Chef and owner Mark McDonald of the Old Vine Cafe will be hosting a culinary course and tour to Italy in January. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / August 23, 2010)

COSTA MESA — With the rise in popularity of reality-TV cooking shows and a growing demand for culinary education, chef Mark McDonald saw an opportunity to expand a small neighborhood café into something outside the traditional food-service model.

In January, McDonald — chef and co-owner of the Old Vine Café in Costa Mesa — will partner with the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary and Pastry Arts to take a group of about 25 people on a 10-day culinary adventure through southern Italy.

"The average consumer's food knowledge has grown," McDonald said. "People are interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is prepared."

The trip will take "culinary adventurists" on a journey through parts of Sicily and Calabria. The group will visit wineries and farms. They'll also cook with chefs from the Italian Culinary Institute, in order to experience Italy like a true Italian, McDonald said.

"What this trip offers is an exclusive experience in a region not commonly visited by tourists," he said.

As a business opportunity that is increasingly being recognized by travel agents, McDonald's specialized tour targets Americans' increasing appetite to know not just what they're eating, but also the craftsmanship and cultures behind the dishes.

Culinary tourism was recognized as increasing in appeal for both local and international travelers in 2007 by the Travel Industry Assn., which released a study claiming 17% of American leisure travelers engaged in culinary or wine-related activities while on vacation.

Citing these findings, Elizabeth Harryman, travel editor of the Southern California Automobile Club's Westways Magazine, said research shows reasonable evidence that culinary travel will continue to increase in popularity.

In a recent poll of Westways readers, 88.9 % said they enjoy experimenting and trying new types of food when they travel, Harryman said.

"Increasingly, American travelers are becoming more adventurous in the foods and experiences that they try," Harryman said.

McDonald hopes that people will return from his trip with a greater appreciation of the foods and wine he and his brother, Brandon McDonald, serve at Old Vine Café.

Already McDonald has had several reservations for the January trip. If it's a success, it's something he'd like to start doing on an annual basis for his customers, he said.

"We have a clientele here that like to travel," McDonald said. "They like to experience and see new things. If we didn't have such great clientele, this would not have been feasible."

More information on McDonald's culinary adventure can be found at http://www.oldvinecafe.com.