bus group of senior citizens aren’t looking to spend $100 per person for dinner,” she said. “And not all of the celebrity chef restaurants have facilities that are conducive to a group of 50 people.”
That’s not to say that groups can’t eat at such restaurants — tour operator Trips includes dinners at Emeril’s restaurants on its bank group trips to New Orleans — but the cost limits the experience to higher-end tours. There are alternatives, though: Celebrity chef John Besh operates a number of restaurants in the city, including an affordable outlet called the American Sector at the National World War II Museum.
Holland said that groups can also arrange cooking demonstrations with various companies throughout the city. Some of the chefs featured in those workshops have appeared on Food Network shows such as “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America.”
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