Who We Are
Karen Herbst – Founder & President
Karen Herbst was for many years a research editor for Playboy Magazine, followed by a stint as a producer and director for five talk shows at CBS radio. She then left the full-time work force to raise her family of three sons. Upon her return in 1983, she chose to enter the travel industry, where she specialized in small group travel to Italy and France. In 1994 she decided to combine her travel experience with her lifelong passion for food and wine to create the The International Kitchen. She has personally handpicked the chefs, locations and excursions and works to ensure that every International Kitchen experience is unique, professional, and richly rewarding. Karen is recognized as one of the innovators of culinary travel, and, as an authority, is an advisor and frequent speaker to industry and professional groups. (She was a featured speaker at the Annual Symposium of the International Culinary Tourism Association, held in Helsingborg, Sweden in September 2006 and most recently a member of an illustrious panel on gastronomy and travel at the International Luxury Travel Mart, in Cannes, France, December 2012.) She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Travel Promotional Council, a non-profit organization working in conjunction with the Italian Government Tourist Office, as well as a member of the Slow Food Organization and the James Beard Foundation. In 2004 Karen was the honored recipient of the La Medaille d'Argent du Tourisme, the French Silver Medal of Tourism awarded by the French government. In 2008 The International Kitchen was given the coveted award of "Best Special Interest Product" by the French Government Tourist Office. Karen was asked to contribute a personal memoir to the latest edition of 65 Things to Do When You Retire: Travel, due out March 2013, from which all proceeds benefit cancer research; she is in the elevated company of such noted writers as George Taber, Lynne Martin, and Mort Gerberg. (Look for it in bookstores and online!) Karen is a member of the prestigious organization of Les Dames des Escoffier, the only organization of its kind: a world wide philanthropic society of professional women leaders in the fields of food, fine beverage and hospitality. The invitation-only membership, composed of 27 individual chapters across the United States and Canada, is highly diversified and reflects the multifaceted fields of contemporary gastronomy and hospitality. Karen is also a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic association dedicated to both professionals and non professionals worldwide who appreciate cuisine, wine and dining. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Davis – Group and Incentive Travel Specialist
"After 28 years in the airline and travel industry I had the opportunity to come to The International Kitchen and work with Karen. I had known Karen for many years during my time with Alitalia Airlines and had always been impressed with the success of her company. You see, Karen developed this niche of culinary travel and has always been recognized as the leader in this field. What I did not realize until after I was working at The International Kitchen is the dedication to customer service that Karen exercises herself and expects from each of her employees. Here the customer really does come first. This, in addition to the quality of the products we offer, enables me to honestly say that I am proud to work at The International Kitchen. I have a product I am proud to sell supported by stellar customer service unrivaled – in my opinion – in the travel industry. I’m one of those lucky people who enjoy coming to work every day!"
Richard is welcomed to The International Kitchen as our Group and Incentive Travel Specialist. He will bring to this new department his many years of experience, in sales for Alitalia Airlines and most recently his association with a large Midwest tour operator specializing in Italy and Europe. He discovered his love for Europe and travel with his first French class in high school. This blossomed into a love of French and Italian history, about which he is very knowledgeable, along with an associate degree in the liberal arts. Over the years, Richard has also developed an interest in cooking, and particularly baking which he claims to be extremely therapeutic! He has an easy and open manner, a quick sense of humor and is always on hand to give any assistance. We are delighted he has joined our "family."
Liz SanFilippo Hall – Web & Travel Coordinator
"I started at The International Kitchen excited to combine two of my loves: food and travel. I stuck around — and love coming to work — because of how much fun it is to work on and create cooking vacations and experiences that lead to so many great memories for our clients. It's always a pleasure to have someone contact us after their trip, whether by email, phone, or social media, to say what a wonderful time they had, and how they can't wait to go back!"
A native to the Chicago area, Liz SanFilippo Hall earned a BA in English/Writing at Augustana College and a Masters in Humanities/Creative Writing at The University of Chicago, where she immersed herself into the study of France and the French Revolution. Through vacations, college excursions, and writing research trips, she’s traveled through England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany, exploring the history and culture that Western Europe has to offer. In addition to her passion for travel, history, writing, and food, Liz enjoys running, swimming, and art, both the kind she creates and studies.
Kerry Herbst - Travel Coordinator
"I am very excited to be a member of The International Kitchen Staff! It fits my interests, experience and personality perfectly."
Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Kerry moved to Chicago in 1998 after graduating from The University of Illinois with a degree in Spanish. Since then, Kerry has always been involved with learning foreign languages and immersing herself in new cultural experiences. She worked for several years in the incentive business; during that time period, she volunteered to teach English to a group of native Spanish speakers in her company. It was this experience that made her decide to go back to school for her certification and Masters in Elementary Education. Kerry has spent the last eight years teaching first and second grade Bilingual Education within the Chicago-land area. With a desire to change gears but keep the cultural and language experiences going, Kerry has now joined our staff. Fluent in Spanish, she has recently started learning Italian. Kerry’s travels to Mexico, Costa Rica, Italy and France have provided her with a great appreciation of other cultures and she is eager to continue to learn. Kerry loves working with people and is looking forward to help plan wonderful culinary adventures for our clients.
Mona Penner – Program Coordinator
"I was a repeat client long before I started working for The International Kitchen. I was and still am a big fan! And I'm still a client, too!"
A native Floridian, Mona is a longtime resident of the Chicago area and a graduate of Barat College with a BA in Art History. With her love and knowledge of art, she has been a valued docent at the Art Institute of Chicago for over three decades. Mona has traveled widely, including Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, China, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Bali. She lived in Paris and the south of France while studying French, and she is currently working on mastering Italian. With a lifelong interest in food, wine and cooking, Mona is a great fit for the company!
Peg Kern – Vice President
Margaret (Peg) Kern is a native of Ohio who received her BA in Italian from Columbia University and her MA and Ph.D. in Italian Literature from the University of Chicago, where she taught language and literature courses prior to joining The International Kitchen in 2004. She enjoys an obvious love for Italy, especially Rome, where she lived for over three years. Another of her favorite Italian regions is Sardinia, where she has passed many summers exploring the local food, culture, and beaches. She is passionate about travel and cooking, and her other hobbies include home improvement, reading, and writing. Although her knowledge of Italian culture makes her especially suited to helping plan your culinary trip to Italy, she is also proficient in French and has traveled extensively in France, especially Provence. She is an expert in our culinary vacations and would be happy to help you plan your trip!
Randy Herbst – Senior Account Manager
Randy joins The International Kitchen based out of New York. While a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Randy spent a summer studying French culture, wine making, and language in the Loire Valley. After completing her summer adventure, she was anxious to revisit France to continue her studies. Two years later, while still in college, Randy was able to return for a semester in Paris, studying with Boston University and interning for a young Fashion Designer. Her time in France helped cultivate a love of French language, culture, and cuisine. Randy has worked extensively in the fashion and design world in San Francisco and Manhattan, where she worked with many Italian and French designers. She loves to travel and looks forward to exploring Italy, Spain, and other destinations further. She is an avid amateur chef and wine lover. When not working at The International Kitchen, you can usually find her in her own kitchen, whipping up fabulous meals for her husband, Tom, and two daughters, Hannah and Liv, cooking prodigies in the making!
Jeanette Benedetti Boylan – Special Projects Coordinator
Tuscan born and bred, Jeanette Benedetti Boylan brings to The International Kitchen a love of good food and her culinary skills acquired at her Nonna's side. In fact, she was featured by the Chicago Sun Times for her famous Italian home cooking; if you were lucky, you were one of those honored with a dinner invitation! As Sales Manager for Alitalia Airlines, Jeanette traveled the world gaining an extensive appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines. She was also able to indulge her love of opera, working in the Artistic Administration Department of the Lyric Opera for a number of years. Jeanette was the recipient of a coveted award from the province of Lucca, acknowledging her as an Italian born American who has achieved notable success in her chosen field of business, and she was one of the founding members of the Chicago chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, an association honoring authentic Italian restaurants, and is also a member of the Chicago Sister Cities International Program for Milan. Jeanette's charm, warm smile and big heart are rivaled only by her love and appreciation of good food! Click here to see Jeanette's recent food review in the "At Play" section of the Chicago Tribune (September 27, 2007)!
Sharon Kurth – Financial Manager
Sharon brings extensive financial expertise that she has gathered through over 30 years of her accounting career. She is delighted to be a part of The International Kitchen, as it reflects her love of travel, art, multi-cultural interests, and did we mention the wonderful food? Sharon's upbeat spirit and contagious laughter is greatly appreciated by the rest of the office. Currently her favorite cities are Florence and Sant' Agata sui Due Golfi, where she toured with The International Kitchen staff. But what does Sharon love more than art, travel and food? Her beautiful granddaughter, with whom she spends as much time as possible! And if being a grandmother didn't keep her busy enough, Sharon is also the Oak Park/Near West Suburbs Chapter Coordinator for Project Linus, a non-profit organization that provides blankets and afghans to comfort children in need.
Charles Blair – Technical Consultant and Product Development
Charles Blair is a native of the United Kingdom who has lived in the United States for many years. He holds advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, where he is employed as Co-Director of the Digital Library Development Center. In addition to his technical expertise, Charles has traveled extensively in Europe, making him a valuable asset in our product development. His appreciation of Italian culture and tradition is enhanced by his study and practice of Italian Renaissance swordsmanship.
