Food tourism in Asia-Pacific through the eyes of Sean Wooden

Food tourism Asia Pacific

Why do travelers rather eat out than enjoy the exquisite dining experience hotels have to offer? Source: Shutterstock.

THEY say food makes the world go round and this is evident in culinary tourism, more commonly known as food tourism.

Be it for the purpose of feeding their social media platforms or to indulge in authentic local food, people are traveling to even the most far-flung destinations for gastronomical adventures.

And the further you are willing to travel, the broader your range of culinary experiences will be.

In recent years, especially, a significant part of travel itineraries is dedicated to hunting down the tastiest snacks and the most mouthwatering meals – beyond what travelers are already familiar with.

Thanks to social media, this trend does not look like it is about to fade anytime soon as tonnes of envy-inducing food posts continue to dominate the feeds of millions of users worldwide.

To get a better grasp of this emerging travel trend, we reached out to Hilton Asia-Pacific vice president of Brand Management Sean Wooden to share more about his background and his approach to travel, and the future of food tourism in the Asia-Pacific.

Tell us a little bit about what you do on the daily.

As the Vice President of Brand Management for Asia-Pacific at Hilton, I look after brands such as our flagship Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton, as well as Curio Collection by Hilton.

I oversee brand management and brand performance support across these brands, and specialize in developing great relationships with the owners of these properties, ensuring their hotels perform well. Additionally, I work with the development team to maintain existing brands in our strategic markets, as well as launch new brands in the region.

As these brands expand rapidly in the region, I also work with technical services to ensure quality control in all our properties, so that we continue to deliver exceptional experiences – every hotel, every guest, every time.

Curio Collection by Hilton

West Hotel Sydney, Curio Collection by Hilton. Source: West Hotel Sydney, Curio Collection by Hilton.

A typical day for me would include interacting with multiple stakeholders within our organization about the many different issues that fall within my remit. This could include meetings with the regional vice presidents of operations, with whom I might discuss things like reporting, meetings with our commercial head of sales, on how to best support one of our franchise hotels, as well as meetings with the procurement team, to discuss the amenities we offer in our hotels.

I occasionally also have meetings with the global brand heads, to discuss our wider strategic priorities and vision.

Do you remember your first taste of authentic Asian food? Tell us about that experience.

My first authentic experience of Asian food was in Bangkok at the street markets – the smells, colors, and tastes will always stay in my mind.

Bangkok’s street food culture is a tourist attraction in and of itself. On almost every corner, masterful chefs sell fresh, made-to-order food, spiced and flavored to personal taste. There are so many options it can be impossible to decide what to choose from and where.

Pad thai

Pad thai is commonly served as street food and in casual local eateries in Thailand. Source: Shutterstock.

I still love to eat what is arguably the most well recognized Thai dish in the world, pad thai. This wok-fried noodle dish is also now my daughter’s favorite. Today, it is found on nearly every street corner in Bangkok, made fresh and adjusted to personal tastes. Elena likes hers with extra mango!

What do you love best about Asian food? What surprised you the most? What are your ultimate culinary travel destinations and favorite local restaurants in the Asia-Pacific region?

What I love best about Asian food is the variety it offers, and as I got to experience and understand Asian cuisine better over the years, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how completely unique and distinct each type of cuisine truly is. Two travel destinations in the Asia-Pacific that stand out to me in terms of food are Malaysia and Japan – albeit for quite different reasons.

For Japan, the country’s culinary landscape has unbelievable creativity as well as the quality of food. Presentation, taste, and service are all fantastic and combined with the flair with which it is executed, it truly makes for a wonderful dining experience.

Japanese Food

The traditional cuisine of Japan is based on rice with miso soup and other dishes. Source: Shutterstock.

Malaysia, on the other hand, presents a very different environment. Malaysian food has great taste and great flavor, certainly, but also has an earthy, local feel. Indeed, I love Malaysia for its street food, because the whole dining experience has no frills, and chefs will not hesitate to strip it back and keep it simple, yet still undeniably good.

One of my favorite eating places in Malaysia isn’t actually a restaurant, but among the street stalls in Jonker Street, Malacca. The variety there is amazing and the food deliciously spicy. One of my must-eats there is the satay celup, which includes fresh vegetables, seafood and meat dipped in the familiar peanut sauce.

Satay Celup

Popular in Malacca, satay celup is a dish where an assortment of raw and semi-cooked seafood, meat and vegetables on skewers are dunked into a hot boiling pot of satay gravy. Source: Shutterstock.

In Japan, one of my favorite places is a well-known restaurant under the Tokyo Tower, Toufuya Ukai, situated around a Zen-style garden. The homemade twice-fried tofu is amazing – the tofu is made from well water and handpicked soybeans and is served bathed in a seaweed-distilled broth, in a sweet miso sauce, seasoned in soy milk, or twice-fried.

Do you think that all food, regardless of the destination, should be judged by the Michelin star accolade alone?

It’s difficult to doubt the great standards of culinary excellence the Michelin Star accolade represents – even during the time I had spent working in various Michelin-starred restaurants in the early part of my career, I understood, and still understand, the absolute dedication to the art of gastronomy that forms the core of a Michelin-starred institution. However, there are countless more food places that perhaps have not been exposed to the Michelin eye yet.

