Anello (Photo by Anna Smirnova)

What’s a UNESCO City of Gastronomy Designation & What Does it Mean for Tucson?


November 29, 2023
By Sam Jump
By Sam Jump

Ever wondered what makes Tucson’s food scene feel extra special? It’s not just about serving up delicious dishes and having a strong web of chefs and restaurant owners. Part of the local scene’s impact rests in it being internationally recognized by a UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

But wait, what’s UNESCO, and what does it mean for Tucson?

Let us break it down for you.

What is UNESCO?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is renowned for designating world heritage sites of global cultural and natural significance. Expanding the concept of heritage from physical places and the past, UNESCO recently extended its recognition to living traditions of song, music, dance, drama, craft skills, cuisine, food culture, and other non-physical aspects of cultural heritage. 

UNESCO founded the Creative Cities Network in 2004 to meld this concept of “intangible culture” with the creativity and sense of place centered in cities. Cities can be designated in one of seven different creative fields, including gastronomy– in the sense of the intersection of food and culture. The designation is a grand honor, and Tucson proudly claimed the spotlight as the first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in the U.S. in December 2015.

Pancetta-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin at PY Steakhouse (Photo by Jackie Tran)

This recognition isn’t arbitrary; UNESCO highlighted Tucson for its long agricultural history, a unique blend of food traditions, and innovative contributions to the local food system. 

To put it into perspective, when your city gets a nod from UNESCO, it’s more than just a pat on the back — it’s an invitation for the world to take a closer look at the unique beauty of our hometown. For Tucson, it’s an acknowledgment that we’re doing something extraordinary in the culinary realm.

As we speak, Tucson’s next report to UNESCO, due every four years, is scheduled for submission in early 2024. Including a look back on accomplishments toward UNESCO’s goals and an action plan for the next four years, it’s our commitment to keeping Tucson’s UNESCO designation in good standing, an undertaking led by the non-profit Tucson City of Gastronomy (TCOG)

What’s the Tucson City of Gastronomy?

Formed in 2016 to manage the UNESCO designation for metro Tucson and its Southern Arizona foodshed, board members represent key stakeholders in the community and local food system. TCOG works to leverage the designation to strengthen the local food economy and food system and increase appreciation of our region’s food heritage and culinary assets. 

“Our mission is growing a sustainable desert community by supporting our creative food cultures. And our work serves Southern Arizona residents and visitors, businesses in the culinary, hospitality, and tourism industries, and community groups striving to improve our food system,” said Jonathan Mabry, Executive Director of TCOG.

Chalupas at El Antojo Poblano (Photo by Jackie Tran)

The organization’s work is guided by explicit values.

“Through our programs and events, we aspire to implement and communicate our core values,” Mabry continued. “They are grounded in recognizing our diverse food communities and helping them tell their food stories, honoring and supporting those preserving our food traditions, spreading the UNESCO designation benefits equitably, spotlighting and partnering with community advocates who are trying to improve the local food system, and encouraging the community to envision a sustainable food future.”

Why does the UNESCO designation matter?

Think of the UNESCO designation as Tucson’s culinary street cred, recognized on a global level. It’s not just a plaque hanging on a wall, it’s a resounding endorsement from the international stage. UNESCO essentially said, “Hey, Tucson, your food traditions and culinary creativity are a big deal, and they should be recognized as such.” 

And you know what? They hit the nail on the head. 

The designation is more than just a pat on the back, it’s a nod to our roots, a shout-out to passionate chefs, and a validation of the blend of food traditions and flavors that make Tucson’s gastronomy extraordinary.

Cafe Santa Rosa (Photo by Jacki Tran)

“Our indigenous foods have been wild harvested and cultivated here for many thousands of years,” Mabry added, “but also, a number of plant and animal foods that were introduced during the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods have now been here for several centuries.” 

Imagine the city’s food heritage as a vibrant canvas painted with the hues of indigenous ingredients, the brushstrokes of Spanish colonial traditions, the spice of Mexican influences, and more layers of flavors added by immigrant communities. In addition to being a dynamic work of culinary art, it’s a gastronomic journey that unfolds like a story, each chapter contributing to the diversity that sets Tucson’s food scene apart. 

This isn’t just about a title, it’s about celebrating how Indigenous and immigrant foodways have influenced each other and continue to interact in this multicultural borderland community.

El Taco Rustico (Photo by Jackie Tran)
How does the designation help Tucson?

The designation has brought a lot of national and international media attention and has inspired new culinary festivals, development projects, and more. The designation also provides a “quality of life” talking point for recruiting businesses and talented professionals to relocate here. It has instilled a shared sense of pride and identity around our food. 

