The "food sherpa" is not a novel concept. He or she is better known as that random guy or gal on Anthony Bourdain's
No Reservations Parts Unknown who usually takes Bourdain out to eat in some hole-in-the-wall for local fare and perhaps a piece of offal or two. Now, The New York Times reports there's money to be made from this trend, as people now want "food sherpas" of their own. According to a report in today's Dining section, when people travel, they want to travel the way Bourdain does it—find some strip mall joint serving the best phở in the city that only the locals know about.
"It’s that line of thinking that explains the rise, over the last few years, of a new kind of travel specialist — so new, in fact, that the cognoscenti haven’t yet coined a name for the job. "For now, let’s call them the food sherpas**," The Times's Jeff Gordinier writes. Some of these people also go by the title "Epicurean Concierge," while other guides-in-training seem to be hardcore foodies or semi-popular food bloggers. I like the term "food fixer," but only because I watch too much Scandal.
Here's a prime example of an "epicurean concierge" enjoying sisig (undeniably the best Filipino dish on the planet) with Bourdain on No Reservations:
The job is pretty basic—show a couple people where to eat and get paid anywhere from $75 to $100 per person for a three-to-four hour food expedition. But it's perhaps the demand for this service that's more telling. People want to get jostled out of their comfort zones and go get noodles in Flushing instead of gorging on Guy Fieri junk in Times Square.
And the fad also shows that, despite the many stories of how powerful (and manipulative) Yelp and user-generated reviews have become, it's still not that easy to get an authentic, local food experience that is actually satisfying. When you go somewhere that Yelp tells you to, there's still a good possibility you could end up at a well-reviewed restaurant where the food stinks.
That's where these "food sherpas" come in. "Thai people go to a certain restaurant that specializes in a certain dish. If you order wrong at any particular restaurant, you’re hosed. We are obligated to tell people not just where to go, but what to order," Jet Tila, a Los Angeles chef who runs tours of Thai Town, told The Times. Speaking as one who has unsuccessfully navigated Los Angeles's K-Town and Thai Town on his own, having someone like Tila help you order would be a godsend.
"My tours cost more than the other tours, but I hire informed industry insiders to lead them," says Lisa Rogovin, who runs a fancy food fixer business where she calls her guides "epicurean concierges." Though we fully believe Rogovin can make San Francisco's food scene accessible, her comment kinda highlights what some people don't like about the "foodie" industry—that it's pretty pretentious.
Gordinier explains another real risk—you could get stuck with a bootleg tour guide: a "foodie" who just wants to trumpet his own eating accomplishments:
Then there’s the inevitable downside of any booming trend: with food tours cropping up all over, you could pick one led by a local chef, an award-winning cookbook author or an experienced blogger, or you could wind up with some food-truck-savvy charlatan who just moved to town.
In my life, that charlatan is a person named Dennis.* You probably have someone like that in your life, too—someone who always has a recommendation of a great Sri Lankan place in Staten Island, talks about ramps like they're Channing Tatum, and waxes poetic about his transcendental experience at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare. Dennis is probably seeing this article and is thinking about all the money he can make. Don't be Dennis. But if you aren't Dennis, by all means, go and follow your food fixer dreams. Or, you know, at least e-mail me the best place to get sundubu in K-Town.
*Dennis is obviously not this man's real name.
** As The Washington Post's Anup Kaphlehave pointed out, Sherpa is actually a term that refers to an ethnic group from Nepal, not a profession. Yes, there are Sherpas who are adept at navigating mountain ranges in the Himalayas, but the word has become a Western synonym or shorthand to refer to a guide. I've amended and tried to minimize the Gordinier's term in this piece.