Neil Burger – Photographer/Videographer
After having studied Digital Photography and the Fine Arts, Neil whisked off on a career as a videographer for the National Geographic channel in Washington D.C., opening doors he never dreamed of, taking him around the world shooting video and photography. It was there he realized that still-photography was his true passion. Later, when offered a position as a Professor of Studio Photography at Bradley University, he gladly accepted. A year later, Neil felt as if there was still more for him to achieve. He moved back to sweet home Chicago, and for the past seven years Neil has spearheaded Stronghold Photography. Stronghold primarily caters to the needs of designers, advertisers and marketing specialists, providing a wide range of photography and imaging needs. Neil concentrates mainly in the realm of food photography. His passions has graced him with the opportunity to travel the world shooting eclectic food for a variety clients. In addition to Neil’s almost unhealthy passion for creating images and traveling the globe, he also enjoys playing disc golf, reading, mountain biking, and anything chocolate.
An avid traveller, Leonardo Balli has explored countries across the globe but always returns happily to his hometown of Florence, Italy. Leonardo has been involved in different aspects of the travel industry since attending a special Italian High School for Tourism. He lived in London for a number of his formative years and has worked in all aspects of hotel and resort management – from porter, part of a summer animation team, to Director. For an Italian tour operator he has led small and large groups abroad and even managed summer operations on the island of Crete. He has been owner and director of Geo Firias Tour Operator since 1995 and is proud to be a close collaborator with The International Kitchen since its inception. Leonardo works to ensure top quality, control, service and of course cuisine (!) for all International Kitchen programming in Tuscany. When not travelling Leonardo enjoys spending time with his daughter Olympia, going to the movies and listening to music from his wonderful terrace overlooking the Tuscan hills. His favourite city (other than Florence)? London. A destination he still has yet to visit ? Chile.
Ele was born and raised in the countryside outside of Florence, where she still lives with her family. Her passion for local traditions and interest in tracing her ancestors' biographies are part of her everyday life: she is currently working on a special degree on the History of Tuscany at Florence University. As well, she works for the Geo Firias office (The International Kitchen's local representative and office in Florence), where she takes an active part in creating our cooking packages. Ele is also an accomplished singer and songwriter! She hopes to have the opportunity to help people understand that Tuscany is something more than a tourist destination: each town has an own story to tell through its art, its food, its inhabitants. Through her work she hopes to provide you with the essential instruments to be a good listener to these stories: you don't need anything more!!
An academic year of college brought Elizabeth Namack, originally of Sarasota, Florida to Italy. In Florence she fell in love: with the culture, art, history, cuisine, and you guessed it – with her future husband. Needless to say she has not left since! Working in tourism is the perfect way for her to combine her warm personality and intellectual interests. With Geo Firias she works on developing specialized tour itineraries and accompanies groups sharing her knowledge and passion for all things Italian with guests. In addition to a diploma in painting restoration from the Italian Institution Palazzo Spinelli, she holds a BA in Art History from Smith College and a MA in the same subject from Syracuse University. When not working for Geo Firias Elizabeth enjoys cooking, hiking the Italian countryside and Iyengar yoga.
Ronald Holden – Director, Wine Tours
Ronald Holden, director of wine tours for our sister company, The International Vineyard, is the author of five books about wine touring and has helped us develop informal, off-the-beaten-path trips in France and Italy. A native of Oregon, Ronald attended schools in Switzerland and graduated from Yale University; after working for many years as a broadcast journalist in Portland, Seattle, Baltimore and Paris, he founded his own wine and travel company, which he headed up for fifteen years. His blog about food, wine and travel, Cornichon.org, was recently named to About.com’s list of the Top Ten Food Blogs Good Enough to Eat.
Fred Plotkin – Cuisine and Opera Tours
A native of New York City, Fred Plotkin was formerly the performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera and has directed opera at La Scala. He has authored many books, including the best-selling Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Music. Fred is also known for his peerless appreciation of Italian food and culture, and he has written several Italian cookbooks and has been a finalist for several prestigious awards, such as the Julia Child Cookbook award, the James Beard award, and the IACP cookbook award. His classic text, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, was re-released in 2007 in a new, updated edition from Kyle Books. Fred makes frequent guest appearances on television and radio and is heard by millions of listeners worldwide during his appearances on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network and the Met’s broadcasts on Sirius Satellite Radio. He has also appeared on the Television Food Network, on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” and as a guest on morning programs throughout America. Before joining us at The International Kitchen, Fred led highly-praised and very popular opera tours and seminars for Smithsonian Journeys. We could not be more pleased to have Fred lead The International Kitchen's Cuisine and Opera tours!