by amanda rae
World map from different fresh fruits and vegetables, isolated on white
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

DESPITE THE CATCHY NAME, I would have never wandered into the Chinatown Noodle King on my own. Located in a lively neighborhood in Sydney, Australia, the entrance actually looks like a hole in the wall. In fact, our fearless leader, Patrick, a young Aussie native with roots in Northern China, describes the longstanding eatery as daggy.

“It’s a bit rough,” he quips. “It’s seen some times.”

Yet Patrick leads us into the restaurant and through a narrow corridor, past an ancient lady crimping origami dumplings behind the plastic window of a prep room. We end up in a lounge with tall booths covered in royal purple crushed velvet. While our server pours tea, Patrick orders knowingly: stir-fried noodles and lamb dumplings, family style for our group of six.

These foods, including hand-pulled wheat noodles, Patrick explains, are staples of Northern China, where his family lives among the wheat fields prevalent there. In contrast, the southern part of the country is known for rice dishes, where warmer temps and abundant water create ideal growing conditions for the grain. Walk into certain ultra-traditional Northern Chinese restaurants, he adds, and rice might not even be offered. Imagine: Chinese food without rice!

Another stop on our evening excursion is at a second-level food court of a popular shopping mall. It’s a fluorescent arcade of Asian fare that includes all sorts of cheap cuisine: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indian, and others. But we’re here on a mission to sample “the original KFC”: Korean fried chicken, extra crispy and drizzled with sweet soy and julienned green onion.

“Anyone wanna guess what the secret ingredient is?” Patrick asks. We consider the question, and munch on. Nobody guesses that wasabi is baked into the batter, the heat is too subtle. Aha. Murmurs all around.

On another day I meet six people for a wine tour of Hunter Valley, a prominent wine region “out in the bush” some 100 miles north of Sydney. Sean, the long-haired, chatty Aussie dude who drives a van is a riot — tour guide by day, DJ by night, knows the area with his eyes closed. During our grand tour of a half-dozen wineries, we meet makers, pair vino with Australian cheese, even get the requisite photo op with a mob of kangaroos bounding through a field at sunset.

Both of these culinary jaunts were hosted via Airbnb, the insanely popular “people-powered platform” whose foundation is built on unique home stays. Since late 2016, the company has been betting on trips as being big business in the travel sphere. Just as Airbnb links travelers with lodging for all preferences and budgets, its “events, experiences, and tours” component—created and led by local experts—offer an interactive way for folks to immerse themselves in the cultural fabric of a place.

Travelers can make tamales with a family in Mexico City, bike ride through Bali, SUP during sunrise off the Portugal coast, or embark on a “magical camel ride” complete with Berber snacks in Marrakesh. Unsurprisingly in this food-centric, increasingly Instagrammable world, “food and cooking activities are consistently popular among top markets, but Airbnb guests don’t shy away from sports, music and arts-oriented excursions, either,” according to a recent Airbnb press release. The growth of Airbnb Experiences has mushroomed by at least 20-fold since January 2017.

“The key is the host: making sure that they give enough information around the experience,” explains chef-restaurateur Neil Perry, during a tour of his almost-10-year-old Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney’s downtown business district. The restaurant (subsequent venture from Rockpool, Perry’s famed fine-dining institution that thrived for 27 years) is situated in a grand Art Deco building—formerly home to Colonial Mutual, a major insurance firm, until the stock market crash of ’87. As expected, the historical architecture exudes confidence: soaring, three-story ceilings; gargantuan pillars painted to look like imported marble; metal and glass accents to match a Riedel champagne chandelier glittering with 2,682 glasses hanging over the bar.

The sprawling open kitchen at the center of it all boasts a wood-fired grill, charcoal oven, and rotisserie spits, with plenty of room for Perry’s sizeable brigade of some 300 employees. We venture into the kitchen’s enormous meat-aging cooler, where sides of wagyu beef hang nude, and peek into one of many wine coolers, located in the old vault. Rockpool Bar & Grill boasts an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 bottles stored in various cellars, Perry says.

“A lot of people see a big wine list and don’t think about the amount of space that it takes to service that, the space it takes to have a butcher shop and age beef,” the chef explains. Which is why Perry offers a “Go behind the scenes, then wine and dine” Airbnb Experience at Rockpool Bar & Grill, which includes a three-course meal with wine pairings for $156. Easily the most awarded and well-known celebrity chef in Sydney, he’s also the only professional offering such an experience in this city on the site.

I met Perry in Aspen when he judged The Little Nell’s Australia Day chef cookoff in 2016, so I was eager to visit Rockpool Bar & Grill on my whirlwind offseason trip to the Land of Oz. The Airbnb tie-in, like much travel magic, was a surprise.

“It’s massive in Australia,” Perry says of Airbnb, which shares another collaborator, Qantas Air, with Rockpool Dining Group. “It’s trying to make travel something outside the pinnings of planes, trains, and automobiles (and beds)—it’s making it about the culture. Anyone can travel here, stay in a hotel, and have dinner; what we do is that little bit more personalized.”

While the Aspen area is home to more than 300 Airbnb bookings by current count, Experiences haven’t launched here yet. But perhaps those are on the horizon. The intersection of travel, food and wine is where lifestyle is born, after all, and the Roaring Fork Valley has all that in spades. Not to mention passionate know-it-alls who trade intel and experiences as a way of life. So if you’re visiting Aspen and seeking guidance, don’t hesitate to ask a local.

Anyone interested in an underground Aspen food tour?