3. UNESCO City of Gastronomy

By April Bourie

Tucson was designated as the country’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in large part in recognition of its long history of using indigenous and Spanish ingredients in restaurant menus and in residents’ homes.

“The designation of Tucson as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy was a great way to validate something already happening in Tucson,” said Felipe Garcia, Visit Tucson president and CEO. “Our local gastronomy is on par with the top culinary destinations around the world.”

This designation went further than acknowledging that our chefs can create some delicious entrees.  As one of the country’s oldest, continuously inhabited and cultivated region, Tucson’s noteworthy gastronomical heritage has been in the making for 4,000 years.  

Only 50 Cities of Gastronomy exist in the world. To qualify, a city must demonstrate that it possesses all of the following characteristics:

  • Well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the urban center and/or region;
  • Vibrant gastronomy community with numerous traditional restaurants and/or chefs;
  • Indigenous ingredients used in traditional cooking;
  • Local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement;
  • Traditional food markets and a traditional food industry;
  • Tradition of hosting gastronomic festivals, awards, contests and other broadly targeted means of recognition;
  • Respect for the environment and promotion of sustainable local products;
  • Nurturing of public appreciation, promotion of nutrition in educational institutions and inclusion of biodiversity conservation programs in cooking schools curricula.

Two-thirds of Tucson’s 1,200+ restaurants and bars are locally owned, compared to the national average of 40%, and Tucson has 12 times the number of locally owned food trucks and carts per capita than New York City.

According to Visit Tucson, the city’s culinary heritage encompasses distinct Mexican and Native traditions in both food and drink. Many of our chefs often promote the health benefits and unique flavors of heritage ingredients like chiltepins, cholla buds, prickly pear pads and fruit, mesquite flour, tepary beans, and White Sonoran wheat. 

“Tucson celebrates and is proud of its origins and its diversity,” Garcia said. “Our community has been inhabited by the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes for thousands of years, and we have welcomed and embraced the cultures of immigrants from Mexico, China, and all over the world. We are a unique place that is proud of its identity.”

Travel is the leading export-oriented industry in Arizona, and according to the World Food Travel Association, visitors spend approximately 25% of their travel budget on food and beverages. Cities of Gastronomy benefit from increased global media exposure, which in turn results in increased tourism. 

“Southern Arizona looks – and tastes – like nowhere else in North America,” said Graeme Hughes, Visit Tucson executive VP.  “Tucson’s culinary scene has long had a loyal following, but now the secret is out.  We’re attracting national and international travelers to our tables because our unique food culture is a primary motivator for visitation.”

More recently, Visit Tucson has begun to claim that Tucson has “America’s Best Mexican Food.” Crediting “sizzling street food to family-owned gems hidden in colorful barrios in addition to platefuls of authentic south-of-the-border flavor from mouthwatering Sonoran hot dogs to rich Oaxacan mole and everything in between,” Visit Tucson’s website states that Tucson is a haven for adventurous foodies “looking to spice things up.”

Many of the chefs using heritage ingredients in our Mexican food and other dishes have been recognized by the James Beard Awards, which recognizes exceptional talent in the culinary arts. Those chefs, both winners and nominees, include Janos Wilder, El Guero Canelo’s Daniel Contreras, Barrio Bread’s Don Guerra, El Charro Café’s Carlotta Flores, Boca Tacos y Tequila’s Maria Mazon, Tito & Pep’s John Martinez and Tumerico’s Wendy Garcia. This goes to show that our famous chefs know exactly what to do to keep diners wanting more.

Our culinary special events support Tucson’s City of Gastronomy designation. From the Agave Heritage Festival held each spring to the Pueblos del Maiz held each May and Tucson Meet Yourself, held in the fall, there are many ways for visitors and residents alike to experience and enjoy Tucson’s variety of delicious and unique cuisines.

In addition to Visit Tucson, Tucson City of Gastronomy programs incubate and promote local food businesses through certifications and endorsements of restaurants, food artisans, culinary events and experiences.  TCOG also develops and enhances culinary events by increasing collaborations across local organizations. In addition, TCOG brings together chefs from all over the world to promote Tucson’s culinary options internationally.  In so doing, the organization has sent chef ambassadors to sister Cities of Gastronomy in seven countries to share Tucson’s food heritage and cuisine globally.

All of these efforts help Tucson to maintain its worldwide reputation as a destination for enjoying unique dishes, cooking classes and food-based events that have their foundations in our rich cultural heritage.


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