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The Resurgence of the Travel Agent

If there’s one thing we can collectively embrace in 2020, it is a bit of nostalgia. Sure, we are still trying to be mindful, and grateful, and present, but the past can be a comforting balm when living in the moment looks more like “Groundhog Day” than “Eat, Pray, Love.” Whether you have been staring dreamily at old vacation photos on your camera roll or grinning at the sight of Mark Hamill and R2D2 back on your TV screen, being reminded of the days of old (or, you know, any day prior to February 2019) has been energizing and damn near delightful. GLR doesn’t mind that you’re fondly reminiscing—we are, too!—but might we suggest a tip for marrying the comfort of the past with the prospects of a vaccinated future? If “Saved By the Bell” can get a reboot, so can an old travel industry standby. (Re)enter:  the travel agent.

 

We know what you’re thinking:  you have a plethora of online booking options at your fingertips, which are already almost permanently glued to your keyboard or phone at this point. Redirect that side eye and hear us out, though. Sure, widespread, global travel is not greenlit just yet and we understand if you are still too spooked to count the proverbial chickens of 2021. With the FDA’s approval and roll-out of vaccinations now on track, though, it just might be high time for wanderlusters to seek out a helping hand in a changed landscape.

A new type of travel agent

“The role of the travel advisor has become more important now than ever, as people need help navigating all of the Covid details, including which counties are open for travel, entry requirements, testing sites, and more,” says Corey Cook, an agent for Elli Travel in Larchmont, NY and GLR’s resident travel advisor.

 

Jolie Goldring of the NYC-based agency In The Know Experiences (ITKE) has a similar take on the logistical benefits of using a travel advisor. However, the veteran advisor also points out the additional perks she can get her clients, noting amenities such as resort credits, daily complimentary breakfast, small personal touches and often confirmed upgrades—not to mention the general hand-holding that her clients have become accustomed to receiving.

 

“Whether it be leveraging our relationships to help with more flexible deposit and cancel policies, deciphering airline cancel and refund policies, or guiding clients about testing and quarantining policies that may be required, we are offering an invaluable service and peace-of-mind,” says Goldring.

 

 

Cook also sees the role of travel agent as similar to other sought after experts that the average person seeks out on a regular basis, such as a financial adviser or interior designer. Due to all the travel sites that have spawned across the web for years, many think that planning a trip is no longer something they need to outsource. According to Cook, though, she has recently seen her job become en vogue again, and hey, we get it. After all, why scour the internet for the best flight deal or agonize over conflicting hotel reviews when you could instead enlist the help of an individual who has made a career of knowing these things?

A sea of information

“The web has become oversaturated with travel information, and it’s simply overwhelming for many people. Which hotel should I book? What are the better activities/tours to do? There’s a million options,” Cook opines. “That’s where travel advisors come into play. We cut through all of that confusion to properly guide our clients and help with the bookings.”

 

Furthermore, studies in recent years have shown that the use of travel agents, even pre-Covid, was still more prevalent than the average I-can-do-it-myself hodophile might have guessed . The 2018 Global Passenger Survey completed by the International Air Transport Association, which garnered 10,408 responses from 145 countries, found that about 43 percent of passengers preferred to use a travel agency, travel management company or corporate travel department to book flights. Another particular standout from that 2018 survey that rings particularly relevant was a finding from the responses that passengers wanted “a human touch when things go wrong.”

 

Ahem. Case closed, are we right?

See our full report on State of Travel: 2021

 

Top 5 Steak Houses in the US

Let’s face it. There is nothing quite like a high quality steak house. However, with so many to choose from around the country—including many of very average caliber—it can be difficult to find the best. Pursuitist has made it easy with this short list of the best places to go for a juicy, mouthwatering steak cooked to perfection by amazing culinary teams.

1. CUT – Beverly Hills

Wolfgang Puck is credited with redefining fine dining in America. Indeed, the award-winning Austrian-born chef and celebrated restaurateur has built a vast restaurant empire with locations around the world, beginning with his flagship Spago, which opened in 1982 (famous for its haute cuisine pizzas), and later Chinois and Postrio Bar & Grill, among many others. His trademark dishes have revolutionized the culinary industry.

In 2006, Puck opened CUT, a sleek, innovative and contemporary steakhouse complete with a lounge called Sidebar, located in the Richard Meier-designed Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. After only one year in operation, the restaurant earned a coveted one star ranking from the Michelin Guide–no small accomplishment.

