About Us

Michele ToporFrom a very early age Michele could be found either tending to the garden with her mother or helping her father in their little family grocery store in central Massachusetts. Her Polish heritage was a source of great pride and she embraced all of the family customs.

Despite the comfort of family and her hometown, the big city was calling and she left for Boston to train as a registered nurse. Although a nursing career was rewarding, food and cooking remained a magnet and a great way to be creative and entertain her friends.

Hoping to recapture her small town atmosphere, Michele discovered and moved into Boston’s North End. This tiny, warm and somewhat foreign community felt like the village of her youth. She felt at home as she wandered and shopped the little markets and began a quest to learn a new culture and cuisine. Her spare time now turned into endless jaunts to Italy to study and learn Italian culture and cuisine.

Michele is the recipient of numerous professional diplomas and certificates from, among others, Bologna’s La Scuola Di Cucina (Marcella Hazan), the “Cooking in Florence” Program (Giuliano Bugialli), as well as a professional chef’s diploma from Madeleine Kamman’s Modern Gourmet. She is certified by the National Institute of the Food Service Industry.

A 40-plus-year resident of Boston’s North End, Michele has taught cooking, catered, and consulted on Italian food since 1979. She has served as Guest Chef at several Boston-area restaurants, including Davio’s “Salute to Calabria” (1996) and The Seaport Hotel’s “Les Dames d’Escoffier” (1998).

Michele designed The North End Market Tour to introduce her cooking class participants to her neighborhood and to sources for authentic Italian ingredients. Since 1994, Michele and her personally trained guides have shared their passion for the food and wine of Italy on this one-of-a-kind, five-senses-alive, walking cooking class. Their goal is to convey not only the secrets of the cuisine in the high quality of ingredients, but also to provide a sense of regional tradition, the healthfulness of the Italian diet, and that very Italian love of life.

Michele’s cooking classes, market tours and culinary trips to Italy have been featured on television — including Travel Channel, TVFood Network, HGTV and CNN, on the radio, and in various national and international publications. As one of Boston’s leading authorities on Italian food, wine and culture, Michele’s infectious enthusiasm, broad knowledge of Italian cuisine, and extensive travels throughout Italy make her an ideal cooking colleague, tour guide and travel companion on your quest for discovery of La Bella Vita.

In her free time, Michele enjoys traveling, tending to her award winning roof-top garden and entertaining friends. If you can’t find her, she’s likely to be wandering happily at any farmer’s market, fish pier or ethnic grocery store.

Our Guides

Since Michele is not available to conduct most of the tours, she has selected a team of guides for their enthusiasm, personality, cooking background and professional experience. Our guides are all personally trained by Michele to convey not only the secrets of the cuisine in the high quality of ingredients but also the sense of regional tradition, the healthfulness of the Italian diet, and that very Italian love of life.

“Come closer, we have stories to tell…”

Jim Becker

Jim Becker

It often surprises people to learn that Jim Becker, who began cooking in restaurants at the age of 16, speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. But then, Jim is full of surprises. After earning a degree in Asian studies at the University of Vermont, and years of intensive language training in Taiwan, Jim decided to indulge his life-long passion, and enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, from which he graduated with high honors.

Jim went to work for Lydia Shire when she opened her landmark restaurant BIBA in 1990, and, after three years returned to the Cambridge School, this time as an instructor in the Professional Chef Degree Program, where he developed the Asian component for the program.

In 1998, after a stint as Executive Chef at Rustica, a pan-Mediterranean restaurant in Belmont, Jim tapped into his many years summering in Spain when he opened his first solo venture, Rauxa Restaurant and Cava Bar in Somerville. His menu of evocative dishes inspired by the rustic tradition of Catalan cooking, found in Mediterranean Spain and Southern France, drew raves from Boston diners and the food community alike, along with two Best of Boston awards, two Wine Spectator awards, and an invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York.

After a year as Executive Chef at Taranta Cucina Meridionale in the North End, Jim began freelancing, a journey which eventually landed him on the doorstep of Michele Topor, where he began working as a Tour Guide for the North End Market Tours.

Although Jim has a great knowledge of Mediterranean food, it was easy to recognize that his knowledge and passion for Asian cuisine surpassed that, hence a new tour was developed. Today, Jim enjoys nothing better than weaving his way through the narrow streets of Boston’s “Little Italy” or “Chinatown”, leading visitors in walking cooking classes, where he is able to combine his love of food with his passion for teaching.

