If you’re lucky, there will be a moment when you’re traveling when you’re completely immersed in your surroundings, with no thoughts coming up that rush you back home, just the gift. For me, the pursuit of this feeling is what drives me to travel – and ultimately – what drives me to care more about experiences than things. This sensation happened to me earlier this year when I and 20 other people traveled around the world to attend a chef-led culinary summit. Francis Mallmann at The Vines Resort & Spa in the Uco Mendoza Valley. Over the course of five days, I learned about his Seven Fires cooking techniques and was introduced to the fine wines of Argentina by director Mariana Onofri — all with one of the world’s most majestic landscapes as a backdrop. Somewhere between Mallmann revealing his metaphorical culinary language and me climbing the Andes on horseback just before sunrise he registered — I am hereand I will not again.
Of course, the experience of deep travel feels different depending on the person. But more broadly, prioritizing experiences over things is a growing trend. Local Travel Co-founder Huw Owens says he has seen a significant change in recent years, with accommodation options even going as far as being in the ‘experience economy’ to attract visitors. “A lot of the requests we get are focused on experiences,” says Owens. “This trend also has a fundamental meaning of removing layers, being true to yourself, creating a connection with the people and the place you’re going through, making a connection.”
‘Connection’ is a motif that comes up a lot when I’m at the culinary summit with him The Vines; it’s an explorer’s club made up of members who travel to wine-growing regions around the world to learn the craft from legends and dive deep into the local culture, whether in Montalcino or Mendoza (the latter of which is the main outpost). “We have said many times from the beginning that members are not buying vineyards or making wine, they are becoming part of a community and having unique, curated, casual experiences,” says founder Michael Evans, offering samples of lunch with Antoine Roland-Billecart in his private dining room in Champagne and listening to Chef Mallmann play his guitar as a few examples of how members have been able to participate.
I begin my journey with the Vines gathered around a large dome under the Argentine summer sun. Chef Mallmann is there waiting for us. “Every time I start a fire I feel like it’s my first day because it always surprises me, it always teaches me things,” he tells the group. This spirit of learning – and the willingness to keep trying – is the starting line for the summit. “It’s like being a kid again, that’s the beauty of cooking. We have to stay close to that child.” He shows us how to build a fire with just one match, and we spend the rest of the day taking part in sessions such as knife skills, an Argentinian empanada and pizza cooking class, and Seven Fires training at the Centre. a little hell (or “little devil”), an ancient technique that uses two fires with a cooking level between them.
For the next few days, I continue to immerse myself in Mallmann’s Seven Fires, a collection of open-flame cooking techniques that pay homage to his native Argentina and the fires of his childhood in the mountains of Patagonia. The restaurant on the property – seven fires — the only Mallmann’s restaurant in the world where it hosts the seven fires. Here, we also experience the sacred Grill used for asadas (traditional Argentinian barbeque), the dome from day one, and the Curanto where we learn how to grill meat and vegetables (this is the old style of pit cooking featured in Mallmann’s The Chef’s Table Netflix episodes).
Almost immediately from the moment Chef Mallmann began his summit, a strong respect for the place was established. I was in Argentina, among the vineyards in the Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountain range. I felt thousands of miles from home and it completely nourished my soul. “To me, a luxury experience is about doing something that is authentic and true to the destination,” says Owens. “I think it really delivers that you have to flip the travel industry on its head and put local people, based in the destination, in direct contact with the traveler rather than hiding that expertise. You have to ‘look behind the curtain’ and beyond the bland brochures that prevail.” If ever there was a time I felt most ‘in the company of the locals’ it was here – Chef Mallmann presiding over my red onion chopping and sipping Torrontés and Malbec with wine colleagues.
We were given the opportunity to take our cultural immersion a step further and get up just before 5 am for a sunrise horseback ride in the Andes. A small group and I left the property under an inky black sky towards the mountains and crossed the uphill paths with only the stars to light our paths. As we neared the top of the mountain, the colors changed and a beautiful palette of orange, red and pink washed over our heads. When we finally reached the top, a traditional Mendocino breakfast of hot mate tea and a small bonfire was waiting for us. To me, it felt like magic. And it was around this moment that my stance on unique luxury experiences over expensive purchases felt not only confirmed, but strengthened.
All too soon, I found myself at our farewell meal — a long table set within the vineyards surrounded by string lights with the sun setting over the Andes in the background. Somehow in a few days, the group had become tight-knit and the conversations lively and familial, despite the fact that no one knew anything about the other group’s political views or belief systems. The next day before checking out and flying home, I share this observation with Evans over breakfast. “The table is the antidote,” he replies. “People come to share experiences and time together. We need more of that table-setting and table-building; it’s really hard to be calm when you’re enjoying good wine and food together.”
While it may seem counterintuitive to some to prioritize trips and experiences like this over saving for a house or trading crypto, the opportunity and privilege to connect with different people and cultures fulfills my life’s purpose. Probably, more than anything could ever.