CUT continues to innovate at this stunning Four Seasons property. In 2016, the inviting CUT Lounge opened as the new bar and lounge experience formerly occupied by Sidebar. The ‘Rough Cuts’ menu offers the best bar snacks in the world, along with creative cocktails, in a relaxing and cosy environment. Try the New York Sirloin Steak Skewers, Maple Glazed Pork Belly, and the delicious Tempura Fanny Bay Oysters.

With its unique combination of service and design, the award-winning CUT Beverly Hills and the new CUT Lounge tops our list as the best steak and culinary destination in the US.

2. Smith & Wollensky – New York

Since its founding more than 30 years ago, The landmark Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in New York City has beef as its cornerstone, concept and reputation. Smith & Wollensky dry-ages and butchers its USDA Prime grade beef in-house to ensure unparalleled quality, tender texture, and outstanding flavor. On average, Smith & Wollensky is aging 7-12 tons of beef at any given time.

Smith & Wollensky is best known for its USDA Prime, dry aged steaks, but the prime rib is mouthwatering as well. The menu offers many options beyond the signature exemplary steaks. Guests can select from a variety of market-fresh seafood, poultry, and lamb. also, such as the shellfish bouquet. Meu standouts include the shellfish bouquet, creamed spinach, hashed browns and the coconut cake. The restaurant’s Great American Wine List offers over 550 selections from all across the country with a special section devoted to Undiscovered Gems, which are lesser-known wines of outstanding quality.

 

The Top 5 Best Steakhouses in the US2
Smith & Wollensky

 

3. The Prime Rib – Washington, D.C.

The Prime Rib was founded in 1965 in Baltimore, Md. by famed restaurateur Buzz Beler and his brother, Nick. The restaurant was designed to evoke the elegant supper clubs of 1940’s Manhattan. The restaurant is a throw-back to the good old days with its tuxedoed waitstaff, live music nightly, and convivial and romantic atmosphere. The restaurant, which is beautifully decorated with fine art and fresh flowers, is famous for its thick chops, fresh seafood and the plethora of delicious side dishes from which to choose. Its wine list is equally as extensive.

The Prime Rib opened its second location in 1976 in Washington, D.C.The restaurant has become a power meeting spot for the who’s who of Washington elite. The restaurant’s third location was opened in Philadelphia in the city’s historic Warwick Hotel in 1997.

 

4. Peter Luger Steak HouseNew York

Peter Luger

Peter Luger Steak House is a bonafied New York institution, has served the finest of steaks. For 26 consecutive years, Peter Luger has been the number one steak house in New York, according to Zagat’s, and its customers have included a host of celebrities, from Alfred Hitchcock to James Cagney and Robert De Niro.

Peter Luger Steak House offers only the finest USDA Prime meat available. The selection process is crucial and is done only by members of the family who visit the wholesale markets on a daily basis. Just as famous as its steaks are Peter Luger’s side dishes. Be sure to order the sliced tomato topped with Luger’s own sauce, creamed spinach, onion rings and the special German fried potatoes. The Peter Luger Steak House Old Fashioned Sauce is delicious and available for purchase. Keep in mind that most of Peter Luger’s dishes are large enough to serve several people.

 

5. Strip House – NYC & Las Vegas

Strip House NYC

Executive Chef, John Schenk, is renowned for his culinary skills and is often seen on The Today Show among other national news programs. Schenk keeps the menu fresh at the eclectic restaurant offers an innovative menu featuring select cuts of beef that are charred to perfection accompanied by decadent sides, an extensive wine list and delectable desserts. Be sure to try its signature New York Strip Steak accompanied by the restaurant’s delicious creamed spinach with black truffles followed up by its famous 24-layer chocolate cake.

The restaurant’s name is a double entendre that relates to both the delectable strip steaks as well as its seductive, yet sophisticated decor. The interior was designed by David Rockwell and offers a clubby yet striking atmosphere with deep red leather booths. The walls are adorned with black and white images of women that pays hommage to the female form. The collection was photographed by Studio Manasse in Vienna in the early 1900’s.

 

This article was originally published on Pursuitist. Republished by permission. 

