From the moment I met Avital Ungar, founder of Avital Food Tours, I knew I had met a kindred spirit. Full of energy and beaming, she walked into the room with the perfect mix of confidence, elegance, and down-to-earth charm. Her curiosity and desire to experience the world led her to France and later to China where she sampled all the countries had to offer and savored in their culinary delights. When she returned to her San Francisco home, she followed her passion for food and bringing people together by starting her own company at the age of 25.
I have a special place in my heart for all expats and global citizens but what makes Avital unique is her ability to redefine and transform every day experiences. Her 2-3 hour food tours on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings are distinctive. They’re not just a food crawl–they’re a memory. Avital has arranged her tours so that visitors see some of the best San Francisco has to offer and to those of us who live here, we get to experience our home through fresh eyes and taste buds.
The Mission District is considered one of San Francisco’s coolest neighborhoods. Perhaps it’s because I’m just not hip enough, but before I went on Avital’s tour, I only visited the Mission for 2 reasons: the food and going out. I’ve occasionally noticed the bright multi-colored murals as I whizzed by on my bike, but I never stopped to look or to understand what they represented. I knew about popular places like Mission Cheese, but I didn’t know the founder, Sarah, and her story. She told us she went on a “Cheese Mission” and journeyed to 13 states in 3 months to find America’s best cheese.
Avital’s food tour begins at the Women’s Building, one of San Francisco’s most noted structures. Maestrapeace, the mural illuminating the walls, depict women’s wisdom over time and “maestra” in Spanish means “teacher,” a female one. In other words, the mural illustrates for all passerby’s (even those that whiz by) what it means to teach peace in a feminine way. It’s absolutely stunning, and I can’t believe it’s been 2 miles away my entire time in San Francisco, and I never made time to see.
I admire Avital for many reasons: she’s traveled, she speaks Mandarin and French, she’s following her passion, she started her own company, she’s living a truly meaningful life. What makes Avital special, however, and her tours so powerful is her ability to create an environment where each person has an opportunity to walk away knowing an essential truth: you don’t have to buy a plane ticket to taste life.
Avital in her own words:
What first prompted your love of food?
My love of food began after I saw the movie Chocolat. Inspired by the story and the chocolate, at the age of 20, I picked up and moved to a quaint French town in search of my own Johnny Depp. It was there in the land of Michelin stars and Burgundy wine that I had my culinary awakening like many people who work in the food world professionally. I would wander the cobblestone streets, smell a freshly baked baguette, enter the boulangerie and indulge. I eventually found my favorite bakery and decided I was going to try every single thing in it. I simply followed my nose and my taste buds.
Can you tell us more about your experiences abroad and how they influenced you?
After France, I ended up living and working in China. I loved being abroad because I approached every day as a new day, and loved it! Even though I’d often be frustrated by language barriers, there was always something new and exciting to try! Now I joke, living back in my hometown of San Francisco, I still act as a tourist living abroad because I’ve taken the ideas of daily adventure and brought that spirit back with me. I ride the cable car home and am constantly discovering new and exciting places right in my own backyard.
Why did you decide to create a food tour company?
Our culinary walking tours stemmed from my passion for sharing the hidden gems I had discovered in San Francisco. I’ve always loved telling stories and I wanted to create a fun experience that helped tell the story of the food, where it comes from and the people behind it.
What’s most rewarding about running your own company?
The excitement that everyday is something new and watching it grow. I get excited about every new twitter follower and facebook like on my fan page. If you want to bring me enjoyment, please like it too! (www.facebook.com/AvitalTours and https://twitter.com/#!/AvitalTours)
What’s one of your most unique stories from something that happened on a tour?
To me, my favorite moments on the tour are when my guests try something they may never have tried before. When we visit San Francisco’s first Ham and Oyster bar, Hog and Rocks, many people have never tried oysters. Scott Youkilis, the owner, speaks to our group about the five types of oysters, how terroir influences their flavor and tells stories of restaurant patrons. Once, one guy came in and ate 6 dozen oysters by himself! If he had been able to eat one more dozen, Scott told the guy the restaurant would have paid for all the oysters he ate!
What the craziest food you’ve ever eaten?
Donkey. I lived and worked in Shanghai before moving back to my hometown of San Francisco. While living in China, I encountered lots of crazy foods. Though I grew up eating kosher-style, I love trying new things, adventurous eating included!
What do you do in your daily life to live it meaningfully?
Eat. Someone once asked me if I could live to 90 years old by eating healthy or live to 75 and eat whatever I want, my choice would definitely be the latter. On another more sentimental note, I talk to my family frequently, which keeps me grounded.
Who is someone in your life that’s been your biggest champion and how has that made a difference in your life?
My family has been my biggest champion. My dad, mom and brother all own their own businesses and continue to give me invaluable advice. They are my own personal PR firm and cheerleading squad.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
There are a lot of amazing things about my job. A friend once asked me how many hours a week I work. My answer: I’m always working and I’m always playing. There are no boundaries between the two, since my work is my play and my play is my work. It is my job to eat at the hot new restaurant. It is my job to try a new bottle of wine. I simply call it “research.”
What would be your last meal?
- Appetizer: Arugula salad with goat cheese and beets
- Entrée: Filet Mignon with side of mashed potatoes
- Dessert: Chocolate truffles
What would you do if you had 6 months to live?
I’d be doing what I’m doing now!