Before Aida Mollenkamp could dig into a heaping bowl of hummus, she picked it up, slipped outside into the cold Jerusalem air, and staged a photo in the dwindling afternoon sunlight – far preferable for food photography than the restaurant’s harsh fluorescent lighting.
Mollenkamp – a US chef, cookbook author, food blogger and TV host – is one of six popular food personalities from four continents that are in Israel this week for a culinary tour of all the country has to offer. She posted her photograph of hummus from the Mahaneh Yehuda market to Instagram, where she has more than 14,000 followers, and got only positive comments, including “looks so yummy” and “Chickpeas on FLEEK!” That, says Joanna Landau, founder and CEO of Vibe Israel, the organization that arranged the tour, is the whole point.
“What we’re doing is we’re branding Israel, we’re getting people to think about Israel emotionally rather than cognitively,” Landau said.
This trip – which continues until Tuesday – is the 21st such tour Vibe has operated since it started four years ago, and its third culinary one; others have been based on music, architecture, fashion, education and more.
The food trip is the most repeated one for Vibe, said Landau, since “the food tours are always high up there in terms of the topics that really draw people to Israel... food, fashion, design – anything that is sort of lifestyle but with a twist,” she said. “Our multiculturalism comes through in our fashion and our food.”
To that end, the participants are taken from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Ma’alot Tarshiha, the Galilee and more. They stop at markets, wineries, bakeries, farms and – of course – restaurants.
Along the way, the group is constantly photographing, tweeting, snapchatting and taking down notes for future blog posts.
In addition to Mollenkamp, the tour is made up of South African-based Sam Linsell, a food stylist, photographer and cookbook author; Manu Balanzino, a TV and radio host and digital newspaper editor from Spain; Luiz Hara, a British chef, blogger and cookbook author; and Anuphan and Nithithada Sukhapinda, a couple from Thailand who are popular travel writers and photographers. All are on their very first trips to Israel.
“I know a lot of Israelis in London, and I’ve been so curious to come,” said Hara, who was born in Brazil to Japanese and Italian parents.
“[Israelis are] real foodies and they really love their food and it really inspired me to come.”
Hara, who blogs as The London Foodie, said all the ingredients and meals he’s seen have him longing to get back in the kitchen: “I’ve been writing up a list of dishes I want to replicate.”
Mollenkamp also expressed a desire to cook her experiences: “I do a ton of recipe development,” she said, “and I love what I call souvenir recipes – going somewhere and sharing an expression of what I did, that moment in time, and recreating that recipe for home cooks.”
She said she’s “traveled in other places in the Middle East, and I kind of felt like Israel was the missing piece.”
Hailing from southern California, Mollenkamp said she grew up surrounded by both a large Jewish community and plenty of Middle Eastern influences, so “this whole crescent of the Mediterranean is very appealing to me.”
Vibe – a nonprofit funded by grants and donations and some company sponsorship (it started with government funding but dropped it last year) – requests that each participant write around three blog posts about their experience, but doesn’t enforce that or dictate any of the content.
“We don’t tell them what to write, how to write – we trust that the product will sell itself,” said Landau. “Our whole approach is not to give them the words they should be writing, but to provide them with the experience and let them tell the story. We feel that their own words are much more powerful than a sort of copy paste.”
In fact, she said, a more personal writing style is one of the things they look for when selecting and inviting participants.
“We’re looking for people who write more emotively – they’re not just there to provide facts and figures, they’re there to soak in the culture, to look around and do more than just provide readers with specific information.”
And every participant has been sharing food photos and videos on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and more along the way.
Combined, the participants have a reach of close to 2 million viewers and readers: The Sukhapindas, who run the site TravelKanuman, have more than 225,000 followers on Facebook; Balanzino’s The Gourmet Journal, a digital newspaper, has close to 60,000 Twitter followers; and Linsell’s Instagram feed, Drizzle- AndDip, is followed by more than 16,000 accounts.
According to Landau, none of the more than 100 tastemakers on the various trips over the years has walked away with negative things to say.
“If you take someone from outside Israel, who really knows very little about Israel... if you drop them in the middle of Israel and didn’t even hold them by the hand and take them to the best places – they’ll still end up leaving with a better opinion about Israel than they had before,” said Landau. “Because it’s just so different from what they expect it to be.”