Wellness Trends for 2021

The Global Wellness Institute—an international organization that brings together leaders and visionaries to positively impact and shape the future of the global wellness industry—recently released their “9 trends for wellness in 2021” at their annual summit. Here they are:

 

Hollywood and the Entertainment Industries Jump into Wellness

If wellness programming on TV (whether Oprah or the Goop Lab) has been about wellness as a topic you passively consume, the future is TV content and platforms that involve and impact you. Smart TVs are baking wellness “channels” onto their home screens: Samsung TVs launched Samsung Health, letting people binge 5,000 hours of free fitness/meditation classes from the buzziest brands. The future: smart TVs (like Apple’s) that connect to your health wearable (like Apple Fitness+) to serve up personalized wellness/fitness experiences right on your TV. Wellness companies are becoming full-blown TV studiosMega-meditation-apps, Calm and Headspace, recently scored TV shows (HBO Max and Netflix), translating their meditative experiences into immersive television. Meditation apps with TV series? Unthinkable just two years ago. China is perfecting the marriage of wellness TV programming and e-commerce, and Waterbear Network is a new “Netflix” for climate activism.

The ways that music is being created for stress, sleep, focus, a better workout, or just trippy, ambient bliss…has kicked into high gear. It’s a paradigm shift: If music has always been consumed around artist, song and genre, now it’s “serve me music-as-therapy.” Meditation apps are becoming big wellness music “record labels,” and more apps are launching, specifically focused on music-for-wellbeing. Generative music technology—where your biometrics meet neuroscientist-designed sound—will take sound-as-precision-medicine to radical places. And not surprisingly, celebrities are now all over wellness, not just as spokespeople but as company founders, execs and major investors.

The Future of Immune Health: Stop Boosting, Start Balancing

 

We join many forecasters in naming immune health a 2021 trend, not only because we agree that it will remain a consumer obsession post-vaccine but because the main ways the wellness industry has been addressing it are…flat-out wrong. In 2020, people were blitzed with “immune-boosting” supplements, foods and therapies, but the idea that you can “boost” your immunity is unscientific nonsense, and “more boosting” is precisely the wrong approach. The future: approaches that lead to immuno-stabilization, immuno-balance.

We will see more evidence-backed approaches to immune health, with metabolic health, the microbiome, and personalized nutrition becoming crucial—along with more experimentation with everything from “positive stress” experiences to intermittent fasting for immune resilience. And immunity programs at travel destinations will go deeper, more medical, with interventions that matter more than “immune-boosting” menus and IV drips.

After a long 2020, people are aware that their immune health is a holistic affair, that food and the microbiome are lynchpins, and that “slow” not “hyper” strategies are the difference-makers. People will keep gobbling trendy quick-fixes in trendy bottles, but they’re ready for more. A wellness industry newly focused on the hard—and fast-evolving—immune science could extend and save many lives. And help its own reputation along the way.

Spiritual and Numinous Moments in Architecture

 

In recent years, a storm of studies has demonstrated the powerful connection between the built environment and our physical health, and a new “wellness architecture” sector has taken off, heavily focused on functional design moves, whether circadian lighting or air purification.

What has been glossed over is design that can tap into and nurture our spirituality. In 2021, we will see new attention paid to creating everyday spaces that can incite sacred and numinous moments, that elevate our consciousness and potential, and ground us in gravitas in the midst of a mindless, consumerist society. Architecture and design will move up Maslow’s Pyramid, from our recent era of look-at-me, visually ostentatious fads like luxury McMansions to a new architecture reaching for the “Self-Actualization” tier—a built environment that can move our souls.

Spiritual wellbeing is an inextricable part of a well life and rightfully deserves more design consideration and designated spaces in our homes, workplaces, communities and urban landscapes. The full report gives rich detail on examples, including thin places, ancient revivals, “nudge architecture,” and creating spiritual homes.

Just Breathe!


Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to know where your chakras are or what a didgeridoo sounds like to do breathwork. An increasing number of clinical studies from major universities like Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins are putting science and data behind something we’ve actually known for centuries—the way we breathe has profound effects on our mental and physical health and abilities. It might even help us strengthen our immune systems.

Practitioners are bringing breathwork to ever-larger audiences and pushing it into fascinating new territories, including rehabilitation, fitness, community building, and relief from chronic stress, trauma and PTSD. Cool, clubby breathwork parties and festivals are rising. There are even studies that point to breathwork as a possible therapeutic for one of the world’s deadliest diseases: hypertension. Perhaps the best part of all—this drug-free medicine costs absolutely nothing.

The full report explores the people, the techniques, the places, and the new breath-tech pushing the practical magic of breathwork into exciting—and important—new directions.

