We chat with James Beard Award–winners and best friends Mary Sue Milliken and Traci Des Jardins, who will ride—and cook—during an eight-day Sicilian expedition.
The countryside of Sicily, with all its golds, greens, and yellows, is an expanse before you. Perhaps cypress trees dot the horizon, or the sky is a particularly clear blue. Maybe pedaling on your left is Traci Des Jardins, two-time James Beard Award–winner and owner of six San Francisco restaurants. A few lengths ahead, her best friend, cookbook author, television personality, and fellow James Beard Award–winner Mary Sue Milliken might have spotted an opportunity to pull over and pick some wild fennel.
These could be your views if you go on Tourissimo’s Sicily Chef Bike Tour from May 5-12, 2018. The second in their tour series, the trips aim to “facilitate the understanding of local food, agriculture, and culture while bringing a chef’s eye to the landscape,” says cofounder Heather Dowd. For $4,595, riders will see UNESCO World Heritage sites, visit the town of Corleone made famous by The Godfather, taste wine at a lakeside estate, take a cooking class, and see a side of the island few tourists get to enjoy—from a bike saddle. We chatted with chef Milliken (who coled Tourissimo’s inaugural Bike Chef trip through Emilia-Romagna last summer) and chef Des Jardins about why they’re excited to visit Sicily with fellow adventure travelers.
Has either of you been to Sicily before?
Mary Sue: “I competed in the Cous Cous Fest a couple years ago, and worked with the State Department and with the refugee population there doing some culinary diplomacy. I’m so excited to go back—it’s a place of so much rich history. As an island, it has its own micro-culture which is really fascinating.”
Traci: “I have not been to Sicily and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it in this way. I think when you’re on a bicycle you experience so much more of everything. There is a sense of vulnerability which opens your mind to what’s around you. You’re so much more hyper-aware, which is to some degree a safety thing but makes it a different experience of experiencing whatever it is that you’re seeing and that’s one of the things that I really like about it.”
Related to that, how do you feel cycling through a country relates to understanding its cuisine?
Mary Sue: “For me, cycling is the perfect pace of exploration for a country. Chefs are known to be impatient and full-throttled, high-energy people. Walking or hiking is great but kind of slow, but on a bike, you can cover a lot of ground and see a lot of detail. Last year in Italy I was amazed at the agriculture we’d cycle past—fields and fields of durum wheat that would be made into pasta, artichoke fields, all kinds of things related to the food we were eating at lunch and dinner and the wines we were drinking.
“I think in any country when you go at that pace you’re able to really relate to the country and the culture in a different way and as a different kind of tourist than when you’re in a car. It’s just a lovely, perfect pace.”
What makes Sicily an exciting destination to visit for chefs?
Mary Sue: “Anywhere I go, I’m excited to experience the food. A lot of the ingredients I associate with Sicily are some of my favorite things. They have the most phenomenal sun-dried tomatoes, I love the bottarga they make from mullet roe that’s smoked and dried and salted; they have amazing sea urchins, a lot of seafood that’s just incredible. That makes it exciting but in addition, there’s the historical and artistic culture there—you can feel how ancient it is. Being an American, I always soak that up because our country is so relatively young.”
What are you hoping that participants will get out of this tour with you?
Traci: “Mary Sue and I have traveled a lot together to lots of different places, and we have a unique way of seeing the world through the lens of food. The first thing I do when I’m in a new place is to find a farmers’ market or somewhere people are buying food. To have that experience of daily life is such a view into the way people live. I think that’s probably more intimidating to other people than to us because we are so comfortable in that vernacular anywhere in the world, whether we speak the language or not. If you put us into a food market, we move around and quickly figure out what the etiquette is. I know this from traveling to countries like Mongolia or Morocco where you don’t speak the language and yet you figure out how to behave in the food world really easily and that’s something special about what we do. We’ll be able to bring a unique perspective to the shopping and food experience to guests, and that will be really special.”
Mary Sue: “What I hope for the guests is they get to have their eyes opened—we see things. We were traveling last year in Emilia-Romagna and I said to the girl I happened to be cycling next to, “We have to stop here because I see a big grove of nectarines behind that little hedge and we have to go and get some.” You can just see things other people might miss. “Here’s some wild dandelion greens we should pick.” We’re always doing things like that. The other cool thing is that you can eat as much as you possibly want because you’re burning so many calories every day! [laughs] The complete freedom to eat as many calories as you want—for me that’s always very exciting.”
You mentioned you’ve traveled together before. Do you have any highlights from previous travels or anything you’d like to share about how you travel together?
Traci: “We’ve had so many amazing adventures, it’s sort of overwhelming to pick one. The most incredible trip we took probably was to Mongolia where we were literally in a place where no tourists had ever been in the middle of nowhere right before the Russian border, on the northern tip of Mongolia. We have had so many adventures over the 20 years—we’ve gone to Chile, Mongolia—”
Mary Sue: “Egypt, Morocco, France—”
Mary Sue: “—oh, Spain. Don’t forget that! Mexico. We have a very similar style of travel, which is hit the ground running. There’s no such thing as jet lag, eat at least five meals a day, taste everything you can find, cook if you can. I like the idea that we get to cook a little bit on this Tourissimo trip rather than just constantly being a tourist and eating other people’s food. There gets to a point on any trip where I want to get in the kitchen and play with these products. We’re similar that way—we’re curious about everything, we want to experience the culture and country, and especially the food!”