We have been bringing food and wine lovers to Tuscany, Italy with Onward Travel since 2018, and we are pleased to be able to do it again next year. Our Cook Like a Tuscan 2023 tours have just launched, and we have the dates you'll want to put in your planner now!
For those of you unfamiliar with these foodie travel extravaganzas, let me give you a little bit of history. The Chopping Block first begin our partnership with Onward Travel back in 2017 when we joined forces with our former Sommelier Viktorija Todorovska to lead a tour in Provence, France. In 2018, we changed the destination to Tuscany where Viktorija went to culinary school because it's truly a foodie's bucket list travel spot.
The first tour was a huge success, so we repeated the experience again in 2019 with a new group of travelers and it was so successful that we planned two different tours in 2020 to accommodate more people. Well, we all know what happened that year thanks to COVID, and both trips had to be canceled, but we rebounded in 2021 and 2022 with two fun, very filling, scenic and safe tours executed each year.
Our 2022 travelers are still relishing in all that they learned in Italy just a couple of months ago. But what's special about one of those groups is that it included a traveler who also attended our very first tour in 2018. Yes, Dan Fisk has taken two Cook Like a Tuscan tours with The Chopping Block!
I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Dan who lives in Champaign, Illinois about both of his experiences in Tuscany and with The Chopping Block in general, and it was such a pleasure to hear his stories of both trips and his adventure in cooking. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
What were some of the highlights from your first Cook Like a Tuscan trip in 2018?
"The cooking classes were absolutely outstanding. We received instruction from some of the best chefs in Tuscany. My favorite was Benadetta Vitali, who may be referred to as the Julia Child of Tuscany because of the influence she’s had on both chefs and home cooks in Tuscany. And of course, I have to mention what an absolute pleasure it was to meet Dario Checchini, leader of Tuscan's iconic butcher shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano. He's a real showman, a real lover of food and he makes sure his animals live well, understanding that they will eventually be butchered but giving them a good life."
Dan and Dario during Cook Like a Tuscan 2018
"We obviously had great meals. We had an opportunity to learn about wine and it flowed freely so those who love wine will love the trip in addition to all of the other things. I also really loved the group of people. Everyone came together with similar ideas of what they wanted to do and were focused on having a good time and learning."
How did the second trip differ from the first one?
"Everything I loved about the first trip, I also loved about the second trip! The classes were once again excellent, though a tad bit different. We were able to observe a pizza-making demonstration and had a lengthy discussion on technique. I learned you can put anything you want on a pizza, and it can be good. The one that surprised me the most was a pizza with pumpkin on it!
Another new experience for me this trip was a visit to the hot sulfur baths. That was a real treat!"
I stayed in a different room in the beautiful villa, and I've enjoyed both rooms. They are all different. This time, I had a huge room with a small outdoor porch and a different scenic view of the vineyard. One of the highlights was having the villa staff who cooked breakfast for us remember me from the first trip!"
View from the villa
I heard those ladies weren't the only ones who remembered you from the first time.
"No, I was completely honored that Chef Benadetta Vitali also remembered me from the first cooking class. I was so happy to reconnect with her and Dario, the butcher."
Dan and Dario during Cook Like a Tuscan 2022
You embarked on both trips as a solo traveler. What are the advantages of going on this trip solo?
"I think it depends on how you like to travel. You certainly aren't traveling alone when you are with this small group, and both times the groups were very special. You have plenty of time on your own at night, but you are able to enjoy the company of everyone else all day. There's a special bond that's created. I've traveled around the world a lot, from extreme altitude mountaineering to cruises even Tuscany before, and I didn't feel lonely once on either trip. I felt like I made friends almost immediately."
There's a common denominator in the travelers who take this trip because they all enjoy food and wine. As a graduate of both Culinary Boot Camp 1 and Culinary Boot Camp 2, how did your cooking knowledge prepare you for the trip and do you think someone needs to be a good cook to enjoy this tour?
"In both groups, everyone loved cooking but skill levels have varied. This year, the skill levels were higher than I remembered from the first time. The first trip, I actually had to show a fellow traveler how to hold a knife. Even though they were a beginner cook, they enjoyed the trip, learned a lot and got noticeably better as the week went on. This time, everyone already knew how to hold a knife!
The Chopping Block's Culinary Boot Camps gave me a total understanding of cooking from an amateur perspective. I was basically able to understand why the chefs in Tuscany were doing what they were doing. But even if you don't have a cooking background, you will learn and enjoy all of the hands-on cooking classes.
Everyone, including the hosts Viktorija and Peggi Claus, are good teachers. Viktorija is a special person in terms of her knowledge, not just about wine and food, but also the way she is able to communicate that understanding. Peggi had her own cooking school for many years so she's also very knowledgeable. Neither one of them make you feel like you should know more. In my case, they understood where my knowledge level was and augmented it."
Have you prepared any dishes you learned how to make in Tuscany after your travels?
"Of course! I've made lasagna with Béchamel sauce, one of the beef dishes, and I've made Potatoes Anna in a different method that I was taught in Tuscany. This was actually also a dish we learned in Culinary Boot Camp too, but with a different technique, and I prefer the Tuscan way better. I bought five pounds of potatoes so I could practice at home!"
What advice would you give someone considering taking this trip?
"I think you should come in with a love of cooking and a desire to learn. Understand that you are going to be with a group so you should enjoy meeting new people. I would also say understand what true value this experience provides monetarily. It seems expensive, but it’s really not because everything is covered - excursions, almost all meals, wine, transportation. Everything is made easy for you. You don’t have to think. All you have to think about is the beauty of the Tuscan countryside and the lessons you had the day before and the anticipation of what you will learn the next day."
Why should someone who's already taken this tour consider a second trip?
"I had such a great time the first time. I had such wonderful memories, and I wanted to relive those. I wanted to go back and be taught by Benadetto again, by Dario again, these people who I will never forget. I wanted to experience everything again, from what I learned to the people I traveled with to the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. I wanted to experience that again, and I was not disappointed at all!
I did not think this trip would top the other one in 2018. But wow what an amazing adventure! When I started the second trip I said that if the experience was 25% as good as the last time, I would be so pleased. Well, this trip exceeded my memory of the last one. The group of people were amazing, and the experiences were beyond my expectations!"