Premier Tours & Travel partners with Charleston culinary legend Bob Waggoner for chef-led tours of culture and cuisine
Beautiful view of the Mediterranean from Èze
For centuries, the hilltop villages and undulating valleys, the cobbled paths and pebble-strewn shores of the Provence region of France have enticed and enraptured. From painters seeking to capture the ever-changing light in Ménerbes, writers hoping to describe the indescribable beauty of hot-pink bougainvillea juxtaposed with the brilliant sky-blue backdrop of the Cote d’Azur village of Èze, and historians wishing to walk in the footsteps of the brilliant craftsmen of the intricate caves in Gordes, to travelers striving to experience every nuance in between, Provence has long been a place to fulfill, and to enflame, passions.
In today’s world of experiential travel, painters, writers, historians, and travelers alike continue to flock to southeastern France to immerse their senses in the richness of the Provençal culture: to see the kaleidoscope of colors woven into its landscape; touch history in its centuries-old, herringbone-patterned stone walls; hear the Mistral whistling through branches in its myriad olive groves; and smell the ever-present perfume of lavender in its wine and on the wind. More so, though, experiential travelers today seek to better understand a culture one flavor, one bite at a time—tasting the history, art, and ingenuity of people and place by way of its cuisine.
Culinary tourism such as this continues to lead industry growth, according to the Travel Tourism & Research Association, and niche culinary travel such as chef- and sommelier-led tours will be a driving force going forward. So, when we learned Premier Tours & Travel, a long-standing tour and travel agency in nearby Pawleys Island, had teamed up with Charleston-based Chef Bob Waggoner, owner of In the Kitchen with Chef Bob Waggoner cooking school, to offer chef-led tours, our interest was piqued.
We had the opportunity this past September to follow them to Provence to get a first-hand understanding about culinary tourism, as well as their collective approach to standing out in the experiential travel world.
Basking in the seaside views of Villefranche-sur-Mer in all of its colorful glory
Maria Cartwright, president of Premier Tours & Travel, has more than three decades as a South Carolina business owner developing high-end national and international tours and travel for groups both large and small. She has remained successful by always providing dedicated, personalized service to her clients—before, during, and after their travels. As well, Ms. Cartwright’s unsurpassed knowledge of the industry has kept her (and her clients) at the forefront of travel trends—which ultimately resulted in her walking into Chef Waggoner’s cooking school approximately 18 months ago to suggest they collaborate on a culinary travel series.
While traveling the A8 en route to our first stop in Grasse, we asked Ms. Cartwright why she chose to partner with Chef Waggoner on a culinary travel series. She shared, “I knew Bob was a local Charleston legend, having brought a AAA Four-Diamond award to the Charleston Grill for a dozen or so years, and I believed if we combined our strengths, we could create awesome, immersive culinary travel experiences.”
Chef Waggoner’s culinary knowledge and experience were established well before he honed them in the Lowcountry, with coveted roles throughout the United States, France, and Venezuela. While in France, he spent nearly a dozen years working in Michelin-star restaurants, including as chef de cuisine at two-Michelin star Le Vieux Moulin in Beaune. In addition, he hosted numerous culinary-focused television programs in the United States, receiving an Emmy for his show, Off the Menu. This blend of culinary prowess and approachable persona made Chef Waggoner a solid choice to host a culinary tour. “Every night in my kitchen, I host people from all walks of life, from all over the world,” he recently said. “They all share an incredible love of food, and they’re all seeking an experience that is comfortable yet pushes their culinary boundaries. With our tours, Maria and I hoped to deliver the same comfortable experience as I do in my kitchen, while also giving them access to custom, professional, authentic, exclusive and, of course Instagrammable, opportunities that challenge and transform them.”
Over the course of the 12-night tour through Provence, we experienced the dedication Ms. Cartwright and Chef Waggoner have to client service, their passion for being fully immersed in the local culture and cuisine, and their desire to leave both the Provençal locals and their clients positively transformed by their interactions—something we now consider “cheférentiel treatment” in this travel niche.
Vineyards, olive groves, and cypress trees were as far as the eye could see in the Luberon.
Exploring Provence with Ms. Cartwright and Chef Waggoner provided myriad memorable experiences for their traveling companions. Their significant advanced planning and on-their-toes responsiveness along the way served to enhance what they consider their “holy trinity” for travel—transformative tours, authentic tastings, and hands-on, collaborative prep for nightly Chef’s dinners.
Mougins. Grasse. Nice. Villefranche-sur-Mer. Èze. Aix-en-Provence. Gordes. Roussillon. Bonnieux. Ménerbes. Avignon. Châteauneuf-du-Pape. St. Remy-de-Provence. Les Baux-de-Provence. L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Over the course of the tour, very few stones in very few villages were left unturned exploring the rich and diverse history, architecture, arts, and lifestyle of Provence. We found it to be a carefully curated blend of castles and cathedrals, parks and palaces, and markets and museums—many guided by hand-selected local experts such as the endearing Beatrice and Corinne, while others were at leisure or under the tutelage of Chef Waggoner himself.
