‘If I see a queue for food, I’m joining it, no matter what’
Meet the food adventurers, for whom finding the newest great food spot is an obsession
Have you ever taken a last-minute flight to another city just to eat in a restaurant? What about emptying your bank account to eat a Michelin-starred tasting menu and having to call your mother to transfer emergency funds? Would you walk for an hour to get to a restaurant you really wanted to eat in rather than choosing somewhere close by?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably a food adventurer, and if you’re not one, the chances are you know one.
American author Lisa Heldke first coined the term “food adventurer” in 2003 in her book Exotic Appetites. She describes them as super-foodies who are motivated above all else to go out to eat, to the newest, most authentic, most exciting restaurants, cafes or roadside shacks. They’re most likely to be white, middle-class, educated and financially comfortable – if someone’s basic needs such as shelter and warmth aren’t met, they’re unlikely to be planning a trip to the newest dim sum spot or to San Sebastian in search of Spain’s best tapas. She also notes that those constantly seeking new food experiences tend to be people who feel they have no food culture of their own.
Food adventurers seemed to emerge as the Western world moved into the experience economy in the 1990s. This replaced the service economy, which replaced the industrial economy, which replaced the agricultural economy. Trend-spotters began to warn business owners that goods and services were no longer enough, consumers wanted experiences. In restaurants, sommeliers, open kitchens and tasting menus became the new norm.
In Ireland, there was an added twist in the tale, as we were basking in the glow of our very own Celtic tiger and a new level of disposable income asking to be spent. Out went petrol-station coffee, in came lattés (don’t forget your free chocolate). Out went meat and two veg, in came conveyor-belt sushi.
Today’s food adventurers are most likely to be millennials (aged between 23 and 38 in 2019), the ones who grew up in the midst of this change, and more open to trying new things because of their exposure to other cultures through global travel, television and the internet. Older generations are more likely to favour the same safe restaurants where they know what to expect.
Some authors link this obsession with food to identity and a need for social status – a modern version of the gastronomic snobbery of days gone by (mainly related to all things French). Move over Coquilles St Jacques and duck à l’orange, enter siu mai dumplings and blackcurrant cruffins. Eating out is seen as a mark of sophistication, a way to discover the unknown and be in on something that only a select group of people know about.
Food adventurers tend to be dynamic communicators, recording and sharing their experiences through social media. If you didn’t take a picture of your dinner, did you even eat it? Restaurants happily facilitate, providing brightly coloured dishes topped with edible flowers, and melting chocolate domes begging for a boomerang on Instagram stories.
If this sounds frivolous, be aware that these consumers are often seen as opinion leaders, whom others look to for advice and recommendations. If a new restaurant can capture (and satisfy) the food adventurers, the rest will follow.
Marcus O’Laoire (29), DJ
O’Laoire says his love of food verges on an obsession: “I think about where I’m going to eat out next, while I’m eating out. It’s constant.” He says eating out makes him excited, and that people without hedonistic desires around food are miserable. His mum is French and food always had a central role in family life. He remembers de-veining lobes of foie gras at age six.
He loves tasting menus and compares the experience to “watching an incredible musician rip a solo on a guitar”. Bad meals “hurt a lot. I feel like I’ve been hoodwinked, cheated. I may as well have thrown my 50 quid in a food processor.” He stays away from chain restaurants or those owned by restaurant groups because the food “just doesn’t seem genuine”, and says he can taste when people care about what they’re producing and cooking.
He chooses his dining partners carefully, as who he eats with greatly impacts his experience. “If I go to 777 [a contemporary Mexican restaurant] with my girlfriend, I’m eating raw fish tacos and stuff that’s left field. That’s not something you can do with a casual food civilian. When the person you’re with is really into food, you can go to the places serving offal, where you’re paying eight quid for a tomato, because it’s a really good tomato. You can’t explain that to somebody who doesn’t like food. You can’t turn around and say man, have you tasted this aubergine? I know it was €14 . . . because they’ll be like, aubergines cost 80 cent from Tesco, what are you doing, you psychopath?”
For O’Laoire, his experiences eating in restaurants have far more value than any possession. “Objects are just things. They’re transient. When you create a memory, that’s something deeper. Someone could come up to me with a knife and steal my phone and my wallet. Nobody can come up to me with a knife and take my memory of that time I had dinner by myself at the bar in Relae in Copenhagen. Possessions weigh you down, memories bring you up.”