The Self-Care Renaissance: Where Wellness and Healthcare Converge


Over three hundred years after the first Medical Renaissance, we’re undergoing a new kind of medical renaissance where two complementary yet often competing entities—healthcare and wellness—will converge. Wellness is learning to lean into science, establish standards, and hold itself accountable. At the same time, healthcare is beginning to borrow from the wellness playbook—transforming a once sterile and strictly curative industry into a more holistic, lifestyle-oriented, and even pleasurable one. In this new era, hospitals will take inspiration from five-star resorts, yoga studios might measure improved telomere length, and prescriptions may be coupled with hyper-personalized guides to optimal health.

As we look to a future where healthcare and wellness converge, an excellent example in the full report is Octave’s Sangha Retreat in Suzhou, China, which presents what we believe is next for healthcare and wellness. A kind of yin yang approach where two seemingly opposing forces finally discover that they can—and must—work together. As Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier puts it, “Medicine is realizing that its roots have come from wellness traditions, and the wellness community is recognizing that not all doctors are evil.”

Adding Color to Wellness

 


Graphic videos and the protests of last summer prompted many businesses to voice support for anti-racism. While diversity and inclusion have become a popular topic in the wellness industry, this

trend argues that to generate substantive change, the wellness industry must recognize and address the false narrative that wellness is for affluent white people. It discusses how the industry can add color to wellness by valuing Black consumers and wellness professionals and describes the different ways that Black people actually experience wellness offerings and spaces, highlighting racial inequalities.

This full report also provides insights into the future, illustrating how companies are changing the wellness narrative, and gives suggestions for how the wellness industry can add color to wellness. And it demonstrates that companies that value wellness for all racial groups and income levels will thrive as they expand their consumer markets and increase business innovation and profitability. Wellness enterprises that value diversity, respect Black wellness needs, and work to support more equitable access, represent the future of wellness.

Resetting Events with Wellness: You may never sit on a banquet chair again

 


Around mid-March 2020, the pandemic brought in-person events to an abrupt halt. And no matter the power of technology and the gratitude we felt for Zoomed Wi-Fi connectivity, the world hungered for personal interactions.

But there was a silver lining: A new trend that will forever change meetings and events was born, with wellness at the core. New hybrid events (in-person and virtual gatherings) sprouted like mushrooms after a spring rain. Technology companies raced to be the platform for hosting hybrid meetings. Investors threw money at tech companies, and within months of the pandemic shutting down most in-person-only gatherings, new companies had taken hold, and a new world was emerging.

As the full report explains, the trend reinforces top-of-mind topics like health, safety and immunity and employs new protocols and technologies that mitigate risk in engaging ways. In 2021 and beyond, creativity is driving connection—and how we gather is taking on new—and healthier—meanings.

Money Out Loud: Financial Wellness Is Finding Its Voice

Money has topped the “do-not-discuss” list for decades—right alongside religion, sex and politics. But it’s 2021, and transparency is trending. A culture craving authenticity is breaking the money taboo—transforming finance from a hush-hush, one-size-fits-all, cut-and-dry industry to one that’s more human, empathetic, and, dare we say, fun.

This growing openness is being driven by a much larger mental health awakening. And with research linking financial stress to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, respiratory conditions and more—it’s about time money is put under the microscope.

This growing financial wellness movement is moving money talk far beyond the bank. Financial therapists are tackling the intersection between money and mental health, and the three billion views of #personalfinance content on TikTok prove that finance influencers are officially a thing.

In 2021 and beyond, we’ll begin to see the end of financial systems designed to profit from our failure and the start of financial wellness awakening. Money talks. It’s time we start using a language everyone can understand.

2021: The Year of the Travel Reset


The coronavirus pandemic acted as a near-complete brake on travel in 2020. The pause gave everyone—consumers and suppliers—the opportunity to think about rebooting travel for the better by correcting overtourism, becoming more conscious of where our money goes, and how to use the enormous power of tourism to sustain cultures and environments and perhaps even leave them better off.

Looking ahead, the year 2021 may be the year that all travel becomes wellness travel. From the manic travel of 2019, which was the ninth year of record-setting growth in travel, outpacing global economic expansion, 2021 will be the year of the travel reset, going slower, nearer and more mindfully. But travel will reset fitfully, mirroring the vaccination rollout, which has prompted optimism as well as tentativeness.

 

 

Escape to Crested Butte’s Scarp Ridge Lodge

I toured Eleven Experience’s flagship property, Scarp Ridge Lodge—in the heart of downtown Crested Butte, CO—this past summer and loved it! I can only imagine how comforting it must be to stay here after a long day of skiing in the winter. Perhaps even “snowcat skiing” via their partnership with Irwin Guides (more on that).

A former Croatian saloon, with its Western façade still in tac, this European ski chalet-meets-Rocky Mountain lodge makes for an ideal place to stay for private groups and families.

