In today's New York Times food section Jeff Gordinier checks in with local Edible Excursions owner Lisa Rogovin about what to look for when choosing a food tour here or abroad. Rogovin spent seven years in sales with Gourmet magazine before launching her own food tour company in 2004. She's been pounding the pavement introducing guests to restaurants, cafes, and food producers in San Francisco, the East Bay, and Marin for the past nine years. Currently, a dozen guides lead 25-40 intimate food forays a month that showcase culinary picks in the city's Ferry Building, Mission District, and Japantown, as well as Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto and Oakland's Temescal neighborhood.
Rogovin, 43, lives with her husband and two children in Glen Park. She spoke with BAB's Sarah Henry about what her job entails and why there's such a demand for food tours. (Full disclosure: Henry met Rogovin three years ago, when she interviewed her for a story. For the past two years she's led East Bay jaunts for Edible Excursions and curated the latest tour Temescal Tastes.)
The edible entrepreneur shares some of her favorite local dining destinations, chimes in on what she thinks of terms like "foodie," and offers a sneak peek into her new tours. Cocktails anyone?
What is the biggest myth about your day job?
People think that I eat all day. It's true I eat out a ton but I also run a business, with all that that entails. Even when I lead a tour I don't eat at every stop or I'd end up in a food coma.
I lead private and Japantown tours. Last week I lead a group of Genentech employees through the Ferry Building and a Contiki group through the Mission. I spent most of Wednesday scouting locations for an upcoming Oakland tour, followed by drinks with girlfriends at B-Side BBQ, owned by my friend Tanya Holland. We took Tanya to Duende in Uptown for dinner. I recommend the arroz negro. I had business meetings at Slanted Door twice last week and two meals at Contigo. From around six in the morning to about 11 at night I'm continually fielding questions and requests from my tour coordinator, guides, and guests. I make a point of staying connected with my existing food partners, building and maintaining those relationships and making sure things are working for them in relation to our tours. There's also website updating and social media to do. Last week I also worked on proposals for potential tours, one for next year's Fancy Food Show, one for a Google group, and another for a delegation of dentists from Korea coming to San Francisco for a convention. I met with UC Berkeley contacts about offering tours to different departments there and I interviewed a potential new guide. I go over scheduling, invoicing, and other administrative stuff like handling fundraising requests with my operations manager.
My husband and I celebrated the eighth anniversary of our meeting with dinner at Firefly and dessert at The Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley (malted milkshake and brownie sundae.) I'm a mom, so there's the care, feeding, and transporting of children too. It's important to me that we have family meals together. That's how childhood memories are made. We took the kids to Sunday Streets in the Mission and had lunch at Mission Picnic. I try to exercise five times a week—running, Zumba, working out with a personal trainer--it's necessary in this job to burn calories. I exercise to eat.
How often do you eat out and do you ever tire of restaurant food?
I eat at restaurants about seven times a week. Eating out is my sport of choice. I love variety so I enjoy both hole-in-the-walls such as Basa Seafood for clam chowder or El Farolito for al pastor tacos. I like neighborhood joints like Dosa as much if not more than sleek and trendy spots. I'm not really into the three-hour, high-end dining experiences like I used to do at Gourmet. I'm just not into the pomp and circumstance. There was a time when I went to places like Coi or Quince for dinners three times a week but now I choose simpler dining experiences. I did have an impressive meal recently at Sons & Daughters. They're crazy talented and creative in the kitchen. I ate Fort Bragg sea urchin with Delta asparagus. My most memorable meal lately was at State Bird Provisions. The dining experience is executed in a unique way I found exciting. The menu changes all night long: What's available at 6 may not be available at 9. We had a smoked sturgeon pancake with horseradish schmear that was delicious.
What kind of home cook are you and what's your go-to family dinner?
Cooking at home has changed drastically since my little ones (Livia, 2 and Matthew, 4) came along. Popping corn for my kids is considered cooking these days. I enjoy cooking but I have five minutes max of uninterrupted kitchen time. Now I cook about once a week when a recipe I read inspires me. I love Bon Appetit since Adam Rapoport came on as editor-in-chief. I just bought ingredients for Corn Maque Choux from the July issue. I hope I find time to make the dish or else I'll throw the corn and some protein on the grill. We just started having a personal chef, Joshua Clever, who also happens to be one of my guides, come to our house twice a month and he cooks entrees and sides and fixes salads. My husband and I love salads: Micro greens, arugula, toasted nuts, dried or fresh seasonal fruit and some Israeli feta or blue or shaved aged goat.
