I’ll have St. Pete with a Squeeze of Lime

The rain pelted against the house, sounding like rocks tossed by an angry neighbor, waking us well before our six am alarm went off. I trudged out of bed, turned up the heater then returned with two cups of strong coffee and crawled under the blankets. A strong gust lashed against the windows as my wife checked the outside temperature. 44 degrees. She took a big sip of coffee, wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “I want to go back to St. Pete.”

I was brought to St. Petersburg, FL on a weekend business trip; and we hit the Florida jackpot. Waking up to a view of gently swaying sailboats on shimmering salt water set the tone for the weekend. We were there to eat so we headed to the Farmer’s Market just a few blocks away. We found a great selection of coffees, juices, empanadas (from Mr. Empanada no less), pastries, pretty local vegetables, delicious BBQ, local seafood and so on. The selection was so enticing I found myself wishing for a commercial kitchen so I could cook dinner for 60. From there we headed out for an early lunch at Mazzaro’s Market, the reason we were in St. Pete in the first place. Mazzaro’s is one of those places that feels as authentic as a favorite pair of worn-out shoes. It’s as rustic, exuberant and crazy as a 100 year-old market can be, yet it’s only been around less than 20. It’s filled with relics of Italy that appear to have been set down and then forgotten, only to become part of the scenery. I overheard one of the cooks asking for his pizza peel and his supervisor pointed to the wall, now graced with a cracked pizza peel.

“We hung that thing up a few weeks back; there’s another one around here somewhere.”

Mazzaro’s roasts their own coffee, rolls and fills a variety of pasta, has local seafood, a good looking butcher’s case, a great eclectic selection of Italian wines and features the heaviest cheese ever shipped to the US. It’s an 1,100 pound loaf of Provolone that hangs from the ceiling via thick chains, like a giant cheese Marlin at a salt water pier. Travelers stop and pose for pictures with this behemoth before mentioning to no one in particular, “we should come back when they cut this thing.”

My wife and I sampled a wide variety of goods and when we went to pay, the bill came to astounding $16. Trader Joe’s should be as much fun.

We refueled with espresso then headed to the beach. The charming town of Pass A Grille, just south of the famous Don Cesar hotel, is a brightly painted respite of warm spring colors yet it was the beach that stopped us in our tracks. I love everything about swimming in salt water and I’ve been to beaches up and down the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific. Pass A Grille’s shimmering Caribbean blue water took my breath away. We weren’t dressed for a swim but after I caught my breath, I started shedding my clothes, my wife certain I wasn’t going to stop until it all came off. Fortunately I was wearing shorts. The sand was fine and sugary white, the water clear, salty and delicious, and the sun cast it all in an exquisite light. When I emerged, we started counting our assets, wondering what it would take to retire in one of these cottages.

That evening we met up with some old friends who walked us downtown to the Edge District. We started off with craft brews at the appropriately named Cycle Brewing, where the tables are made from recycled bicycle parts, cash is the only payment and their product features cycling related names such as wheelie, chain slap, and fixie. Their beers were delicious and followed the small batch trend of brewing with local ingredients or aging in whiskey barrels. We downed our pints then headed to Bodega and some of the most memorable Latin food I’ve had.  Bodega, a tiny snack shop of a restaurant, doesn’t really have table service. One orders at the window and when your food is ready it’s brought out to you in paper boxes or wax paper. The Cuban pork, redolent with garlic, lime and cilantro, glistened in its own warm pork fat and salt. The grilled chicken was marinated in coconut milk, the Cuban sandwich was rich with pork fat and butter and to cut through all that fatty wonderfulness, Bodega makes their own chile vinegar and soda Fresca. My wife’s Fresca, flavored with hibiscus, cane syrup and lime, was sparkling perfection. With a squeeze of lime on the fried plantains and a dash of Cholula for the black beans and a sip of frothy ale, we were in heaven.

Bodega lunch

To fight off the pork-induced lethargy, we finished with a thick shot of their intense Cuban coffee. We then walked across Central Avenue to Green Bench Brewing’s beer garden where we enjoyed outdoor music paired with a spicy White IPA, rich Coffee Stout and a hearty Brown Ale. The balmy weather, friendly atmosphere and spicy shrimp buns from I Wanna Wok food truck put the icing on the day’s cake.

“Well John,” our friends asked, “y’all ready to move to St. Pete?”

