Name: Allan Shewchuk
Occupation: Italian Cooking Instructor, Food and Wine Writer, Failed Retiree as a Lawyer, Italophile, General Bon Vivant.
Where were you born?: I was born in Edmonton, Alberta because my parents were Ukrainian and it is some law of nature that Ukrainian Canadians in Alberta must spawn and give birth in Edmonton. Not that I want to think about my parents spawning…
Where do you live?: I live in Calgary, Alberta and apart from the being born thing have lived my whole life here (when I am not living in Italy).
I have been fascinated with food for as long as I can remember as I was raised in a very ethnic, large extended family with rural roots where food was the centre of our social world. I had the good fortune of growing up in a neighborhood surrounded by Italian immigrants, mostly from the South – Abruzzo, Calabria and Sicily – and their brand of the ethnic, large extended family lifestyle captured my soul. My older brother Ron (aka Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuk, famed Bar-be-que Evangelist) also went through an Italian food period while we were both learning to cook together and from there my interest in Italian cooking and wine became my passion. Eventually, after a dozen years practicing law I took time off to live in Tuscany in the little village of Vagli Sotto in the Garfagnana Valley. After that intense culinary immersion I returned to Calgary and started to teach Italian cooking at the Cookbook Company Cooks, where I have been an instructor since 1996. I also write a regular column for the local food and wine magazine City Palate and I do public speaking gigs about Italian travel, food and wine. I recently retired from law and lived in Florence, Italy for a year with my wife who has become as enamored with Italy as I am. I inherited 3 children when I got married and am proud that all 3 of them love to cook and entertain. I have 2 beautiful grandchildren who love it when I make them pasta. Che bella vita!
How would you describe your travel style?
I am an odd schizophrenic traveler. On the one hand I am into meticulous planning around flights, accommodation, rental cars, and ensuring certain dining reservations are made at destination restaurants that I have researched or have heard of through the grapevine. Once I get over that OCD part of setting up a trip I am pretty laid back about how I spend my days. I love to get out and explore places on foot and soak up the whole vibe around me without making tons of plans or seeing specific sights or museums. I enjoy nothing more than stumbling on a café or trattoria and going on instinct as to whether to stop in. Mostly my compass is pretty true about finding great places to experience food and wine. But, I cannot leave for a foreign land with the plan of “finding a place to stay when we get there”. I spent a lot of hours when I was younger wandering the streets of Rome or Paris or Athens without hotel reservations. Never again…
What’s your earliest travel memory?
Enduring entire days in the back seat of the car because my father refused to stop until we got there, no matter how far we were going. You gotta have a strong bladder to make it to Winnipeg.
When researching travel destinations, how important are food/drink choices and experiences to your overall decision-making process?
Ultimately food/drink choices are the prime focus of any place I visit. There is always someplace in every city, town or backwater that is a “must do” for me. But once I get those planned and secured, I love to explore. Don’t get me wrong – the exploring is also almost always food/drink related too. There is nothing like a bottle of local wine or a craft beer as a reward after poking around. Stopping in somewhere every couple of hours is ideal – travel is thirsty work, after all.
Culinary traveler or food explorer? Which do you identify more closely with?
Like I said – I’m schizophrenic and I identify with both. So, if I have dinner reservations at The French Laundry in Yountville and specifically travel to the Napa Valley for that, then breakfast, lunch and everything up to dinner is spent exploring the unknown.
If we ask your best friends if you’re a foodie, what would they say?
My Italian friends would yell “Da vero!” meaning no kidding. Although I hate the term foodie with a passion…
What’s in your carry-on? Any essential food or kitchen tools you won’t leave home without?
Always my on-the-stove Moka-style espresso maker. Can’t start the day without it, anywhere. And Maldon salt. Always Maldon salt.
What’s the most unusual food you’ve eaten?
A Cream of Wheat-like dish in rural Ethiopia that sets up like cold porridge. Then a well is poked in the middle of the goop and the well is filled with stale melted goat milk butter that has been spiced with berbere. You dip your fingers in the porridge and then dip it in the butter sauce and eat it with your hands. It is called Gumfoo. My wife called it Bum-foo. Not a great taste experience but a great food experience nonetheless.