Regardless of place or guide, the tour participants were served Provence on a platter, and they ate it up, seeming to always enjoy the spontaneity of their hosts. Whether learning about the intricate science of creating irresistible perfumes at Maison Galimard in the perfume capital of the world, Grasse; strolling the famous Marche aux Fleurs Cours Saleya in Nice or the Saturday market in Aix-en-Provence; discovering the art of making world-renowned candied fruit at La Maison du Fruit Confit by Les Fleurons d’Apt; walking in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Frédéric Mistral in St. Remy-de-Provence; or learning about life in Gordes in the Middle Ages at the Caves du Palais Saint-Fermin, the daily tours engaged all senses and could not help but transform perspectives.
If the travelers on this tour were not fully transformed from a cerebral perspective, they most certainly were from a visceral one. Unique tastings—selected to expand palates and push culinary boundaries were at the forefront of the itinerary and included spontaneous, chef-selected cheese, meat, fruit, vegetables, nougat, and pastry while strolling through local markets. Food tours with a local guide, enhanced by Chef Waggoner’s ability to bond with the residents, led to unprecedented access to small kitchens and artisan processes and exclusive wine tastings at high-end cellars like Cave St. Charles in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Other delicious and memorable adventures included the olive oil tasting at the small farm of Moulin à Huile du Mas St. Jean. The group was mesmerized by the passion and emotion of owner Magali as she shared her family’s long history and profound dedication to their farm and their olive oil, which is now in the kitchens of nearly 60 Michelin-star restaurants. During the personal tour of the gardens at the home of Madame Anne Morand above the Caves Palais du Saint-Fermin, the guests experienced her personal favorite wines, the finest nougat from Maison Perrert, and unsurpassed hospitality, which led to Morand being invited to join the group that evening for the Chef’s dinner. We found both to be such authentic and transformative experiences, we certainly could not hope for more from a culinary tour.
After three nights in a Relais & Châteaux hotel near Grasse, Chef Waggoner and his entourage of culinary pilgrims moved to a villa with views of the fairy-tale village of Gordes. The picturesque, Provençal stone villa was selected by his team to provide the comfortable, inclusive atmosphere Ms. Cartwright and Chef Waggoner sought to cultivate—particularly during the interactive preparation of the nightly Chef’s dinners. Chef Waggoner shared, “It was important to me that we provided accommodations where everyone would feel comfortable coming in and rolling up their sleeves to slice and dice and learn alongside me just like a holiday dinner with family.”
Each day while out touring and tasting, Chef Waggoner and guests would cull the markets—from Aix-en-Provence and Gordes to St. Remy-de-Provence and L’Isle sur la Sorgue—and artisan shops for local ingredients to use for the dinner each evening. From local poultry, game, meats, and fish—such as farm-raised chicken, duck legs, whole Bar (Mediterranean sea bass), mussels, lamb, and beef tenderloin—and local fruits, vegetables, and herbs—such as champignons, cèpes, heirloom tomatoes, melons, Mirabelle and Quetsch plums, rosemary, thyme, basil, and capers—to cheeses and charcuterie—such as Tomme de Savoie and Reblechon and saucisse sèche (salami) infused with lavender or cured from donkey—and sweets such as nougats and pastries, every dinner was lesson in living a French Provençal life.
Each evening as the sun set over Gordes, the “sous chefs” would join Chef Waggoner in the kitchen to help prepare the Chef’s dinner—with a glass of wine in hand and café music playing in the background. Some evenings Chef Waggoner’s wife, Christine, made desserts with the crew, sharing her memories and her family’s traditional recipes for clafoutis and crêpes. Chef Waggoner shared, “We hope that when these people—our new friends—walk away from this trip, they have gained a true understanding of what life is all about in France. It is a simple recipe: Wandering a market for fresh ingredients, bringing those home to share with your family, and spending time prepping them together, which all blend to create a wonderful dish enhanced by wonderful conversation, food, and wine.”
At the tour farewell dinner, one of the guests, Ms. Alyce Gyug of Mount Pleasant, summed up her experience exploring Provence with Premier Tours & Travel and Chef Waggoner poignantly: “I have always dreamed of seeing Provence. You have given me that and so, so much more. I never dreamed I would see so much and experience so many unique things. I will never forget it! Thank you!”
We think Ms. Cartwright and Chef Waggoner’s hopes were achieved! It will be our pleasure to follow Premier Tours & Travel and our local culinary expert, Chef Waggoner, as they wander far and near with each new group of culinary travelers on their In the Global Kitchen Tours—such as Tuscany and Burgundy, as well as Provence in 2020—broadening perspectives and palates along the way.