By Jamie Swinnerton
After years of appreciating good food and celebrating the culinary world as observers, local couple Sarah Barden and Seth Wraight decided to jump in with their own business: Ithaca is Foodies, a culinary tour of some of the best spots in downtown Ithaca. Now, almost a year after their first tours premiered, the business continues to expand and grow. Barden quit her other job and has gone full-time with Foodies and the business is planning on premiering new tours very soon.
Later this month Ithaca is Foodies will be hosting their newest tour, The Science of Food. At each stop on the tour, guests get an example, and some explanation of the science, behind the five distinct tastes: salty, sweet, sour, umami, and bitter. The new theme was inspired by a grilled cauliflower tasting from the original Downtown Ithaca Food tour.
"The marinade had an umami flavor,” Barden explained. “So, we used that as an opportunity on that tour to talk about umami. We found that a lot of guests had never heard of umami and it was a really exciting teaching moment even for people who were self-professed foodies and wrote about food.”
While hosting that tour, Barden said they had several guests who told them about a chocolate tasting they had been to focused on the five basic tastes.
“I said I can easily take that idea, extrapolate it into a full tour,” Barden said. “It was something I was pretty interested in anyway. So, all of the research that I did for this tour was based on me asking questions and saying ‘Okay, I don’t understand anything about this. How can I learn it so I can teach it?’”
The original Downtown Ithaca Food tour was created to be a variety tour. Fine dining, as well as casual cafes, are showcased. But along with the food and dining aspect, the tour spends a good amount of time outside and covers some of the local history and background of downtown Ithaca. It only runs from May through October because it doesn’t make a great winter tour, too much time outdoors.
In February, the Convention and Visitors Bureau does a Winter Recess promotion. Recently, Barden said the bureau approached Ithaca is Foodies about doing a winter tour in February for the promotion. This is how the Science of Food came to be put together in about two months.
“We decided that this would be a good one because there’s a lot of content that we can talk about inside so that we can keep our walks outdoor brief and people don’t get too cold,” Barden said.
The tour’s exploration of the five basic tastes doesn’t get stuck covering the easy options for each taste. There is no candy or chocolate shop in the five local businesses visited on this tour, so the exploration of sweet takes a surprising turn that showcases how complicated the sense of taste can be. At each stop, the guide explains how your body reacts to and takes in each taste, and even some of the history of their discovery. The science part of the tour does not get forgotten at any point.
Because of the short time-span that the tour was created in, the Science of Taste does have some overlap with the Downtown Ithaca Food tour. Several of the businesses and even some of the dishes are the same. For this season, the venues likely will not change, the tastings might. But, in the years to come, Barden said the winter tour will change to be completely unique from the summer tour. “Whenever we choose stops on a tour we always want to make sure that there’s a variety of food,” Barden said.
“We want to balance things so that people don’t get bored eating the same style of food. We want to effectively convey whatever the theme is.”
For this tour, the partner venues include Luna Street Food (a new partner), F. Oliver’s Oils and Vinegars, Hawi Ethiopian Cuisine, Coltivare Culinary Center, and Press Café where guests get a taste of a custom baked good from Wild Flour Baked Goods, especially for this tour. Some of the tastings are likely to surprise tour guests when it comes to the corresponding taste.
“A lot of this was about challenging people’s perceptions,” Barden said.
Barden decided to go full-time with the business in order to help it grow. Meeting with new clients usually means having time during the day to take meetings. They also want to start doing tours on multiple days, not just weekends.
“We just kind of looked at it and said if we both work there’s not enough time for us to do all the things we want to do. So, the business will continue but it won’t grow,” Barden said. “So we figured, in order for it to grow one of us has to devote some time to it.”
She said it has been a really good learning experience because so rarely do people get a chance to do something completely self-directed. Had she been working full-time she would not have been able to put together the Science of Food tour in just a few weeks. Part of the growing means creating tours during the week as well, they’re working on a new Happy Hour tour that will run during a weeknight, launch date unknown.
Official tours for this theme start Feb. 16, and tickets are already on sale at ithacaisfoodies.com. Vegetarian options are available at each tasting. The Science of Taste will be a strictly winter tour and will only be running in February and possibly March this season.
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