If we handed you a ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I know people will do a double-take if I don’t say Florence, but I would want that ticket to have an arrival point in Croatia. Anywhere in Croatia. Right now it is the place to go and I loved everything about it and especially the local white wines.
What’s the best culinary travel experience you’ve ever had?
In 2009 we traveled to Africa to do some aid and charity work in Ethiopia and Uganda. Afterwards we treated ourselves to the beauty of Southern Uganda and tracked gorillas, went on safari and relaxed. As the world economy was completely in the tank, we found ourselves to be the only guests in most of the places we stayed, often with the entire staff to take care of us.
At the end of our trip we ended up at the Jacana Safari Lodge on a huge crater lake. We once again were the only guests. The cook was bored and essentially became our private chef. One of the features of the Lodge was that for dinner, guests could reserve a floating barge which would head out onto the lake for a candlelight dinner. Normally the table could be set for 8 people, but since we were the only guests we had it all to ourselves.
We ordered some champagne and some nice wine and brought our little music system and floated off with the cook and a waiter. As we got to the middle of the lake, the Lodge shut out all of its lights so we could be on the lake in the dark, under the stars with just our candles flickering on the table.
The food was superb and the staff let us have our romantic moments. The desserts had our names individually written on them in chocolate. As we approached the shore they turned on all of the lights again so we could see the Lodge lit up in all of its glory. It was pure magic.
Any great travel tips to share?
Here is my best travel advice to share for travel to Italy (or anywhere) from my upcoming website:
My one piece of sage advice for North American travelers in Italy is to make an effort not to stand out as a tourist. This is not hard as you will see that Italy has a very casual approach to dress, but it is excruciating watching tourists stand out so obviously as tourists in the midst of Italians.
I need to disclose my prejudices in this regard. Although I think he gives great advice, I nearly grind the back of my teeth off watching Rick Steeves travel through Europe on his television shows, and especially Italy. There he is with his nerdy golf shirts, bad wash and wear pants and running shoes. Yes, he is comfortable. No, he is not cool and in fact should be embarrassed. Italians do not need to dress up to be stylish and neither do you.
So, first, rather than wearing running shoes, try and find some comfortable yet stylish casual shoes. These days there are styles of loafers or walking type shoes that actually look like dress shoes and which look great with jeans. This will go a long way to helping you not stand out like a sore thumb when you are walking down the street. I prefer Geox shoes. Women in Italy are now totally into boots, so if you have comfortable boots that are great to walk in, consider them for your trip. Italians also like to wear stylish brown shoes rather than always black footwear. Comfortable, dressy brown shoes make you look the part.
Next, Italians wear a lot of denim and blue jeans. Your image of some slick guy with an Armani suit will be confirmed by a few businessmen as you walk through a city, but you will notice that mostly men and women will wear jeans. Younger women will wear eye-popping jeans, often with the top button undone to reveal even more flesh down to the pelvic reaches, but they mostly wear jeans. Of course, they accessorize them with funky designer belts and bangles, but jeans are cool for almost any restaurant, hotel or the like. There are hot weather options such as micro-fiber slacks or even light Khakis that are better options than the Rick Steeves bad pants pulled up to your nipples.
Also, Italians do not wear shorts. Women will wear Capri pants, and now there are even funky Capri style pants for men. So, although it is nice to have shorts on when it is hot, it is a fashion faux pas in Italy and you will be saying loud and clear that you are from somewhere else, and that you just don’t care about fashion.
Next, Italians do not wear baseball caps. One sure way to get the snooty treatment is to be wearing your favorite team’s baseball hat in trendy Italy. You can spot North Americans particularly by this fashion choice and again, they stand out starkly. I know many people want to keep the sun off of their heads, but find a funky hat or for women a sun hat and don’t look like you are waiting in a beer line at a curling bonspiel when you are in Tuscany.