Eleven Experiences

You may be wondering, what is Eleven Experience? Eleven Experience is an exclusive accommodation and experiential travel brand which seeks out unique and authentic places and properties around the globe. They tend to be off the beaten track, and are mostly all-inclusive, full buy-out type properties. Think 5-star accommodations, but in the comfort of a private home. In addition to seeking out these special properties, Eleven Experience also provides customized experiences with private guides.

 

Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte, COPin this image on Pinterest

 

The bar at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte ColoradoPin this image on Pinterest

Eleven Experience has a few properties in Crested Butte, Scarp Ridge Lodge being its lead property. I visited the lodge this summer, when I was in Crested Butte, and had a wonderful tour. The property is fabulous.

 

Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested ButtePin this image on Pinterest

 

Scarp Ridge Lodge—The Flagship

Scarp Ridge Lodge, with its 5 King bedrooms and bunk room with 7 beds (including a nanny’s room), functions as a retreat for private groups during the winter, and as an upscale B&B during the summer. During winter, Crested Butte is known for its excellent skiing, as well as a plethora of other outdoor winter sports. Think Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, fat biking (extra fat tires to allow you to bike on the snow), and cat skiing.

 

Scarp Ridge Lodge living roomPin this image on Pinterest

The lodge has its own, custom snowcat that comes each morning and takes guests to exclusive ski terrain in nearby Irwin. This is part of the “experience” Eleven Experience offers its guests here. Along with a private snowcat, private guides, amazing terrain, and two mountain cabins for eating and apres skiing, guests of the lodge can enjoy a completely unique and plush experience.

 

Rooftop hot tub at Scarp Ridge LodgePin this image on Pinterest

 

Indoor pool at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte, COPin this image on Pinterest
Relax and Unwind

After a long day on the mountain, Scarp Ridge Lodge itself is the perfect place to relax and unwind. With a rooftop hot tub, indoor hot tub, indoor salt water pool, sauna and steam room, gym, and media room, there’s not much the lodge doesn’t have. It even has its own oxygen-enriched air system for those who are having a hard time to adjusting to the high altitude. There is a bar for post-skiing drinks, and an open kitchen with fully stocked fridge accessible 24/7. And no worries about cooking – a private chef will do that all for you. Though I must say – the restaurants in Crested Butte are pretty great! You can dine out too.

 

Bedroom at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte, ColoradoPin this image on Pinterest
Playing in the bunk room at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested ButtePin this image on Pinterest
Bedrooms

Each of the 5 bedrooms has its own en-suite bathroom and is uniquely decorated, with rustic touches in a contemporary setting. We were able to see a bunch of them, all cozy and inviting. The lodge really does feel like a home. The bunkroom, with its 7 beds, is awesome – it had my kids grinning from ear to ear. Based on the board game Chutes & Ladders, it’s adventurous and fun, and just plain cool. There is a loft you can climb up to, and if the kids are young and need some watching after, no worries – there is a nanny’s room right next to it. My kids have been begging to go back. I keep telling them, we will.

 

Hanging out in the media room at Scarp Ridge LodgePin this image on Pinterest
The kitchen at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte Colorado

 

As I mentioned, we toured Scarp Ridge Lodge during the summer, when it is a B&B. Not only a ski town, Crested Butte is amazing to visit during the summer. Known for its mountain biking, hiking, flower festival, a happening downtown, and gorgeous scenery, Crested Butte is a special place to visit any time of the year. The lodge is conveniently located in downtown, making it a very easy and accessible home away from home.

—Corey Cook, Luxury Travel Advisor at Elli Travel Group and founder of Fifi+Hop Travel Blog

 

See also: Rocky Mountain Resort Towns

 

TRENDING

Vitamin C Bomb—Rose Hip Syrup

Whoever discovers a cure for the common cold will be richer than Midas, if not richer than the guy who can instantly heal hangovers, but in the meantime we’ve got vitamin C. It just so happens that rose hips—the red, globular fruit of the rose—have vitamin C in spades.

Making your own rosehip syrup, whether for health reasons, to top a scoop of ice cream, or even add zing to a martini, is an easy and delicious way to enter the burgeoning world of wild food foraging, that new frontier for foodies, health nuts, and outdoors enthusiasts. Besides, it’s fun. After a few seasons of making your own, you’ll find that foraging rose hips is a calendar event, an annual mission that connects you to your landscape.

