Most birthday girls blow out candles on cakes, but at Jillian Lockwood's recent celebration, the candle was perched on a more decadent offering: warm chocolate coulant filled with liquid caramel and fleur de sel with caramelized milk ice cream. The dish was the final course of a foodie-feast-for-two at Café Boulud in the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. "I haven't been there yet – it's been on my list for a while," she told me just before the big day, as if dinner at one of the city's pricier, fancier, celebrity chef-helmed restaurants were an inevitability.
Which, for Lockwood and her peer group of young food enthusiasts, it is. The week before her birthday, she and some twentysomething gal pals ate and drank their way around New York – butter-poached lobster with red currant at Acme, seven-course Omakase tasting menu at Morimoto. In May, she and her boyfriend, Mike Kelly, turned a family trip to Montego Bay into a quest for the most delicious, local-approved jerk chicken.
Like many young chowhounds, their edible adventures involve a mix of high and low, exotic and local, tough-to-book "it" restaurants and undiscovered gems. As a couple, they often spend around $700 a week on food. That is many times the national average, but also fairly typical for a new breed of aspirational eaters – young-ish frequent flyers who subscribe to Kinfolk magazine, keep must-hit lists on their iPhones and follow star chefs the way your stoner aunt followed the Dead.
If food-as-sustenance is one end of the consumption scale, this is the other: Eating as experience, passion and self-expression. Lockwood loves her hobby so much that she made a career of it, transitioning from a design-centric public relations job to her current post as a manager at the food-focused Butter PR. Perks include weekly lunch meetings and client "research": "When we start working with someone new," explains Lockwood, "it's important to familiarize ourselves with the menu."
Yael Kanter, a Toronto fashion consultant, grew up going on culinary pilgrimages with her food-loving family, and fostered the passion in her husband Dan, who works as lead guitarist and musical director for Justin Bieber. "With his touring schedule, Dan is travelling all over the world, and getting to go to all of these amazing restaurants – he went to Noma without me!" says Kanter, referring to the Copenhagen restaurant that was, until recently, ranked No. 1 on the San Pellegrino list of the world's best 50 restaurants (it's now No. 2).
She says that planning trips around the desire to visit a certain restaurant gives some direction to their travels, as does their shared affinity for diners and dives-type eating: "When we go to a city, we love to go to the place where the locals go. Eating is kind of the easiest way to really experience a culture and to get down to the roots."
A 2012 survey for Navigate, a semi-annual publication produced by Deloitte in conjunction with the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, reported that 35 per cent of Canadian vacation travellers chose destinations primarily for culinary purposes, and that percentage was even higher among respondents aged 25 to 34. "Those figures have increased at a steady clip," says Aaron Allen, a Florida-based restaurant consultant and industry analyst. Allen confirms that millennials are spending a greater chunk of their disposable income on food and dining experiences than any previous generation, whether that means paying thrice the grocery store price for fresh local blackberries or jetting down to inland Mexico to take a cooking class in traditional maize tortilla making.
"We're calling them global gourmands," Allen says of the twenty- and thirtysomethings who save for food-travel the way members of previous generations would have set money aside for a car or a first home. "Part of it is that the younger generation watched their parents save and save and still get hit by the economy – the bank can reposes your house, but it can't take back an amazing meal and the experience of sharing that amongst friends."
The sharing needn't be done around a table. Globalization and the explosion of social media have affected appetites both literal and otherwise, so "food porn" photos have become a form of tribal currency. Renee Suen records her experiences, along with behind-the-scenes kitchen snaps, on her Flickr account.
Suen, a medical graduate student who writes about food for various blogs, has been to Noma along with 20 other top-50 restaurants (she prefers the opinionatedaboutdining.com list). Her goal is to get to places before the buzz changes them: "Of course it can be good for the restaurant to get that type of publicity, but it also means that the chef might not take the same creative liberties."
This fall she will drop approximately $13,000 on a 20-day culinary tour of northern Spain with Annie Sibonney, host of From Spain With Love on the Food Network. Their schedule includesbehind-the-scenes tours, farm visits and conversations with chefs – Suen calls it "the trip of a lifetime," and has been saving for it for the last couple of years.
Dan and Yael Kanter will get to visit Noma together next month. "So far, where we're going to eat every day is the only thing we've really planned," Yael says. "We'll figure the rest out."