Lastly in terms of bad style ideas is a backpack or even worse, a “bum-pack” around your waist. You don’t need this. You are less likely to get mugged or robbed if you just look like a normal local. What is wrong with carrying your money the same way you would do it in Canada? Why do people need to look like such goofs just because they are away from home? Italy is a G-7 country for god’s sake, not the developing world. Just dress normally, okay? Don’t carry everything you own when you are out walking. Be cool. Geez. Can you tell I have prejudices?
So, now you have all of the elements of the worst you can be: Wearing a baseball cap with a golf shirt, shorts, white socks and running shoes and a bum-pack. Just shoot yourself. You should be ashamed. But, there are other good reasons to not go with a traditional North American summer outfit apart from shame. They are as follows.
First, much of what is treasured art and tourist worthy in Italy is in churches. There is a strict dress code for any church in Italy, and most museums. Shorts are always disallowed. If you insist on wearing shorts, you need to have a Plan B if you want to see anything in a revered setting. Women can carry a skirt or wraparound that will get them over this hurdle. I have a friend who brought her elderly father all the way to Rome to see St. Peters and he got booted in the security line up for wearing shorts. He ended up wearing a sarong, which for an aged devout Catholic was not the way he wanted to see the holiest place in Christendom.
Next, sleeveless shirts or tops are also not allowed in churches. Even short sleeves are forbidden in some places, which means golf shirts and tee shirts are not good bets. Often, there are drawings at entrance ways to tell you what is the allowable and what is not, and what is problematic is that security guards at doors are inconsistent and often Fascists about who they let in and who they kick out.
Sandals and open shoes can also be a problem, but less so. Cameras and large bags are also disallowed in most places.
My solution to all of this is to bring a long-sleeved cotton or linen shirt. I wear light long pants and I have stylish loafer type shoes. Again, I prefer the Italian Geox which also are able to breathe and which many Italians choose for footwear. I also have a very light navy blazer, meant for the summer and I wear it to lunch or dinner. I have Italian sunglasses, which also go a long way to making me look like I am Italian. My wife has a stylish white linen shirt which she can carry or take off if she is too hot. She wears a small top underneath and carries a small purse big enough for her camera and her documents. She puts this around her neck for security. She wears funky sunglasses and looks like a local. Note: she does not leave the top button of her jeans undone unless we have way too much wine at lunch and she simply forgets to do her pants up when she comes back from the washroom. I rarely point this out to her when it happens so that it looks like I am with my Italian babe. She then punches me in the throat when we get back to the hotel and she discovers her fly was open….
On a serious note, there are security concerns that do come into play about the way you dress. First, if you look like a total tourist, you are the person the railway station Gypsies will come after. Beggars too. Italian petty thieves too. So, looking as local as possible is just a good idea. Further, it is a sad truth about the world today that North Americans (and especially Americans) are potential targets. I have many American friends who when they travel, do their level best not to bring undo attention to their nationality. Although Canadians are very well-loved in Italy, you need to realize that the kind of people who may target you for attack or robbery are not going to ask for your passport before they do something bad to you.
So, my best advice: dress like a local, not a tourist. Why do you think they say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?
Favorite Culinary Destination: San Francisco – always in the vanguard for any kind of cuisine
Favorite Cuisine: Central Italian – especially from Bologna, Florence, around Siena or Lucca
Favorite Restaurant: Fratelli Briganti, Florence, Italy; The Slanted Door, San Francisco; Rouge, Calgary.
Favorite Street Food: Pizza Bianca in Rome
Favorite Food Market: Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, Florence, Italy
Favorite Gourmet Shop: Peck, Milan, Italy
Favorite Winery: Tabbarini, Montefalco, Umbria, Italy
Favorite Brewery: Big Rock, Calgary, Canada
Favorite Cooking Class: Mine! I love to teach about Italian food and wine.
Favorite Food/Tasting Tour: A Taste of Prague, Prague, Czech Republic
Favorite Culinary Tour Operator: Katie Parla in Rome. Check out her cool array of tours at www.parlafood.com
Favorite Travel App: Rome for Foodies by Katie Parla
Website: Coming soon!