Beth Applebaum

Beth Applebaum

Beth Applebaum loves to teach-anyone, anywhere, anytime. For the past twenty five years, she has taught Special Education and has been an outspoken advocate for children with special needs. A private tutor for the past seven years, Beth is currently teaching dyslexic children to read.

One can trace her love of teaching back to a year spent in Torino, Italy in the mid-70’s. During that time she worked at a private school teaching Conversational English to Italians, and learning the Italian language from her students in return. Her love of teaching, combined with a passion for cooking make Beth a perfect guide for our North End Market Tours.

Beth’s cooking skills are put to good use each year during the numerous events at which she volunteers. She runs Artist Hospitality at the Boston Folk Festival, making all of the pastries for the artists and program donors, and keeping them happy with Prosciutto, Mozzarella and Basil Panini. She also caters for friends, school events and numerous charities, and does volunteer work at WUMB, the folk music station at UMASS Boston.

When she’s not teaching, volunteering or guiding tours, Beth is happiest fixing a plate of her homemade Butternut Squash Tortellini with Butter and Sage, and enjoying the tranquility of her garden in Cambridge, a garden full of flowers and flowering fruit trees that remind her of Italy.

Al Stankus
Al Stankus

Talk about full circle. Sixteen years ago, when Al was writing for the Boston Herald he took Michele Topor’s “North End Food Tour.” In his “Food Finds” column, he wrote that “[the tour] defuses a minefield of Italian food misconceptions liberally sprinkled with cooking tips and bits of history.”

During his time as a writer, in addition to two food columns – Food Finds and The Sunday Gourmet, where he quickly grew tired of poached eggs with hard yolks and something he derisively described as “tired tasting home fries,” Al also served as co-editor of the Boton Zagat Restaurant Survey for seven years. With music writer Bob Young, the duo collaborated on “Jazz Cooks: Portraits and Recipes of the Greats.” Do a Google search and you can find copies for $5, meaning it will cost more for shipping than the actual book.

Sensing (correctly) that print journalism was a shrinking force, he parlayed 15 years of food writing and ten years working part time in the city’s largest wine store into becoming the wine director and spirits specialist at Davio’s in Park Square. Overseeing a wine list pushing 400 bottles, he loved the restaurant life until a torn rotator cuff cut short his once-promising career. And now he’s back to help those who take the tour learn to “defuse a minefield of Italian food misconceptions.” And he promises a generous dose of “sprinkles” over your time spent with him.

Jackie Church

Jacqueline Church

Jacqueline Church is a perfect fit to guide our Boston Chinatown Market Tour. To begin with, she’s lived in the neighborhood for years. She married a Cantonese American man, and had a traditional Chinese wedding (wearing a Cheongsam) at Hei La Moon, our favorite place for dim sum. Then there’s the fact that Jackie was a bona fide “foodie” way before the word stopped having any real meaning. (Today, everyone considers himself or herself a “foodie”).

A self-described “recovering lawyer”, Jackie’s interest in the culinary arts began with her discovery of Julia Child as an adolescent. Add in a fascination with Jacques Cousteau, which gave birth to an intense love of travel, and, in turn to an examination of global food issues.

Jackie works as an independent writer, speaker, event planner and trainer. Her work often focuses on the intersection of gourmet food and sustainability issues. She strives to help others make practical choices to adopt “sensible sustainability” in their approach to food, thereby improving their lives and reducing their impact on the planet. She regularly writes on topics ranging from biodiversity, to heritage breed pigs, to the latest in food, chef and restaurant trends. In 2010, Jackie was nominated for a Chefs Collaborative Pathfinder Award.

Shyness is definitely not an issue with Jackie. She’s been known to go up to complete strangers to tell them a little tidbit or two about her neighborhood; the significance of the guardian lions at the Chinatown gate, or the newly opened restaurant she’s just discovered that has best potstickers in all of Boston.

We’re delighted by her enthusiasm, and no doubt you will be too if you’re lucky enough to have her as your Chinatown tour guide.
Suzi Parks

Suzi Parks

Suzi grew up in New Mexico where she learned about cooking, baking and candy making from her mother, father and grandmother. During her first 3 month trip to Europe in 1985 she became intrigued by the Mediterranean diet, and charmed by the farmer’s market way of life. She enrolled at the International Pastry Arts Center in New York, where she studied with Chef Albert Kumin,  White House Pastry Chef for President Carter. During return trips to the east coast,  she did an intensive self-study in the cooking of Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman; later taking part in workshops in Julia’s Cambridge home.