But let’s get real — how does TCOG’s stewardship of the UNESCO designation actually help Tucson? 

Their signature programs and events, often produced through partnerships, include certifying locally owned restaurants, food artisans, and other types of food businesses. 

Mesquite Smoked Salmon Salad at The Parish (Photo by Jackie Tran)

“Many people assume that it only benefits downtown restaurants,” said Mabry, referring to the certifications program. “Actually, it reaches all parts of the city and we do direct bilingual outreach to minority-owned food businesses — that’s why half of our 56 certified restaurants are Hispanic or Indigenous-owned. These certifications recognize them for a commitment to localism, heritage ingredients, responsible business practices, and giving back to the community”

Local eateries aren’t the only ones thriving through TCOG’s work, though. 

“A program that we started this year is our Food Heroes Awards,” Mabry said. “Like many of their programs, this one is built on partnerships. TCOG partners with the U of A Southwest Folklife Alliance to support the Jim Griffith Foodways Keeper Award. “It recognizes people who are exemplary in preserving our food heritage at home,” he explained. “And Si Charro! partners with us to support the annual Food Visionary Award to recognize people and organizations who are helping us reimagine our relationships with food.” 

Charro Steak & Del Rey (Photo by Jackie Tran)

He summed up the program as “The awards are looking both ways — to the preservation of our food past and to our possible food futures. We want to recognize those people and groups who are leading the way.”

Let’s not forget the impact created through events hosted by TCOG. One example is the Pueblos del Maíz festival.

“This year the four-day festival directly benefited 85 local businesses,” said Mabry. “We took the biggest piece of the festival to (John F.) Kennedy Park where more than 4,000 people attended. It was free to the public and it provided vending opportunities for 21 local restaurants, 80% of which were Hispanic or Indigenous-owned. The event also featured 11 regional bands and singers, all of which were Hispanic and Indigenous.”

“Another initiative that Tucson City of Gastronomy has been working on is a new video series called Food Stories,” said Mabry. “The videos are each less than five minutes and they dive into different aspects of Tucson’s food heritage and current food scene. It’s a way for us to help our food communities tell their own food stories through videos.”

To summarize, TCOG is doing more than maintaining the massive international spotlight that’s been fixed on Tucson since the UNESCO designation, bringing a global gaze to our local businesses and propelling them into the limelight. It is also supporting producers of our food heritage, local food businesses setting positive examples in our culinary economy, and stakeholders seeking a fairer and more resilient local food system. 

Why should Tucsonans care?

Now, let’s talk about why you, yes, you sitting here in Tucson, should care about this UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation and the work of TCOG. 

It’s not about some fancy title, it’s about our shared story and identity. It’s the tale of our locally-owned restaurants, our diverse food vibes, and the extraordinary synergy that happens when cultures share recipes. This UNESCO thing we’ve got going — it’s our way of proudly declaring to the world, “Hey, our food scene is not just good, it’s downright extraordinary, and everyone needs to know about it.”

Huevos Rancheros at 5 Points Market & Restaurant (Photo by Jackie Tran)

“The fact that almost two-thirds of our restaurants are locally owned, independent businesses (much higher than the national average of around 40%), and their authentic connections to the food of this place and this community, is what makes Tucson’s food scene so different and remarkable,” Mabry added. “The tagline for our program certifying restaurants and other food businesses is ‘local, responsible, and delicious.’ These are chefs and artisans who are giving back to the community and making foods that taste distinctively of this place and not like anywhere else.”

How can you support the cause?

Mabry’s got the playbook, and the invite is crystal clear: “Vote with your wallets and presence.” 

What’s the translation? It’s a rallying call to support our local food joints, embark on adventures at new eateries, and dive into events that celebrate Tucson’s food legacy and food culture. It’s not just about the food on your plate, it’s about actively participating in the success of Tucson’s culinary journey.

“Get out there, try unfamiliar locally owned restaurants, and flex your taste buds,” he added. “You’re not going to be sorry.” 

Roasted Carrots at Tito & Pep (Photo by Jackie Tran)

So, gear up, Tucsonans, because every choice to dine locally and attend events that uplift our local food heritage is a vote for the continued success and richness of our city’s story.

To learn more and get involved with Tucson City of Gastronomy, visit tucson.cityofgastronomy.org where you can sign up for their newsletter, attend an event, support Certified restaurants and artisans or programs, and check out their videos. You can also follow along on their Instagram, Facebook, and Linkedin

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Sam Jump is a conduit of empowerment and connection, fueled by her drive to leave a mark on the world that reminds others of the power of compassion, curiosity, and community. Her ability to integrate clear vision and mindful communication...

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