Meet the Man Who Eats the World's Best Food and Gets Paid For It!
WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS ARTICLE ON AN EMPTY STOMACH.
When you're travelling the world, a huge part of discovering a place is discovering its cuisine. This is something that Christopher "Welshy" Wilkinson, a crucial team member at our sister company Topdeck Travel, knows all too well. Being part of Topdeck for 10 years, and Head of Catering since 2013, it's Welshy's job to find the best restaurants, dishes and cookery classes for the touring company's many itineraries – which take holidaymakers all over the globe. After hearing a bit about it, we reckon this might simply be the best job in the world, and we're all super jealous. Join us as we turn green with envy, and learn more about the man who eats the world's best food, and gets paid for the pleasure:
First off, tell us a bit more about your amazing job.
I help oversee all food experiences that are enjoyed by our global touring passengers. On any given week I could be sourcing the best pasty in Cornwall, restaurants for Thanksgiving in New York, adapting food safety catering policies in Africa and looking after our 40 Topdeck chefs who are running our sites and camping trips in Europe.
What made you want to get into catering? Specifically – why catering in the travel industry?
Since the age of four I wanted a food truck in Wales. The idea of getting out and about, bringing my food to people, has been the core of my catering life. Meeting people, cooking them the best of local food and having the chance to be part of their memories for life is an honour; what’s better than a full belly and a lot of laughs?!
Catering in the travel industry has opened the kitchen doors to a whole world of hungry people craving memorable and authentic food experiences. I’m fully aware that our thousands of passengers save for a long time and rightly have high expectations, and it’s our mission to deliver that with fork in hand and a smile every day. This job has allowed me to cook and eat the finest and freshest local dishes all around the world, getting paid to live a life that other chefs can only dream of when they are stuck in one place.
I still love the idea of a food truck, but right now I’m collecting recipes from my travels and putting them into my cookery book!
What do you love most about your job?
When working as a Topdeck chef to managing the latest crew, I love how a group of people who have never met can become the best of friends in a short space of time and share the most amazing experiences together. Watching people react to their first frogs leg in Paris, or hearing their gasps when they see the size of a pork knuckle in Munich or laughing when they drop the bread into the fondue at our site in Lauterbrunnen (Switzerland) – it never gets old.
What do you love most about working for Topdeck?
I love the on-road teams, in particular our Topdeck chefs, so very much. Seeing them develop from keen enthusiasts to professionals in the field through our training programme is really a tear jerker. They work so hard to deliver life-changing travel experiences. Reading the positive comments from our passengers, or overhearing the accolades and thanks that our chefs receive, really fills me with pride.
What challenges do you face in your role?
Everyday there is a fresh challenge to deal with, from keeping up to date with food safety legislation to ensuring our chosen restaurants remain consistent in delivering the selected menus. With over 400 restaurants globally, that’s no easy feat. Although I’m based in London, getting out there and maintaining a friendly relationship with our suppliers is really key in my role. I love being able to give good news and thanks to our suppliers and friends, some of whom we have worked with for over 20 years.
Are there still dishes that surprise you? If so, what is the most recent example?
In this hashtag day and age, everybody wants to try something new, popular and unique (check out #Topdeckeats). The last fusion food I tried was a sushi burrito in Las Vegas. Its sumo sushi for somebody with my appetite, and I loved every last dribbling bite of salmon and tuna with rice, edamame and wasabi rolled in a tortilla wrap! The cruffins in San Fran (a croissant-muffin cross) aren’t worth the hype!
Tell us about your favourite travel food memory?
I planned a day of overindulgence in New Orleans last year that nearly defeated me, but it was quite possibly the happiest day of my life. I had been planning it for six months, researching everything I could. I plotted a map of my route and got up real early and didn’t stop. Aside from the awesome food, a handful of Topdeck chefs just happened to be holidaying at the same time and joined me throughout the day; great food, great friends in one of the most amazing destinations on the planet. Meeting locals and learning about their resilience, soul and the importance of food, music and tradition in the aftermath of Katrina made it one of the most inspiring days of my life. I walked eight miles that day and here’s what I ate (don’t judge me): grits with meat, alligator sausage po’ boy, espresso and cannoli, praline bacon, boudin balls, ½ dozen fresh oysters, shaved ice snowball with condensed milk, Café du Monde beignets and chicory coffee au lait, Cajun fried chicken, seafood gumbo, rabbit and sausage jambalaya. Each step and every bite was incredible.
How do you go about finding the best places to eat or the best dishes around the world?
Firstly, I think of what an area is famous for and what I would like to eat. Then I compare that to the history of a country and region. My mission is to make every food experience memorable and authentic, so our passengers don’t feel like they are being herded around another generic restaurant. Some menus write themselves: who doesn’t want truly amazing pasta in Italy or paella in Spain? Other destinations take a bit more homework to find that something special. Dine in a medieval restaurant in Tallinn that has a live sword fight and local honey beer; try traditional Nubian dishes when you pull your boat up to the banks of the River Nile; sample a historic lunch in the spiritual Monument Valley, prepared by Native American guides; or cook your own steak on the barbie with a glass of bubbles in the Aussie Outback.
What’s your funniest food-related incident?
I used to be pretty famous for food fights in my kitchen (don’t tell my boss!). A friend once egged me on by putting a dab of Nutella on my face. In Italy there is such a thing as a 5kg jar of Nutella. There was an empty jar and a lot of hosing down after. I won. Enough said!
Which country do you think produces the best cuisine and why?
I admire the respect and history that Italy and Spain holds for its cuisine, and they will always have a huge place in my heart. However, North America is really a foodies' paradise, people have such fierce pride all over the country for regional food. But then when I worked in Melbourne and Auckland, I never had a bad meal (but plenty of avocado!). Pick a country in Asia and tell me the food doesn’t blow you away, or the game and spices in Africa, or should I be patriotic and fly the flag for good old Britain? Roast dinners and fish and chips have made me who I am. There is fantastic food to be had everywhere you turn and, if you do it right, the best cuisine is in every country.
What is your favourite food to cook?
Eating such amazing food does take its toll on my once slender figure! I try to compensate by being a bit healthy at home, so there are a lot of Asian influences in my cooking right now, crispy skinned salmon with kecap manis, chilli and lime with wholegrain rice, five-spice chicken with veggie noodles, beef pho. I also watched the movie ‘Chef’ with Jon Favreau recently which has given me a love for Cuban food. I found a recipe for the mojo pork and it's immense.
Where is your favourite place in the world and why?
Mercato Centrale in Florence and Rome. They bring award-winning masters of all things Italian together under one roof. Literally the best buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, truffles, bread, balsamico and prosciutto you will ever eat. My mate Freddie makes a pizza like you have never tasted, and his beautiful wife Tina will serve you one of the 13 types of Spritz on the menu. Follow that with a cheeky Sicilian cannoli with pistachio and you may have some idea why it’s my favourite place in the world!
Given all the food you’ve tried from around the world – what would be your last supper meal?
I can literally close my eyes and hundreds of meals come to mind. But right now, I’m going to have a four-course meal. It’s my last meal, right, so who cares if I make a pig of myself?!
I will start with Spanish tapas, calamari, croquettas, jamon serrano and fried pimentos. Follow that with a whole Maine lobster and a bowl of melted butter. Then a Florentine steak with just lemon and olive oil from House of Sizzle, Florence. Follow up with a dozen or so profiteroles from my favourite Parisian patisserie, covered in chocolate sauce, and maybe a cheeky side of Eton mess. Stick a fork in me, I’m done!