When I said yes, I’m pretty sure it was the craft brew talking, or the salt water, or the hospitality, or the Cuban food. And 36 hours later, when that cold Carolina rain was beating against our house, we started plotting our return.



The Ripple Effect


“Mom?  It’s John.  Just calling to say we’re home now.”

We had spent an entire week with my mother.  We cooked for her almost every day, took her out for oysters, looked through old photos, sat with her in the kitchen and shared coffee, and listened as she told stories of her childhood to our kids.  And after seven days with her we packed up and drove home to Greenville.  And as we turned into our neighborhood I called her to say we were home.

“Oh wonderful!  I’ll go open the front door.”

“South Carolina mom.  We just got home in South Carolina.”


The next day I sat in my supervisor’s office and wiped away my tears as Karen told me that yes, the memory of that entire week was already gone.  She had seen many families torn apart by Alzheimer’s and now here I was, going through the same thing.

“John, you’ve got to make plans to get her out of the house and into a facility.  She cannot and should not live alone.”

We knew Mom was having memory issues and the fact that Amy and I lived 800 miles away, wasn’t helping.  At the time I was the Food and Beverage Director of an enormous retirement community in Greenville.  And because our customers were elderly; the staff was constantly learning about the special requirements and care through a variety of continuing education products.  And I interacted with a lot of dementia patients in our Memory Care facility.  So after a couple of days with Mom, there was no mistaking it, she was fading either through Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia.  It didn’t really matter, the end result would be the same.  A steady, downward, and ultimately fatal decline. Shortly after our visit she began a two-year journey from a retirement home to an assisted living facility, on to skilled nursing and finally a memory care facility.  The last time we saw her she was living strictly in the moment, she was very happy yet she had few recollections left.  Her childhood songs and memories were very vivid yet she every time she saw me she struggled to remember how long I had been in her company. Or how old I was — or where my brother Tommy was.

“Is Tommy still playing football?”

I didn’t say “not in 25 years” which would have been the truth, I just held her hand and said “No ma’am.”

When my brother and I were younger, she loved cheering us on.  She didn’t really understand sports, whether it was my brother’s football games or my cycling, yet she knew we were out there giving it our best shot.  The first time she saw me race was in Lafayette, LA at a criterium (a tight, winding one-mile course downtown) that was part of the Acadiana Festival.  It was Louisiana hot and muggy and I baked then withered, fell away from the lead group and managed to finish in 9th place.   When the winning break jumped away from the main group, I wasn’t able to respond.  I kept thinking I had the wrong gear set, hadn’t trained properly or didn’t have enough water the day before.  It didn’t matter now.  Dejectedly, I pedaled over to her.  She immediately hugged me and told me how much she enjoyed the race.

“It was like watching a ballet on wheels.  The way everyone bent into the corner in unison then twisted upright.  The movement, the sound, the colors.  You were so elegant and the sound the bikes made as you all whizzed by.  It was all so…wonderful.”

I was drenched in sweat and disappointed in my performance yet I couldn’t help but smile.  Mom found the beauty in the sport.  She didn’t understand the tactics or technique but she certainly knew how to make me smile. After buying all of us lunch; Mom asked me why I raced bikes.  Why not another sport?   I liked the speed, the competition, the team aspect of it.  And I loved being out on the open road, watching the city fade away to a lush landscape of multi-hued greens and blues.  But she knew there was something more to it.  Years later, when I was married and racing mountain bikes, she asked me the same question.

“Because sometimes, if everything is going my way, I’ve had moments when I felt the bike was an extension of my being.  It’s as if I am one with the bike.  There’s no sensation of physical exertion, just an amazing feeling of weightlessness and gliding.  And I’ve only felt that way a handful of times, but it’s intoxicating and I’d like to experience it again.  So I keep going.”

As a little girl and young woman, my Mom competed in rodeos.  She knew exactly what I meant.  And I can still see that knowing smile on her face.

My racing days are behind me now.  And I’m a bit more cautious when I’m on my bikes.  But I have one more ride to do and I need your help.  All I’m asking for is a $25 donation.  And while that may not seem like much, I believe the money I raise will have a significant ripple effect.  Maybe the money I donate will go into a grant to The Mind Center in Jackson, MS.  Maybe my donations will be the cornerstone of a significant research grant and will make all the difference in finding an answer.  The only way to find out is by doing, so please help me.  Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease that is growing in scope.  And it’s the 5th leading cause of death in folks over 65, and it has a 100% fatality rate.


