She Speaks: The Pandemic Through the Eyes of a Food Tourism Expert

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Photo: Courtesy of Sheban Naim

Regardless of where you are right now, chances are that food is playing a significant role in your life. You’re stress-baking, seeking comfort in comfort food, cooking up a storm, ordering in to support local restaurants, or making a list of all the eateries you want to try once life returns to normal(ish) – or all of the above. But what if introducing people to new and exotic flavors is your bread and butter? Here, Savoir Flair speaks with Arva Ahmed, Founder and “Chief Executive Muncher” of food tourism company Frying Pan Adventures, about what these unprecedented circumstances have meant for her line of work.

As the founder of a food tourism company, how have you been personally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The entire tourism industry has been crippled by the crisis. Our food tours – our daily bread and butter – have come to a complete standstill. And it’s one of those experiences that’s hard to bring online since it requires us to be out and about, taking people around the city to the restaurants and food vendors that we love.

From a professional perspective, which aspect about all this concerns you most?
The number of places that will shut down and the people who will lose their jobs. It’s an inevitable fact that a lot of places will have to close their doors, and I think smaller places with shallow pockets will be affected the most. I’m worried for the streetside bakers, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the places that brought cultural diversity to the dining table.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

What is the one question you’re asked most frequently these days?
“May I have a refund, please?” Sorry, it’s tragic, I know – but with all our tours cancelled, that really is the question we’re facing every day.

What advice would you give to individuals/companies worldwide who run food tours and are therefore struggling?
Forecast. Figure out how much you really need to reopen your doors again when things get better – not in two months, not even in six. I’ll give it a year, if we’re lucky, before people feel comfortable traveling to busy cities again. So you need to pare back everything you don’t need and learn to do things in-house that you may have outsourced before, just so you can save costs and keep the lights on. Also remember, people are consuming tons of content online right now as they’re sitting at home.

Rather than letting your most valuable team members go, get them engaged in creating content that can be monetized online to pay their salaries. Whether it’s an e-book, an online cooking class, or a virtual dinner party, cast the net wide and push yourself to repackage your food knowledge in a way that you may have never done before. Another thing: many of your restaurant partners may not be around when you reopen. If there’s a way that you can use your platform to send business their way, assuming deliveries are an option, then do it to help them – and other small places beyond your tours – survive.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

What new dishes have you discovered and loved while social distancing?
Actually, we’re getting foods delivered from the places in our community we desperately hope will survive the crisis, which means it’s the same dishes rather than new ones. I’m also not cooking much because of the baby – unless you count baby mac and cheese as cooking!

How has your relationship with food changed over the last few weeks?
I’ve always been passionate about using food as a lens to connect with the past, with different cultures, with people in the community. But now, I’m acutely aware of how many restaurants and food vendors are struggling. I’m constantly wondering whether they’ll be able to weather the storm, which means that food has taken on a more primal meaning for me – its role in the life of the person preparing it more than the person eating it. These are people’s livelihoods on the line, so I’m trying to use mealtimes as a way of supporting restaurants in the neighborhood whenever possible. The conversation has shifted from ‘what do we feel like eating?’ to ‘who can we support if we order in today?’

I’m worried for the streetside bakers, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the places that brought cultural diversity to the dining table.

Humans bond over food – with loved ones and complete strangers. With that no longer possible, what can people do to keep those connections going?
The lockdown has brought out everyone’s inner chef – bad reason, good outcome! I’m already seeing people sharing recipes more than ever before over social media. It’s like people are opening up their kitchens and dining spaces to the world in order to feel connected. Another thing we’ll be seeing soon – though I’m guessing many people out there are doing this already – is virtual themed dinner experiences during which attendees cook/procure a certain type of food, like a cheese tasting, and the entire evening is hosted over VoIP.

Finally, a few food tour companies in the US pioneered the idea of a tour-in-a-box, a box of edible goodies from your local vendors. You can buy it for yourself or gift it to someone else, and it’s a great way of maintaining bonds with food artisans in your community as well as showing someone you can’t meet – because of the lockdown – that you’re thinking of them. Our team at Frying Pan Adventures has just started a version of this concept here called ‘Hug-In-A-Box’ to support our local Iranian specialty shop, and it seems to have had a really positive uptake from people who want to help local vendors or send gifts to friends or family they can’t meet.

Photo: Courtesy of @chrissytoddphotography

Comfort food is understandably popular these days. What’s your favorite?
Trail mix containing lemon cashews, figs, raisins, almonds, and more from Mr. Reza’s Sadaf Iranian Sweets, and cheesy kunafa from Qwaider Al Nabulsi – both featured stops on our tours!

What can our readers do at a time like this to support the local food scene?
– Order from restaurants directly rather than using a third-party app that takes a huge cut from the restaurant; DeliverDXB is a great resource.
– Get a food box/kit from restaurants offering these as new, innovative ways of dealing with the lockdown restrictions. Get our ‘Hug-In-A-Box’ to support Mr. Reza’s shop!
– Buy Time Out Dubai vouchers for restaurants that allow you to buy now and eat later, which means that you can help restaurants with their cash flow by prepaying for food that you’ll enjoy after the restrictions ease up.

When all this is over, what’s the first eatery you’ll visit, and what will you order?
Qwaider Al Nabulsi, my neighborhood Palestinian-Jordanian spot for my usual order of falafel, hummus, and kunafa. It’s steps away, but the option of eating there – outdoors, surrounded by familiar faces – is so out of reach. The restaurant staff there are like our extended family; they take such good care of our guests and our guides. I’d want to check in, see how they’re doing, and show that we will still continue to support their delicious work.

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