Paul Smyth (63), entrepreneur
The most exciting dining out Smyth experienced growing up in Dublin was going with his parents to the golf club for Sunday lunch. Chinese food was “the height of exoticness”. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s, after moving to London and starting a business, that his eyes were opened to the world of restaurants. He had clients to entertain and an expense account to utilise, and his first time eating in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant was a turning point: “It was like opening Pandora’s box. A whole world I never knew existed suddenly appeared.”
He pities people who don’t have a love of food, questioning how they go through life. He sees new dining experiences as “adventures” and once booked a last-minute flight to Barcelona for one night after a table became available at El Celler de Can Roca, once named the best restaurant in the world. He thinks that with age, possessions cease to have importance, and experiences become more valuable. “Having the latest iPhone is nothing worth talking about now, is it? But having been to El Bulli, that’s something you can still get pleasure thinking about.”
Each year, he goes on a golf trip with friends and his job is to plan their meals. Michelin-starred restaurants often feature, and anyone who needs “plain food” isn’t welcome. He says a bad meal in the evening ruins his whole day. He documents his meals on Twitter because he feels he’s “contributing to the universe”.
Smyth says being a food adventurer and having new food experiences is what his life is about, and that if he reached a stage in life where he was prevented from eating out, physically or financially, he would rather “keel over and just go”.
Holly Davage (25), clinical research co-ordinator
Davage has an Instagram account dedicated to eating out. FOMO (fear of missing out) is an occupational hazard, and she feels anxious seeing other people on social media visit restaurants before she does. She likes to be the person to go to for restaurant recommendations. “It’s nice to have a thing. You don’t want to just be one of the crowd.”
She doesn’t like going to the same restaurant twice, calling it a waste. “I’d rather go somewhere that’s brand new rather than go safe and know it would be fine. I know I’ll enjoy it, but then I didn’t try the new thing, so I won’t know if that’s better.” She admits to visiting places just to photograph a particular dish – and went back to Dublin cafe Póg to order its pancakes twice as the first time she chose toppings that were “too beige” and didn’t photograph well.
Seeing a dish like chicken supreme on a menu means boring food. She’s also selective about who she eats with. “I want to make sure that they’re okay to talk about it, really make the most of it. Otherwise, it detracts from my experience.” Her experience is further enhanced by sharing it digitally with her followers, and retrospectively enjoying it again.
Davage believes new experiences develop her as a person, and when it comes to choosing food, she likes to find “the strangest, weirdest thing”. When travelling, she goes straight to local dishes because “that’s the point of travelling, to have a new experience”. She says she finds it really sad that some people don’t love food the way she does. “I feel like they’re missing a huge part of their life that they could be enjoying but they will never know.”
Chloe Harris (29), cafe owner
Harris has a sizeable Instagram audience who hang on her every meal. She says being a food adventurer is “a part of me”, and questions what people who don’t love food think about all day. She likes to be in the know when it comes to restaurants and says: “If I ever see a queue for food, I’m going to join it, no matter what.”
She would walk for an hour to get to a restaurant she knew was good, rather than taking a chance on somewhere unknown, even if she was starving. Bad restaurant experiences make her “so sad”, and seeing “normal” things on menus like soup or chicken wings indicate a restaurant isn’t going to excite her.
After a great dining experience, she feels “happy and relaxed, almost high”, and she spends all of her money and time chasing that feeling. She once emptied her bank account ordering the tasting menu in Michelin-starred restaurant Burnt Ends in Singapore and was too embarrassed to tell her then boyfriend, so had to call her mother to transfer emergency funds.
Another time she was in Tokyo airport on an eight-hour stopover and had just enough time to get into the city, do a food walking tour and get back for her next flight. On the tour, she tried a local delicacy of raw chicken which was “vile” but was further devastated to find that the recording of her eating it didn’t save, so it was all for nothing. She didn’t eat chicken for a year afterwards.
Who she goes out to eat with is important. “I want to go with someone who’s going to really appreciate it, and that I can share and talk to about it. Of course, I want to talk to the person and see how their life is going, but I really want to talk about the meal.”
People who don’t love food make her “really upset”, and she gets frustrated when her husband (a less adventurous eater) refuses to try something she’s enjoying. “I want him to experience it and just share the love that I share, and I sometimes find it hard to not be like, ‘how can you not like this, it’s delicious. What’s wrong with you?’”