Since the very beginning, restaurants have been the primary establishments eligible for evaluation under the Michelin Star Award. This by no way means that all non-restaurant-type food establishments deserve only a passing glance. On the contrary, plenty of countries and cities in the world – especially in our region of Southeast Asia – boast incredibly diverse and vibrant street food cultures, prepared by culinary masters that may very well have as many years of training and practice as head chefs in top restaurants.

Singaporean chef Chan Hon Meng prepares meals for customers at his Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall in Singapore on July 22, 2016. Source: ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP.

In fact, the street food scene in a place like Singapore is so worthy of notice, that in 2016, the Singapore edition of the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide introduced the first Michelin stars for street food locations. In this situation, food quality and taste undoubtedly take center stage, but just as important is where and how one consumes this food.

Think situations that are completely removed from traditional fine-dining, such as open-air dining, chefs frying up a storm right beside your dining table, and atmospheres that are a sensory overload of sounds, smells, and sights. These may be unexpected but elevate the act of consuming food into a holistic experience. In fact, this increasing emphasis placed on being local very much mirrors how we’re seeing travel evolve, with recent research by Booking.com revealing that going local is a crucial ingredient for an unforgettable culinary travel experience.

What has been your most unforgettable food tourism experience?

I have had many incredible food experiences during my travels, but a more recent memorable one would have to be during my stay at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Penang, on my last visit to Penang, in Malaysia. The Malaysian food on offer in the restaurant, Makan Kitchen, was very authentic.

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Penang in Malaysia. Source: DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Penang in Malaysia.

At the same time, the overall experience it offered was highly immersive – in addition to providing local food made according to local traditions, it was delivered through local service by local people.

Why do you think some travelers would rather eat out than enjoy the exquisite dining experience that hotels have to offer?

When travelers visit different countries, many a time they desire to experience authentic aspects of local culture – and this usually involves food. As a consumer, while I do appreciate having access to my regular favorites, such as steak when in a foreign country, I would definitely like to experience local food – better yet if I can do it from the comfort of my own hotel.

Traveler eating in Asia

Eating glorious local food is one of the best ways to enrich your travel experience. Source: Shutterstock.

Indeed, hotels are well placed to serve excellent local fare. This was my personal experience at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Penang, and something which I expect will increasingly grow to be the case, as the industry continues to embrace the traveler’s desire to live like locals – down to the dining options available on the premises.

For instance, at West Hotel Sydney, Curio Collection by Hilton, the food offered at our on-site restaurant, Solander Dining, showcases the very best regional and seasonable produce from sustainable sources that New South Wales has to offer. Similarly, the menu at Harvest, our restaurant at Curio Sanya Yazhou Bay Resort, is guided by the freshest and finest local seasonal produce that our chefs source for the day, allowing guests to experience the authentic flavors of Sanya.

What tips do you have to share with the frequent culinary traveler?

Firstly, while a fundamental part of traveling for food involves appreciating local food, I would suggest that the frequent culinary traveler brace themselves for – and look forward to – complete immersion into the destination’s local food scene and culture, in order to get a taste of the full flavor of the city.

While the first level involves trying local cuisine, a large part of that process also brings together other parts of the local food experience, including service by local people, as well as understanding the different traditions involved in sourcing, preparing and serving food in a particular country.

A great way to experience how this all comes together would be through taking up cooking lessons and workshops, that allow attendees to try their hand at making traditional local dishes.

Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa

Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa. Source: Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa.

For instance, at Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa, we have the Shillim Cooking School and Farm, which offers a variety of cooking classes, driven by a vision to promote a sustainable, farm-to-table way of cooking and eating. Students are taken on a tour of the organic farm on-site, where they will be allowed to hand-pick fresh produce, before attending a class taught by the hotel’s chefs. By getting guests more involved in the cooking of local dishes, and equipping them with the skills and knowledge to recreate them at home, we’re better able to provide culinary travelers with an immersive experience that truly stays with them.

At the same time, I would also recommend for the frequent culinary traveler to begin exploring hotel restaurants more during their travels, on their quest to uncover authentic, delicious local dishes.

What do you think is the future of food tourism in Asia-Pacific?

Food tourism has become one of the most memorable and important experiences for travelers, surpassing even sightseeing and shopping – and this is especially true for millennials.

For example, almost nine in 10 Singapore millennials claim food is the primary factor when it comes to deciding on a holiday destination. Travelers from countries in Asia have become exceedingly well-known for prioritizing food as the main reason for travel, with China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong emerging as the top five countries in the region choosing a travel destination based on the food scene there.

Myeongdong is one of the key shopping and affordable street food districts in Seoul, South Korea. Source: Shutterstock.

Additionally, as the top country with travelers focusing on food in the region, China has seen the development of some very interesting new food tourism trends. As Chinese travelers become more mobile-savvy, they develop a penchant for checking out local restaurants and making restaurant reservations on apps ahead of their visits. Apps like Dianping.com and Ctrip Gourmet List have emerged to cater to Chinese travelers, but also still lack reach and comprehensiveness in countries such as Thailand.

I am excited to see how food tourism trends continue to grow and evolve in the Asia-Pacific region, and how technology companies capitalize on this by continuously innovating to meet the changing desires of travelers. Naturally, I look forward to how hospitality brands add to the food tourism scene in different countries, with their own potential to offer great local food options on-premise.