Moving to Boston, she followed her new passion- pastry, working both in catering and restaurants. She felt especially at home with the neighborly atmosphere of the North End. Walking to work in the mornings as Pastry Chef at Mamma Maria, she would be greeted by some of the older gentlemen with a “Buon Giorno, don’t you look lovely today!” During her years at Mamma Maria, Suzi became very familiar with Italian desserts as well as real Italian food, and the restaurant received Boston Magazine’s coveted award for  “Best Italian Restaurant”.

As a Pastry Chef she excelled, in 1998 winning the first Architectural Masters of Pastry competition. As co-founder of the Professional Pastry Guild of New England  she was among the first group of pastry chefs invited to do a brunch at the James Beard House in NYC. She has worked as “on-call” pastry chef at numerous prestigious Boston restaurants and caterers. Suzi has been featured in articles including Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Elegant Weddings Magazine.

Today, Suzi teaches Cake Decorating at Bunker Hill Community College and Boston Center for Adult Education,  and Truffle Making at ChocoLee Chocolates. She makes wedding cakes for fortunate couples and desserts for lucky friends; many of whom still swoon over memories of her Tiramisu.
Rebecca Reilly

Rebecca Reilly

Rebecca Reilly’s maternal French Grandmother would not be surprised that her granddaughter has always embraced seasonal ingredients in her cooking, even before it became every good chef’s mantra. After all, Rebecca’s European upbringing included modeling her culinary mentors love of “farm to table” cuisine. Raised in Germany, with summers spent in upstate New York, Rebecca  absorbed from an early age, the wonderful cooking skills her grandmother and mother passed down to her. Years later, Rebecca would find herself in Florence, on a self-imposed sabbatical, soaking up the culture, and learning valuable culinary tips from the locals.

This ingrained love of good, fresh food led a college-aged Rebecca to Paris, where her culinary career began with stints at both Cordon Bleu, and the renowned Le Notre Patisserie. Back in the States, Rebecca added to her already impressive resume, by enrolling in Madeleine Kamman’s Modern Gourmet School in Newton, MA. This new set of skills led to opening her own cooking school, catering business and ultimately the Madd Apple Café in Portland Maine.

What neither her grandmother or Rebecca herself could have foreseen was an unexpected detour into the world of gluten-free cooking. After her young son began experiencing a variety of health problems, it was confirmed that he, his sister and Rebecca herself were gluten intolerant. It was the 1990’s, before gluten-free products were readily available. With determination, Rebecca set out to learn a new way to cook. Reworking recipes from her childhood, she became a pioneer in the field, and, in 2000, published one of the earliest books on the subject, “Gluten Free Baking” published by Simon and Shuster.

Today, while working toward a degree in nutrition, Rebecca teaches gluten free baking, and lectures on the subject at national conferences. We are delighted to have her leading our specialized tour through the North End during which participants discover how to adapt healthy Mediterranean dietary principles to enhance a gluten-free lifestyle.
Teresa Tolentino

Teresa Tolentino

Teresa Tolentino is a bit of an enigma. An Italian name, a Filipino heritage, and fluent in French … who is this person?

Born in the Phillipines, raised in the USA, and a former part-time resident of the French Riviera, Teresa is as comfortable around a Chicken Adobo as she is around a Bouillabaisse.

While living in France, Teresa would often make weekend forays across the border into Italy to stock up on Italian products not found in the local French markets. During those shopping sprees in Liguria, she marveled at the abundance of seafood, and mountains of fresh herbs, so important in Ligurian cuisine.

The Mediterranean lifestyle of shopping in the open-air markets helped forge a passion for cooking, and a commitment to eating a balanced healthy diet. One lasting lesson from her time in Europe is a keen appreciation for simple dishes made with top-quality, fresh, in- season ingredients. Teresa has wholeheartedly embraced this philosophy and lives it every day.

Like most of our tour guides, Teresa leads a double life- working full time in the real estate business. The allure of the North End drew her to the neighborhood, where she quickly became friendly with many of the local vendors.

Today, you are likely to find her guiding our tour participants down the narrow North End streets, imploring them to join her in her mantra: Simple…is…best!