After a 16-year career at USAA, Julia Celeste moved on to writing for San Antonio Magazine’s food section for 12 years, and taking on the role of Zagat San Antonio Editor from 2007 to 2016, before finally launching Food Chick Tours last year. Who better to learn from than a seasoned vet who has watched the culinary field and the city change for the past 30 years?
Tours range from $120 for “Dulces for the Dulce” with a look at bakers and memorable treats to the $250 Barbecue Road Trip, a 7-hour marathon of smoked meats from legendary Texas joints. Celeste is equal parts informative and entertaining, as she weaves San Antonio trivia with recipe background on just about every dish.
Make sure you’re ready to keep up with this 2017’s Rookie of the Year at the Global Food Tourism Conference — she keeps a tight schedule.
The Current caught up with Celeste to chat about tours of all sizes, how she curates experiences for out-of-towners and what locals can learn from hanging with The Food Chick.
What’s the most requested tour?
Pearl Progressive Dinner Stroll – offered four weeknights only.
Who goes on them?
Sometimes couples from out of town looking for a unique, guided dining experience they’ll remember. These guests usually have experienced food tours in other cities (and are blown away by mine, which is pretty cool). I also see adult family members with their spouses who are in town to vacation together. Many of my groups are business folks in for a conference, or companies looking for a customized client or employee appreciation experience.
What’s the weirdest/funniest thing people love to learn about San Antonio through your tours?
The Phil Collins/Alamo connection; about nixtamalization, masa and the Chili Queens; that the CIA has a campus here; that Texas produces wine (duh); the interesting backgrounds of the chefs we visit and meet.
What’s the biggest tour you’ve done?
I was asked to create two days of tours for a group of 50 people from a Texas-based company. Day one included a barge ride to/from their Riverwalk hotel to Pearl for breakfast, then a walking tour of Pearl followed by lunch. Day two was a full day that included a trip to their manufacturing facility plus three different food stops all around town and out of town. Whew.
How do you prepare (physically speaking) to tackle a big day’s worth of eating/drinking?
I always start with a 2-3 mile walk with the dog early in the day. I try to eat light during the day, but the fact is, I don’t want to be hungry on the tour and tempted by all of the great food. I don’t usually eat as much as my guests do, but I have to eat to make them feel comfortable. It’s a tough balance.
I suggest they wear comfortable walking shoes and an elastic waistband. It gets a laugh during the tour preparation communications, but halfway through the tour they often comment about what a good suggestion that waistband is!
Describe your ideal food-driven San Antonio-specific tour (if you could combine the puro and the nuevo, where would you go):
I love taking guests to my favorite masa producer, followed by tacos at a tiny local taqueria, jicama/fruit cups at fruterias and/or pan dulce from a Panaderia. I like to finish at South Alamode Gelato for Josh’s passionate artistry or at Bakery Lorraine to experience high-end pastries. If time and interest allows, I also enjoy taking people on a tour of La Michoacana, and helping them buy ingredients and goodies to take home. When I travel I always hit up the local grocery stores, so I see value in sharing that experience with my guests.
What’s the farthest anyone has come for a tour?
Capetown, South Africa. It started as an inquiry about the all-day BBQ Road Trip, and turned into 2 days of regional touring, city exploring and all-access dining. I organized a lot of special behind-the-scenes events for him and we had a wonderful time. It’s still my most memorable tour, although by the end, it felt like I was parting with a friend. I also had a mother/father/son come in from outside Vancouver to take the SA BBQ (Up in Smoke SA) tour because the 11-year-old was SO into Q and food in general. I organized a tour with every pitmaster we visited. The young man was beaming when the family drove away, and so was I. This town is filled with culinary talent and generous spirits; I feel very lucky to know where to find them.