The Washington Times - July 13, 2008, 12:03AM

By Julie Schwietert, Editor and writer MatadorTravel

New Orleans, LA (July 2008)…In the not so distant past, a vacation was just a vacation. You worked hard throughout the year as the carrot of a two or four week getaway dangled in front of you. Would you luxuriate on a beach under the Caribbean sun, or hop across the pond for a continental shift, the idea being that the farther away work was, the freer you would be?

As the line between work and the rest of life becomes increasingly blurred for more people, though, vacation isn’t just vacation anymore. A growing number of vacationers are no longer satisfied with the passive pleasures of sun tanning and beachside book reading; they want to be on the move. They want to get their hands dirty. And, curiously, they want to use their free time… to help others?

This is the idea behind voluntourism, one of the newest and most compelling trends to emerge in travel in a long time. The tourism industry and numerous non-profit organizations have united in unlikely partnerships to create win-win experiences for travelers, hospitality businesses, and communities alike. For tourist-volunteers, the end result is often a satisfying experience that not only took them to a new place, but also got them inside the local culture that wouldn’t have been possible any other way.


Christine Carroll , Founding Director, Culinary Corps. (Photo courtesy of Culinary Corps.)
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It was for this reason that my husband, Francisco Collazo, and I joined the Culinary Corps for its fifth voluntourism trip to New Orleans this June. The Culinary Corps, nicknamed “the Peace Corps for Cooks,” is the brainchild of Chef Christine Carroll, an energetic and intelligent woman who believes that disaster-stricken communities can be restored to health through the cooking and sharing of good food.

To that end, she takes groups of professional chefs to New Orleans twice a year to work in various neighborhoods in the Gulf Coast area that are still rebuilding, three years after Hurricane Katrina struck. Over the course of 5-7 days, the chefs—who are strangers to each other before the trip—come together as a team to plan gourmet meals for Habitat for Humanity volunteers, as well as for fundraising and community building events.

They also create culinary learning experiences for children and teens in disadvantaged neighborhoods through innovative partnerships between the Culinary Corps and local community based organizations and schools, such as the Samuel J. Green Charter School’s Edible Schoolyard (ESYNOLA) and Café Reconcile.

While reality shows extol the overblown personalities of big-name chefs who rarely step into the kitchens of restaurants named after them, the real celebrity chefs are the Culinary Corps volunteers, who set aside their egos to take a quick but comprehensive assessment of New Orleans’ culinary culture— its unique food and lifeways—and who provide meals for people who have often gone without the taste of good food for a long time.

The 12 hour days spent in markets and hot kitchens, huddled over cutting boards and steaming pots, serving meals, and washing dishes are worth all the hard work as those being fed say, “Sure, I’ll try a tamale” with a huge smile, come back after eating to say, “Thanks so much for being here; it means a lot to us,” or return for seconds… and sometimes, even thirds!

The week isn’t all hard work, though. Carroll packs the schedule from morning to night, but she makes sure that the chefs get immersed into the culture of the Crescent City as deeply as possible. From beignets and chicory coffee at Café Dumond to an authentic Louisiana crawfish boil with New Orleans First Lady of food, Poppy Tooker, Carroll’s connections in the city give her volunteer chefs access to authentic New Orleans in a way that a casual tourist strolling in the French Quarter wouldn’t be likely to achieve.

The June trip included a guided tour of the Lower Ninth Ward with New Orleans Share Our Strength director, Ashley Graham, blueberry picking at a Mississippi farm, the opportunity to work alongside famous chefs like Paul Prudhomme at the opening of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, a dinner with Gumbo Tales author Sara Roahen, and a luxurious farewell dinner at Cochon (alligator! pork cheeks! rabbit liver! ), which is ranked by the New York Times as one of the best restaurants in America.

By week’s end, the chefs—from places as far flung as California, Pennsylvania, Kansas City, New York, and Nevis, and with training and culinary preferences equally diverse—had forged a solid and spirited team that could hold its own in any kitchen. They left New Orleans knowing that they made a positive contribution to the ongoing efforts of rebuilding the infrastructure and spirit of one of America’s most unique cities. And they went home fired up with as much energy as they would have had after a traditional vacation—if not more— recharged by the experience of having made a difference.

   
Fast Facts & Practical Tips

    According to a study conducted by the University of California at San Diego, 40% of Americans express an interest and willingness to take a voluntourism trip.

    Are you one of them?

    For more information about voluntourism opportunities, visit Matador Volunteer or VolunTourism.org.

About the Author:  Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer and editor for MatadorTravel. She is also the number one fan of her husband, private chef Francisco Collazo. Read more about their work and their travels on their website.