Myself with nephew Megan (in red), my kids Tudor and Holly and Mom, Virginia Malik

The really crappy part of Alzheimer’s is that there is no treatment, no wonder drug that will slow the progression of the disease.  And to make matters worse, it can produce slightly different symptoms in different people.  No one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s has the same symptoms in the same order.  And it’s incredibly difficult to diagnose.  But enough about that.  Please make a donation (click here) to the Alzheimer’s Association in my name.  For your $25, I’ll climb on my Cannondale and ride it from Simpsonville to Mt. Pleasant this July.  And when I climb the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River; I’ll wipe back tears of joy and sorrow.  And maybe, just maybe, the money I help raise will prevent your loved one from suffering the same fate as my Mom.  Thank you.

Raising Six Grand

For the last four years I’ve made a donation to our local Juvenile Diabetes (JDRF) fundraiser.  This is a great charity, the local group raises hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they always score very high for efficiency and effectiveness.  And our community gets very involved in the fundraising.  This group never sits still; they sponsor cookouts at the Fresh Market, walk-a-thons, black tie events, golf tournaments and a Christmas card contest.

Every year, the package I’ve provided for the auction has raised a greater amount of money.  This year, I have a personal goal of $6,000.  I know that sounds like a lot of money for dinner but I think it’s well worth it.  If you want to come and bid, you’re going to need tickets.  Here’s what we’ve come up with for this year.

A Southern Handcrafted Evening

 You and eight guests will enjoy a casual, handcrafted evening of great food, live music, a cooking demonstration, handcrafted cocktails and locally brewed beer.

 Julia Scholz, owner of Stella’s Southern Bistro

Julia will prepare handcrafted cocktails to welcome your guests

 Don Richardson of Quest Brewing Company

Don will match his handcrafted beer to the evening’s food

 Perry Major, Recording Artist

Perry will perform from his repertoire of handcrafted original tunes as well as covers of some of your favorite singer/songwriters

 Jeff Dumpert, Culinary Instructor

Jeff will create original, handcrafted hors d’oeuvre

 Chef John Malik

John will create casual, handcrafted fare to compliment the evening

 Food donated by The Fresh Market of Greenville

  And to top it off, the winning bidder will get the chance to help create the beer for the evening’s dinner.  Don Richardson, Brewmaster of Quest, will welcome you into his facility to participate in the brewing of one of his award-winning, handcrafted beers.

   Participation of Quest Brewery event will require direct communication with Don Richardson and will take place at a mutually agreeable time.  Participant must be 21 or older.  This offer is limited to one participant and will require prior agreement to Quest Brewing’s waiver of liability.

 In order for this event to take place, John Malik and his team will require a 30 day minimum notice.  Event will take place at venue of the recipient’s choosing.  Event photos will be used and shared on John Malik’s blog page and his social media outlets unless other arrangements are made.



February’s winds brought heavy grey skies

Thick with a Southern surprise

I stood at the window, took in the sight

Of a tree, sturdy and aged, that’s brought us many a morning delight

A home to sparrows, mockers, Juncos and warblers that

Enchant with song, dazzle our eye, and often confound the cat

She joined me with coffee, warm and bright

And her touch, familiar, inviting

This burden of winter, will our tree survive?

Perhaps we should help, just a little, with a shake

To loosen winter’s weight

And our eyes turned to him…oh great

He groaned, yet obeyed, and soon our tree was alive

With its own dance of thanks

As branches returned to their place

And the smile to his face

That tree’s seen a lot, still sturdy and strong

We agree it has room to grow

Though it requires a nudge or occasional brace

She smiled and whispered

Offered a kiss then considered

The treasure of February’s embrace


© John Malik, 2014




Sky Dive

At 7,000 feet, the jump master opened the door and offered me a thumbs up.  The air whooshed through the cabin, animating the nylon of my jumpsuit.  As the green patchwork gently retreated past the spinning props and whistling wingtips, I stood up, gripped the hand rail, and hesitated.

“John, I have a job I think you would be interested in, it’s a Food and Beverage Director at a wonderful resort hotel.  It’s in the Midwest but I think you’d love it.  Listen, before we go any further I want you to talk to your kids, talk to your family first.  Then let’s talk again on Tuesday because I don’t like to send candidates out of state unless they’ve taken everything into account.”

