In 2009, we started reporting from a borderless urban zone we like to think of as the “Culinary Backstreets” because we believed that there were countless stories of a city’s foodways that needed to be told. We wanted to focus on a more traditional side of urban culinary life – the workings of simple family-run restaurants, the masters passing their craft on to an apprentice, the banter of regulars gathered around an open table, the rhythm of a life committed to meatballs and nothing else. We were enthralled by all of the tiny epics we encountered while eating our way through the city and set out to share as many of them as we could. From the start, we vowed to go slow and collect these stories one-by-one, giving equal measure to the culinary side as the human element of the story. This way, we expected a deeper understanding of the city and its daily life to emerge with every bite. For us, it’s never just about the best meatball in town; it’s always about all of the meatballs.
We tell the stories of our subjects – unsung heroes who are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted at home – through weekly restaurant reviews published on CB, culinary walking tours, books, web design and smartphone applications. When we see the need, CB also acts as a fundraiser for causes connected to protecting and promoting traditional culinary culture.
By publishing the stories of our local heroes, visiting them on culinary tours, or directly fundraising for them when they are in need, we attempt to honor their work and their essential role in maintaining the fabric of the city. Our purpose is twofold. Yes, we want to get travelers to some good places to eat. But we also want to make sure that some of these spots and the artisans making food there find a new audience and get the recognition and support they deserve. They are holding back the tide of globalized sameness, which is not easy work – even if it’s done unknowingly. But we believe that every meal counts and, with the help of our audience, they will add up. We are committed to their perseverance and hope that our modest efforts encourage them to keep at it.
Our work is also guided by a belief in:
Honest Tourism: The places where we eat and craftsmen that we feature on our culinary tours are all selected with this purpose in mind. We’d never accept a free lunch or consider a discount for our tour groups, because that would contradict our central goal, to support them. Nor do our guides receive any commissions from shopkeepers.
Honest Journalism: The same principal is applied to the publishing of stories. There are no sponsored posts or even advertising on CB. The writers and photographers are paid fairly for their work on stories that we all believe in.
The cities we are drawn to all have a culinary tradition of untold richness as well as a certain tension, be it political instability, the tug between East and West, the clash between modern and ancient identities, migration, rapid gentrification, bankruptcy, or a post-colonial hangover. Our decision to get started in a city is always the result of a trip filled with many meals where we are given in intimate view of that tension, right there on the table. By getting lost in this warren of independent food purveyors struggling to preserve or adapt tradition in fast-paced urban life, we start to discover the deep complexity and true flavor of the city.
At present, you’ll find our regular dispatches from Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Shanghai, Mexico City, Tbilisi, Tokyo, Lisbon, Porto, Naples and Queens, NY. In the Elsewhere section, we feature one-off reports and small series from cities outside of our regular beat that we just couldn’t resist.
Helping those unsung culinary heroes persevere requires first and foremost the telling of their stories. All of us working with Culinary Backstreets are storytellers in our own medium – writers, tour guides, photographers, coders and web developers. All of us work independently or as freelancers. That is the CB culture and we strive to create a refuge of independence in media and tourism, even if it’s a small one.
CB’s work was started in 2009 by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer as a humble food blog called Istanbul Eats. The following year we published a book of our reviews, now in its fifth edition. That year we also launched our first culinary walk in Istanbul, a route we are still using today.
In 2012, we realized that what we built in Istanbul was needed in other cities we knew and loved. We started CB that year with Athens, Barcelona, Mexico City and Shanghai as pioneering members of our network.
In 2013, we added Rio and also launched our iPhone application in Istanbul.
In 2015, Tokyo and Tbilisi came into the fold. That year we published mini-guides to Barcelona and Athens and also launched an iPhone application in those cities. Our Eatinerary service, which provides travelers with tailor-made culinary travel itineraries, was also launched in 2015.
In 2016, Lisbon – the latest city to kindle our curiosity – joined the CB network.
In 2017 we added Naples and Queens, NY – two places with very compelling stories to tell – to our roster and also published full-size eating guides to Athens and Barcelona.
In 2018, Porto joined the list of cities we cover.