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What inspires America’s top chefs?

We enjoy an incredible variety of cuisines in the United States, and for that we can thank well-travelled chefs: Americans going abroad, and the international ones making their home here. It’s these travelling gastronomes that are responsible for so many of the fabulous dining experiences we have available today.

I recently saw Mario Batali and Marcus Samuelsson talk about what inspires them, and nearly all the dishes and best food memories they listed happened while they were traveling. After hearing many other superstar chefs talk about their best meals and trips in the same sentence, I realized just how powerful travel is for the food world.

The list of notable chefs who credit their world travels is almost endless. Julia Child is said to have found her love of French food after her first dinner in France. Mario Batali has lived in both Italy and Spain. Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden, and trained in Switzerland and Austria. Eric Ripert who grew up in the south of France and trained in Paris. One of my favorite female TV chefs, Giada de Laurentiis, was born in Rome and trained in Paris. And then there are the traveling chefs who have become mainstream TV superstars: Anthony Bourdain on “No Reservations” and Andrew Zimmern in “Bizarre Foods” both offer weird and wacky food-focused shows that have raised mainstream awareness of food discovery through travel.

So if travel is an inspiration for chefs, can a passion for food inspire and guide your travel? From what I’ve seen, food is one of the top motivating factors in destination choice, and also it plays a huge role in the level of satisfaction people have during their trip. It’s no wonder that the US Travel Association estimates 27 million* Americans will travel for the purpose of wine or culinary-related activities. And I’m not surprised that the top two countries for American leisure travelers to visit (aside from Canada and Mexico) are France and Italy. (Each received more than 1.8 million American visitors traveling for leisure in 2008).**

Like my favorite chefs, I’ve had the best meals of my life while traveling. Fresh whole fish with lemon served at one of the fabulous beach restaurants in Positano, Italy; an incredible filet mignon smothered in mushroom sauce dining under the stars in Biarritz, France; a grandmother serving up fresh homemade pasta dishes in a hill town near Lucca, Italy; or just recently, a tasting of the finest pinxtos in San Sebastián, Spain.

There is one place that Mario Batali, David Chang, and many others give the big thumbs up to. It has the highest concentration of Michelin-Star restaurants in the world outside of Paris. Yet, for some reason, it’s still not featured as high on American wish lists or itineraries.

San Sebastián, in Northern Spain’s Basque Country, offered what was hands-down the most memorable food experience I’ve ever had. In the week I spent there September, I was able to experience a pinxtos tasting tour, cook in a restaurant kitchen, visit three wineries in La Rioja, and tasted some of the best food and wine of my life. It was such a moving experience that I decided to work with a local company to offer it to Lot18 members.

Even if you can’t get to Spain next year, do your research. Where did your favorite chefs get their inspiration? Plan your next trip around it, and you may well have your most memorable meal yet.

* US Travel Association Travel Survey, 2007

** US Outbound Travel Survey, 2008

Follow me on Twitter @MindyJoyce

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