Look for rosehips wherever ornamental shrubbery plantings are in abundance. City parks, sidewalks, and lakeshores play host to many varieties of rose bush, while more rural areas support native species. Scout the patches in summer when the roses are in bloom, then return in fall to collect the fruit, usually marble to walnut-sized and a deep shade of red. They say hips are at their best after the first frost when the flavor and sweetness are most concentrated.

The recipe is simple. After rinsing, grind the hips in a food processor. Transfer contents to a saucepan, cover with water, and simmer for 30 minutes before running the resulting mush through a food mill or sieve to strain out the pulp. Return the strained juice to a pot and add sugar—or better yet, honey—to taste. Simmer until syrupy.

You can mix in other flavorings or herbal supplements such as cloves, cinnamon, or ginger—and voila: a Vitamin C Bomb to chase away the winter nasties. Mix into juice or water when you’re feeling low, or use the syrup for more gustatory purposes in desserts, sauces, jams, or cocktails.

 

rose hip syrup

 

Langdon Cook is the author of  Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone Press, 2009)The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America (Random House, 2013) and Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table (Random House, 2017).

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Nomad Hotel Library Bar

Best Library Bars

Ah, the library bar. An urban oasis steeped in history (quite literally). Vintage, deep-seated armchairs, mahogany shelves and leather bound books ease the soul, while a single malt scotch calms the nerves after a long day of work. Ron Burgundy’s kind of place. My kind of place. Continue reading

OPINION & VARIETY

Tales From a Chocolatier

Located high in Utah’s Wasatch Mountain range in the heart of the Rockies resides a small chocolate company—with huge arms —that produces some of world’s best chocolate.  Meaning “by hand” and “they love” in Italian, Amano prides itself on sourcing only the world’s very best cacao beans and ingredients.

Their beans, of course, are not sourced in Utah but rather the lush rainforests and tropical regions of the world. In fact, all cacao beans are sourced between 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Amano visits plantations in these regions, buying from the growers, and when necessary working with them to improve their skill in properly growing, fermenting and drying the cacao beans to meet their exacting standards.

Through working with small, carefully controlled batches and lots of love and attention, Amano seeks not to be the largest chocolate company, but simply the best—and their myriad awards over the past decade reflect this commitment. So do the many Michelin-starred restaurants that use their chocolate—usually in melted form from discus shaped melting wafers—in their deserts.

 

 

I recently met with Amano’s founder and CEO Art Pollard and talked about chocolate and the many adventures that come with this trade. Here is what he had to say.

GLR: How did you get in the chocolate business?

Art: I grew up a die hard foodie and with a background in the hard sciences bouncing back and forth between Los Alamos, N.M. and Seattle. Both New Mexico and the Seattle area are great homes for food. When I was attending my university I worked for the physics department. One day while eating a German chocolate bar, I made an off-hand comment that it would be fun to make my own chocolate. My co-workers (who were working on space shuttle projects and particle accelerators) all said it was too hard. I thought that if it was that hard, it had to be insanely interesting. I love things that are hard and interesting.

A few years later, while on my honeymoon in Hawaii, I found an outlet for what, I thought at the time, was a truly spectacular chocolate. It was then that I realized that chocolate could be so much more than “chocolate”. Immediately upon our return, I started experimenting and designing and building my own machinery. Little did I know what sorts of adventures it would set in motion. It turns out that making a world class chocolate is indeed insanely difficult; in the end, my co-workers were right. However, by the time I discovered that my co-workers were fundamentally correct, I already had a factory.

GLR: Your chocolate has won many awards including gold, silver and bronze medals at the “Olympics of Chocolate.” What makes Amano so high quality and good?

Art: Fundamentally, like all world class products, it is about attention to detail.  Even before we started Amano, I experimented for over ten years on different manufacturing techniques and how they affected flavor. Much of this was on machines that I designed and built. I credit my failures during this experimentation phase for teaching me many of the techniques that we now use today. Your successes never teach you the “whys” but your failures do.  Even today, I am constantly experimenting with different ways of processing ingredients.

Like all food, it is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. To make a world class chocolate, it takes world class cocoa. Everything fights against it. The weather can interfere with the fermenting. Cocoa farmers often aren’t skilled at fermenting, after all, they don’t use the cocoa they produce. Genetics; the large chocolate companies encourage the planting of high productivity strains of cocoa with no regard to flavor. Plant diseases; the cocoa trees are particularly susceptible to. Never mind the problems caused the political unstableity of many cocoa growing countries. Given all this, I have found that having really strong relationships with the farmers is immensely helpful. When needed, we help train them to increase the quality of their cocoa. It is good for them and it helps us get the quality we need.  And hopefully, we can instill the same sense of pride in their cocoa as we have for our chocolate. When people care about what they do, when they truly care, amazing things can happen.