What do you think of the terms "foodie" and "gourmet" and do these labels describe you?
Gourmet feels stodgy. Old school. Foodie is ubiquitous these days. What does that word even mean? I don't spend a moment thinking about these words. Maybe "food obsessed" is a better label for me.
How has the culinary landscape evolved in the nine years you've lead food tours?
There's been great food in the Bay Area for decades, thanks to the California Cuisine movement a la Chez Panisse and its many disciples. But I think there's lots more of it now and it has spread way beyond Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto and San Francisco's Ferry Building.
Did you coin the term "epicurean concierge" and what does it mean to you?
When I worked for Gourmet a colleague who worked for Vanity Fair thought I should call myself an "epicurean concierge." I love the title. You turn to a hotel concierge to find out about a region and what to do. Guests can turn to Edible Excursions guides to learn about the food scene here. That's one of the cool things about having your own business. You can call yourself whatever you want.
Why do you think there's so much interest now in the Bay Area in what we eat?
Bay Area people have been focused on what they eat for decades. In part, it has to do with our access to high quality ingredients year round growing within close proximity to the public. In recent years, the number of farmers' markets have grown so you can find a market six days a week. People aren't waiting for Saturday to head to the Ferry Plaza they're going to the Fillmore, Castro, Civic Center, Noe Valley and Glen Park.
Food TV, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Meetup and a slew of other social media have put a magnifying glass over what and where people eat. I get it. I love to look at food. I follow Chris Cosentino of Incanto on Instagram to see what dishes he's prepared for his menu. He can make something like offal, which may not initially sound appealing, come to life with Gravenstein apples and toasted walnuts. I grew up with a dad who loved to take pictures of food. One of my favorite photos from my childhood is a plate of perfectly charred steak at Peter Lugar's in Brooklyn.
What do you want guests to take away from a food tour?
People get so much more than food on an Edible Excursion tour. They also glean insights and information about the people making or growing the food, regional history, and local culture. Hopefully, that experience will help shape the way people shop for food or select a restaurant.
Who takes your tours?
Family, friends, and coworkers. Lawyers, builders, doctors, retired grandmas, finance people, high-school sweethearts, activists, and moms who met when their kids were in preschool but are now in college or married with kids of their own. We offer sign-language tours to the deaf community too. Some guests are just there to take it all in. Others think they are the world's foremost authorities about everything and want to share their knowledge with the rest of the group. As their guides, it's our job to manage the more challenging personalities so they're not interfering with other guests' experiences. Another typical personality we come across is someone who just can't get enough info and fires off question after question. It's great to have engaged customers but we're on a tight timeline so we know how to move things along gently so as not to offend or dismiss anyone.
What qualities do you look for in a guide?
A genuine desire to educate guests about the local food scene and the surrounding community. A great anticipator: A person who has a calm and collected demeanor in the face of disaster and difficult personalities who can adapt depending on the group, weather, or what's going on for our partner businesses. Someone who can build a strong rapport with guests and merchants. There's definitely a performance aspect to it: A guide needs to be on for three hours, even when most peoples' attention spans wane around the 30 minute mark. That's why we keep things moving.
What's next for Edible Excursions?
New tours, in no particular order: A San Francisco Cocktail Tour: The drinks menu has become an increasingly creative place and we want to spotlight the bartenders who are crafting these specialty sips. And, maybe because I'm a mom, I really look forward to a cocktail at the end of the day. More Oakland tours, in Uptown, Old Oakland, and beyond because the food scene there is exploding. There's incredible local pride along with a lot of chefs who might have opened in San Francisco who are heading to Oakland instead. It's perhaps the most exciting and talked about food scene locally. And Dogpatch in the city, because it's a hidden gem yet to get the attention it deserves.
I also want to offer culinary excursions for young families. So many kids are picky eaters and I think if they're given a fun way to explore other foods and flavors they might buy into it. Kids who are picky are more likely to try new things if the idea doesn't originate from their parents. Food tours are a great thing to do with terrible teens too; food really does help break down barriers and connect people.
If you could choose ahead, what would your Last Supper look like?
I could see going out with a smile after eating a Reuben sandwich from Stag's Lunchette. But I'd need some clean greens on the side for a balance so maybe steamed broccoli rabe too. Oh, and a tequila cocktail to round out the mix.