Utah has been promoted as a skiing paradise, a mountain biking heaven and a national park nirvana.
The state’s newest travel pitch has a different flavor — promoting Salt Lake City as a dining delight.
“Our brand around the Greatest Snow on Earth and redrock country are well-established,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism. "Now we want people to understand there also is this urban adventure that involves a lot of amazing food.”
Varela’s office has assembled a delegation of chefs, mixologists and culinary experts who will travel to the East and West coasts to detail Utah’s dining story to food, lifestyle and travel writers.
On Thursday, these representative will make their pitch at Crafted Kitchen, a culinary incubator in the arts district of Los Angeles. Next week, they will repeat the exercise at the International Culinary Center n New York City, Varela said. “We’ll be helping some of the best food and wine and cocktail writers understand the very unique offerings in Utah."
In all, about 90 food and travel writers will taste what Salt Lake City’s dining scene has to offer during the event — called “Utah U: An Education in Utah’s Culinary Scene."
If the promotion proves successful, photographs and stories about Salt Lake City restaurants and food will spring up on websites, blogs and social media sites around the country in the coming days, weeks and months.
“We have some phenomenal small restaurants," she said, "offering really unique curated food that you can’t get anywhere else.”
While the state tourism office has promoted food and nightlife in the past, Varela said, ”we’ve never done anything on this scale."
The gourmet meals will be prepared by the chefs Zachary “Buzz” Willey of Pallet, Briar Handly of HSL and Nick Fahs of Table X. The partners from Salt Lake City’s Water Witch bar will mix craft cocktails; Caputo’s Market will showcase cheese, chocolates and other Utah-made products; and experts from Campos Coffee Roastery and Kitchen will represent the city’s up-and-coming coffee culture.
“The whole reason we opened the restaurant, my whole goal was to do something different for Salt Lake and propel it forward— from the service to the food,” Fahs said. “I’m excited to let people know we are doing cool stuff, and we are very focused on trying to provide the best product we can find.”
For the dinner, Fahs is serving vegetable steak with chickpea puree, spruce salt, and preserved currants using ingredients harvested from the restaurant’s abundant, on-site garden.
Encouraging tourists and business travelers to experience the food, music and culture in Salt Lake City is part of the travel office’s Urban Experiences effort. The proximity to the international airport — now undergoing a major reconstruction — makes it easy to add a few extra days to an itinerary before or after visitors head off to the mountains or deserts.
During the past 10 to 15 years, Salt Lake City’s dining scene has evolved to include dozens of chef-owned restaurants that serve fresh ingredients grown in on-site gardens or nearby farms and ranches. Many of these chefs have honed their craft in bigger food-centric cities but settled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains to start their own food revolution.
“San Francisco, New York, L.A., even Chicago, we look to those cities as trend setters,” Handly said. “But when you look at our restaurants, we are on par with everyone else and setting trends.
“Most people just don’t realize what’s being offered,” he added. "We need to put a spotlight on that and educate people.”
Stereotypes about Utah liquor laws likely will be the biggest obstacle the Beehive State’s food ambassadors will face, even though in recent years they have improved. Two years ago, the Legislature removed Utah’s strict restaurant barrier — dubbed the Zion Curtain — that kept minors from seeing the mixing and pouring of alcoholic drinks.
And on Nov. 1, after 86 years, Utah is doing away with its 3.2 beer law, making way for higher-alcohol brews in grocery and convenience stores.
Still, Varela knows questions will come from those unfamiliar with the state. “Some people may still have the misconception that you can’t get a good drink in Utah,” she said. “But we’ll prove them wrong.”
And the Utahns are betting their mouthwatering menus will make things right.