GLR: Where are some of the most exotic places you have traveled, looking for cocoa beans?

Art: We currently purchase beans from: Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, and Madagascar. I try to work with all the farmers from whom we buy our cocoa. I’ve also traveled extensively through Central and South America, especially Peru and Honduras looking for cocoa. But one of my favorite places was visiting the tinyisland of Guanaja off the coast of Honduras.  I was lucky enough to go with a group of some of the world’s finest chocolate makers.  Guanaja was where Christopher Columbus first tasted cocoa. It was on his fourth voyage to the New World. Off the coast, he encountered a Mayan canoe laden with cocoa. He couldn’t figure out what it was for and ordered the cocoa dumped out. He couldn’t figure out why the Mayans were so upset.  Now we know and I believe, we treasure cocoa just as highly as the Mayans. It was an amazing experience to be in such an important place in the European history of cocoa. And it was on Guanaja that we discussed how we can work together to ensure that the farmers that we work with could earn enough through their cocoa that they could have a livelihood. We dedicated ourselves to working together to ensure that cocoa would remain a sustainable crop and not stoop to using factory farming and to focus on flavor rather than stooping to high-productivity varieties as the large companies do. It was truly an amazing experience.

GLR: Some of the countries you have to visit to source cocoa beans are not exactly stable. Have you ever felt in danger while traveling the world for work?

Art: Yes, it is quite frequent that I end up in situations where if I were not with locals, it could have ended up in a very bad way. Many times the locals that I’m with are armed. I think we often forget that much of the world isn’t in a position to call law enforcement every time they are in trouble.

One time, I laugh about, was during a trip to Venezuela. We pulled into a small town where our hotel was. The entire town was deserted. It was like a scene from a Western movie. We became concerned that perhaps the town was run by drug lords. Right before our hotel, there was an enormous mob which we had to drive through. The mob parted slowly as we drove through. We found out later that yes, the entire town was run by the drug lords and it was the drug lords that were keeping us safe. The last thing they wanted was the Federales to be coming around. What a strange world we live in.

GLR: You don’t just sell chocolate “bars” but also chocolate wafers (discus form used for melting) that restaurant clients melt and use ON or as the primary ingredient IN desserts. What are some of the restaurants using your chocolate for their desserts?

Art: We have been blessed to have some of the world’s finest restaurants using our chocolate. Of course, every chef brings their own interpretation to their creations. But we are particularly proud to be working with Chez Panisse. We have had a long standing relationship with this legendary restaurant. Chez Panisse is the creation of Alice Waters who pioneered America’s fresh food prepared simply movement. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse have had an enormous impact on the way we eat in the United States whether we recognize it or not. Our chocolate Dos Rios (that naturally tastes like burgamot orange and lavender) has historically been a favorite among the chefs at the Fat Duck. Located just outside of London, the Fat Duck has been rated as high as the number two restaurant in the world. (And having eaten there, it deserves its amazing reputation.) The chefs we work with love the fact that our chocolates have such a wide range of flavors and it allows them to pair foods with chocolate in ways that they never were able to before.

GLR: I gather you are foodie. What other foods do you love besides chocolate?

Art: I like simple foods done well. I’m a big fan of steak and I cook a really mean steak.  What I find fascinating is all steaks start with a simple piece of meat. The finished steak can be magic or not – all depending on what you do with it. Same with a good crème brule. It’s amazing how beautiful such a simple dish can be. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to eat at some of the world’s finest restaurants and while I’ve had some amazing meals where a lot of work goes into them, the most stunning are the ones where simple foods are prepared exceptionally well. It takes a masterful chef to take something simple and turn it into something world class. Along those lines, Thomas Keller has said the way you can judge a chef’s skill is to order the roast chicken. Even so, the true king in my book is an exceptional chocolate. Chocolate after all is the “food of the gods”.

GLR: Have you ever traded your chocolate for other goods?

Art: Yes, one of my favorite trades was for a camera backpack from F-Stop. When I was in college, I worked through the photography program (even though it wasn’t my major) under an amazing photographer and professor John Telford. As I travel the world visiting our farmers, looking for cocoa and working with great chefs, I get to practice my photography. It helps me to always see the world with fresh eyes and appreciate the moment. It is hard to find a good camera bag. One day I found F-Stop to absolutely amazing reviews. I called and the sales person discovered I run Amano Chocolate. It turns out that they were regularly giving our chocolate to their suppliers as gifts. I proposed a trade and their response was: “Done.” I have been absolutely thrilled with my F-Stop camera bag and have taken it all over the world and on many adventures.