I would parachute out of an airplane tomorrow.  That is, if my wife would give me permission.  A few years ago she grew weary of meeting me at the ER, of cleaning the gravel out of my shoulder, of stitching my cuts and icing my bruises.

“Sweetheart, you really should learn how to slow down.”

I grew up in a time when boys were expected to get out of the house, to catch snakes and frogs, to fish and hunt.  We were supposed to challenge ourselves, to run barefoot, climb trees and take chances.  I still have an enormous sense of adventure and the desire to push myself.  And when that phone call came, I blurted out Yes!  And as I listened to her, I caught my own reflection in the glass of a family photograph.

Did I really need to jump out of this airplane?

For months I had been on the job hunt and it had slowly ground me down.  A chef that had spent almost six months on crutches was not what one would call a hot commodity.  I began to question myself and spent too much time in regret and pondering what-ifs.  One lousy 80-pound case of ground beef, a tiny scratch on my femur, an unappreciative employer and a knee that slowly lost stability had sidelined me for almost two years.  Months after the surgery I wondered not if I would be able to cook again but would I be able to run or go up and down stairs.  And finally I drew the interest of a talent scout in Chicago.  And she had one heck of a position she was looking to fill.  If it was just me, no family waiting for me to arrive safely back on the ground, I would have leapt out of that airplane, yelling with delight all the way down.  Yes I would have missed my town and friends but the adventure was calling.

Amy and I had a long discussion that weekend and decided that the timing just wasn’t right.  We had a lot of friends and contacts, we live in a great town and our kids, both teenagers, would most likely be heartbroken.  And what about my knee?  Would I be able to handle the stress of five or six consecutive 12 to 14 hour days?  Amy has invested a lot of time helping me get back in shape. Is this how I wanted to thank her?  Did we really have to start over in a new town, a new state, a new everything?  I don’t always know when to say “no” and that could have been my downfall.  If I had gone back to a hotel too early and a few weeks in had to relinquish my position; that could have destroyed me.  But I have a desire to be helpful, I love to make people smile and I really miss being part of a team that has its heart set on a common goal.  So what now?  If I say no to this, what would be waiting for me around the corner?  So I said another prayer and asked not for an answer, but a little bit of patience.

About two weeks later I was approached by a company that wanted to pay me real money to manage their social media.  Really.  And now here I am with a new career, a new company and new challenges.


In many ways, I jumped out of that airplane months ago, I just hadn’t realized it.

My Underwear was Showing


Rob’s face held no secrets. His last six days had been sleepless, full of pain and suffering, tears and anguish and it showed. His brother, just 34 years old, lay in a linen-draped casket just an arm’s reach away. What must have been going through Rob’s mind? Perhaps visions of the two of them as little boys; playing cowboys and Indians, street football or revealing their dreams of becoming an astronaut or fighter pilot? The amount of pain and suffering he was going through must have been extraordinary. I wiped a tear and struggled for something to say, to do. What could possibly offer Rob and his family comfort at a time like this? And then, as Rob caught my eye–he began to sing.

“Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!”

And when the assembled 400+ voices joined them, I had my answer. The pain and agony of loss was palpable yet the familiar words of Henry Van Dyke, sung by a church filled with friends, family, teammates, coworkers and neighbors, offered familiar comfort.

“All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.”

We know that Rob’s brother had moved on to a heavenly realm where there is no pain, no suffering, only joy, love and knowledge. Yet our presence also offered an immediacy of love and support. “Lean on me, ask me for help, call me late at night when you need a friend, I’m here for you.” Who in our church would deny Rob such a request? When you sign up for Christianity, you make a promise to the Father, the people you love and people you don’t even know. You’ve got to immerse yourself in its love, not dangle a toe, but jump right in.

“Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”

A writer friend of mine recently wrote that Christianity should be worn like underwear, “best worn inside rather than out.” I agree. One shouldn’t blurt out their beliefs on every street corner, otherwise you’re liable to do more harm than good. Instead of flaunting your faith, pull up your pants up and let your faith show in works, friendship and kindness. Yet in that church, on that afternoon, our underwear was definitely showing.

“Mortals, join the mighty chorus, which the morning stars began;
love divine is reigning o’er us, binding all within its span.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward, in the triumph song of life.”

