In the Dordogne, images pop up around every turn, like snippets from a romantic movie; so perfect they are almost cliché. Arched bridges span winding rivers, bright yellow sunflowers bask in the heat, medieval castles and beleaguered windmills perch over ancient villages and twisted cobbled streets.
It is fitting, then, that in this fairytale region of southwestern France, Steve and Laura Schmalhorst have decided to launch a dream of their own, do what they do best: feed the dreams of others. “I want people to have the experience they have always imagined in their head,” Laura says.
Lofty goals? Maybe. But Laura is no stranger to launching visions. She was the youngest female chef of Boston’s culinary landmark restaurant, The Harvest. She learned to cook under the tutelage of well-known chef, Lydia Shire. When Shire left The Harvest, Laura was given the title of Chef and hired Sara Moulton (now executive chef for Gourmet Magazine) to be her sous-chef.
“We were the girls of Boston back then,” recalls Laura. “And making quite a splash.” She recalls many nights when Julia Child would come into the restaurant and feed her words of encouragement. “I feel we were pioneers for future women chefs.”
In 1982, Laura moved to Tampa for warmer weather and bigger dreams. She also had a son, realized quickly that a chef’s life was tough on a new family. She started A La Carte Catering and spent 18 years catering private events, openings, dinners and countless weddings.
“You learn a lot about creating dreams when you work with brides,” she laughs.
She also began a fairy tale of her own, meeting her then future husband, Steve, at work. Their pairing a success, Steve and Laura went into business with Outback Steakhouse in 2000, and became joint partners of the A La Carte Event Pavillion, an event facility that sat over 1,000 people. She catered weddings, parties and even an NHL all star dinner for 5,000 people.
“I think I was destined to cook for the masses,” she laughs.
The Schmalhorst’s had something else cooking in the back of their minds. They both love to travel, to cook (and eat) good food. For years they talked about combining their two passions in a business. In 2004, they decided to take the leap. The Schmalhorsts sold their share of the business to Outback Steakhouse, began full-time research and creation of Vagabond Gourmet, a name they feel well represents their passions.
“We are easy going travelers who go where the wind takes us – as long as it takes us to good food,” says Steve. He adds, “ It’s not quite a cooking school, unless you want it to be, and it's as far from a motor coach tour as you’ll ever be.”
In July 2005, the first guests walked through the doors of a 500-year-old priory in France and turned their dreams into reality. "Vababond Gourmet is the best of both worlds, still creative cooking but in a faraway place,” says Laura.
On this sultry summer evening, faraway in the Dordogne, Laura bounds out the door of Le Prieuré au Chateau Biron. “I need parsley,” she says, and makes a beeline for the vegetable garden behind the well, where she snips a few sprigs before retreating back to the kitchen.
Steve and Laura found the American-owned priory turned pied-à-terre online and decided to make the luxurious villa the centerpiece of their Dordogne tour. Le Prieuré sits in the center of Biron, a small village literally in the shadow of the largest castle in the region. (Rumor has it there are underground tunnels linking the castle and the priory.)
Originally built in 1515 for the priors, priests of the region by the first Duke Gontaut-Biron, Le Prieuré today is a perfect balance of history and modern elegance. The original stone staircase shows the wear of thousands who treaded before. It leads to six completely renovated suites and apartments, with names like Rêve, dream and Ciel, sky. “It’s exactly what we were looking for,” Laura says, noting Le Prieuré’s warm environment and private rooms.
The vista from the back terrace, like the rest of Dordogne, is picturesque. Laura has dressed the outdoor table with a blue-and-yellow tablecloth and a vase of hydrangeas and sunflowers. Travelers, Kathy and Henry Redmon, are holding hands in the garden, while Carlen Bardin and Steve are sitting under a shade tree, sipping a local wine from nearby Bergerac. Above them, the sky is cloudless and almost the same blue as the wooden shutters on the stone house.
The Redmonds and Bardin are old friends, supporters of the Schmalhorst's new endeavor. Henry, a plastic surgeon in real life, is barefoot, snapping photos of the old church in the distance. Bardin and Steve are talking about their first visit to Dorgogne several years ago. Bardin and her husband, Jeff, have been the Schmalhorst's travel partners for years, the four have been to this part of France several times, often deviating from major roads, without maps, to discover the hidden gems that make these tours unique.
“Anyone can do what we do,” Steve says. “But we feel we will do it better because we have spent the time and done the legwork to research the best of everything.”
And they have Laura in the kitchen. The door opens again, this time Jeff appears wearing a black apron covered with little white roosters. “It’s ready,” he announces. The group rises. After a few rooster quips, they head toward the dining room. Jeff enjoys the kitchen, spends most of his time as Laura’s assistant.
Laura welcomes anyone to join her in the kitchen for instruction, or simply to watch, but she cautions that Vagabond Gourmet is not a formal "cooking school" vacation tour in the traditional sense. In fact, while there is plenty to do, there is nothing overly structured about a Vagabond Gourmet trip. Steve likes to call Laura “the gourmet", and refers to himself as “the gourmand". He is much more than that. His “no problem” optimism is indestructible. He puts together well-researched yet relaxed itineraries for those who wish to venture out. “Or you can roll up your sleeves and hang in the kitchen with Laura, shop with her and learn from her.”
Personal chef and caterer, Guillaume Alinat, born and raised in Provence, will treat Vagabond’s guests to regional specialties of bouillabaisse, aioli montsre, leg of lamb and tian, to name a few of the menu items. Alinat gladly invites guests into the kitchen to learn first hand how to make dishes “you won’t find back in America".
“I want to show ‘off the beaten path’ Provence; the true roots of the region, not the Monte Carlo or the Cote d’Azur side, but the terroir.”
When guests aren’t relaxing around the pool at the luxurious “le petit micracle” in the picturesque provencal village of Oppede-le Vieux, they will be visiting markets, olive oil farms and dining at Edouard Loubet’s two Michelin star restaurant.
“We want people to immerse themselves in an experience,” Steve says.
The real focus of each of Vagabond Gourmet’s tours is the kitchen. With that in mind, the only “mandatory” event on any Vagabond Tour is dinner.
Back in Dorgogne, where Steve and Laura will be again in July of this year, guests have filled their week with a visit to the thirteenth-century chateau in Beynac and a leisurely pique-nique (prepared by Laura) on the banks of the Dordogne River. They strolled through a local market in Sarlat. They wine tasted at the Château de Tiregan, and celebrated Bastille Day right outside the front door of the priory at a traditional fête du village.
Tonight’s dinner, like every night, is all about Laura’s cooking, served on a long, country-style wooden banquet table overlooking the garden and rolling Dordogne hills. A conscientious chef, Laura’s love of food is contagious. One can’t help but anticipate the chanterelle mushrooms she tenaciously hunted down at the open-air market this morning. We are not disappointed. All of Laura’s four-course meals have been worthy of a Michelin star. She is a true alchemist of flavors, and has surprised our palates with dishes of grilled white peaches and foie gras, pomegranate glaze, grilled duck breast with walnut liqueur, coq au vin and duck confit. Her desserts are prepared from the freshest ingredients, be it berries with chantilly cream, or tonight’s lush surprise – a lavender crème brûlée that Jeff accurately describes as “like taking a bath and eating dessert at the same time".
Steve raises his glass and toasts his guests. “Live, Love, Laugh, Eat.”
He should add “dream” to the list.
Vagabond Gourmet also guides guests on tasty tours of Key West, Tuscany, Asia, New Mexico, Mexico and Scotland to their list of Gourmet Tours in 2007.