GLR: What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Art: I believe that chocolate touches us in ways that few other foods do. It is there for births, deaths, weddings, birthdays and our day to day lives. When people taste chocolate that is truly extraordinary, it touches them in a way that is often surprising. It isn’t like regular store bought mass market chocolate, it is sooooo much better. I love being able to see the expression on people’s faces when they try our chocolate. I especially love taking the finished chocolate back to the farmers we work with. It is rare for farmers to be able to taste chocolate made with their very own beans. The expressions on their faces of pure joy when they taste chocolate made with their own beans is priceless. Then when they learn that their cocoa has been turned into chocolate that has received some of the world’s highest awards, you can see their sense of pride grow in their eyes. Nothing is more special than that.

GLR: How was chocolate first invented?

Art: The cocoa beans in the cocoa pod are covered by a sweet white pulp. It tastes like a flowery lemon-aid. It is delicious. Animals will often burrow into the pods to eat this beautiful pulp. The cocoa beans on the other hand are bitter and tannic. They are literally spitting bad which is of course how the tree propagates when the animals spit the beans onto the ground. The current state of research seems to indicate that the first cocoa was harvested for the sweet pulp not to eat but to ferment into alcohol. Or as I like to say: “Never underestimate people’s ability to find a new way to get plastered.” When the cocoa beans are fermented with their pulp, they change. The fermenting breaks down the tannic and bitter components and the flavor of the beans change into something beautiful and wonderful to eat. It is hard to find farmers that ferment cocoa well, but when cocoa is, it is amazing. From the roasted cocoa we had drinks for a few thousand years. Some Catholic nuns in Oxwere the first to sweeten it with sugar and honey in the late 1500’s. By the late 1600’s the prelude to what we now recognize as chocolate bars was beginning to be sold in Europe. Chocolate has a truly amazing history. And like history, it has its demons and heroes and every time we eat a chocolate bar, we become part of that amazing journey that is chocolate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=JhErfS8LF0I

Take Your Tequila to the Garden Party

Tequila sometimes has to struggle with its brawling-bikers-under-a-hot-sun reputation. Rarely do people write on their garden party invites, “tequila drinks being served.” Which is a shame, because even though a shot of tequila may be the drink of choice for those wearing leather jackets in July, this base spirit also plays well in a variety of cocktails, from traditional numbers such as the Margarita to lighter and less-known summer fare that pairs tequila up with intriguing ingredients.

 

One such lesser-known tequila recipe that’s getting more popular by the minute, and one that’s perfect for backyard gathering when the mercury has risen up the thermometer, is the Green Garden from Paul Abercrombie’s wonderfully green cocktail book “Organic, Shaken and Stirred.” The Green Garden mixes organic Blanco tequila with a cucumber-infused syrup (if your own garden isn’t overflowing, pick up English cucumbers – what Abercrombie suggests using here – at a local farmer’s market), a hint of lime and Italian sparkler Moscato d’Asti. The end result is a drink that doesn’t sacrifice anything in tequila taste, but one that also stays light on its feet. Because even a biker doesn’t want to be weighed down by their drink when the summertime dancing starts.

 

Green Garden

 

1-1/2 ounces organic blanco tequila

1/2 ounce Cucumber-Infused Organic Simple Syrup (recipe follows)

1/4 ounce freshly squeezed organic lime juice

1 ounce organic Moscato d’Asti

Several edible organic flowers (such as small roses or lavender blossoms)

 

1. Combine the tequila, simple syrup, and lime juice in an ice cube-filled cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously, then strain the mixture into a chilled martini glass or champagne saucer.

 

2. Add the Moscato d’Asti and garnish with the flowers.

 

Cucumber-Infused Organic Simple Syrup: Juice one English cucumber (leave the skin on for flavor and color). Place the juice in a small glass bowl with an equal volume of Organic Simple Syrup (see below) and 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed organic lime juice, and stir to combine. The syrup will keep, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to one month.

 

Organic Simple Syrup

 

Makes 2 cups

 

1 cup organic granulated sugar

8 ounces water

 

1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. The syrup can be stored, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to one month.

 

Recipe Copyright 2009 by Paul Abercrombie, “Organic, Shaken and Stirred,” The Harvard Common Press; photo copyright 2009 by Jerry Errico