Is there a “better” time to lose a family member? Hardly. Yet having to face the infectious joy of Christmas and its focus on togetherness, family and loved ones, coupled with an anniversary as painful as losing a brother would truly be gut-wrenching. We’re here for you Rob.


Post Script.  In 1907, Henry Van Dyke set those words to the flowing, magical notes of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and titled it: Joyful, Joyful We adore Thee

Blondie in The Water

I love salt water.  I love being tossed about by the wave and I love feeling the tug and push of the tides.  I find it mesmerizing.  I can’t think of a better example to describe our planet’s forces of nature.  Get into the salt water on an East coast beach and you won’t need to think about how complex our planet is, you’ll feel it. I love to swim through it and float on it and I love listening to it, especially at night.  Years ago we used to routinely vacation at Pawley’s Island.  That’s where I first fell in love with salt water and there’s nothing like the gentle, constant whoosh and pop of the waves, it’s my favorite music.

This past summer my wife and I had spent a week at Fripp Island.  One particular night was breathtakingly clear.  Low tide, sparkling starlight and a nearly full moon.  Amy and I pedaled our bikes across the slightly damp sand and chased our shadows for thirty or forty minutes.  We dodged a few crabs and a shooting star or two before taking a break just long enough to share a few kisses.

I think KJ Waters shares that same love for salt water and that’s why I love reading her blog.  She clearly understands the attraction.  There’s a sensuality to being immersed in warm salt water and there’s a wonderful attraction to being part of the ocean’s complexity.  The grit of the sand, the brine of the water, the possibility of an encounter with a fish, crab, urchin or jellyfish is irresistible to me. Sure I’ve been stung, pinched, bumped and bit by all matters of sea creatures but I expect that when I jump into the ocean.   I think KJ shares that sentiment.  And I’m pretty sure she’s part mermaid.

You can follow KJ’s blog here.  And if you’re looking for a love story, take a look at KJ’s novel, Stealing Time.  It features a hurricane as the central character and there’s a bit of time travel too.


And what about my novel, Doughnuts for Amy?  Well I’ve been picked up by a publisher, Winter Goose.  Doughnuts for Amy isn’t currently for sale.  It will return in late Spring of 2014.  I would love for you to become a follower of my writing.  You can connect with me on my Facebook Fan page or on Twitter

Our Last Kiss


Our last kiss

Was it that long ago?

A smile, a hug, a caress

Once so abundant

Promise me

Never taken for granted

A hand

Delicate, steady, firm

Tell me, it’s still there

A laugh, a twinkle, applause

Thank you, it meant so much

A dream, a wish, a prayer

Persuade me, it’s all still true

A meal, a tale, a memory

Share with me, all so vivid

A Savior, so real

He knows you all too well

Through your prayers

These many years

He’s waiting

He’ll dry your tears

One last kiss

Was it that long ago?



Dedicated to my mother, Virginia Baylor Malik. 

She passed away on Sunday, October 13th, 2013 and this was read at her eulogy

Get Back on That Horse!


“Goodnight John.  Goodnight Tommy.  Oh, and in the morning, before you get out of bed make sure you shake out your shoes real hard before you put them on, just in case a scorpion crawled in during the night.  And if one does comes out, squash it with your shoe.  I love you.” And with that she kissed us good night.  I was probably eight yet I was already used to my mom’s advice.  So instead of lying awake and nervously listening for the scuttle of Mexican scorpions on the tile floor, Tommy and I slept knowing that morning held the possibility of dueling with a deadly foe.  Life with Virginia Baylor Malik was never dull.

The daughter of professional cattle ranchers, she was thrown from her first horse at the age of five and quickly admonished to “get back on that horse” by her robust dad, Thomas Baylor.  She grew up in the Southwest of Texas and central Mexico as her dad sought out greater opportunity which came via the Ojo, an enormous ranch in central Durango.  To hear her tell it, Durango, Mexico in the 40’s was akin to Dodge City of the 1870’s.  There were bandits and heroes, vampire bats and scorpions, horse thieves and caballeros, Catholic priests and ancient Spanish ghosts.  Hollywood loved Durango and many classic Westerns (True Grit, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Sons of Katie Elder) were filmed in its rugged countryside.  John Wayne, while filming The Sons of Katie Elder, asked for an audience with my Granddaddy Thomas Baylor at the Ojo.  Perhaps to further his craft, John Wayne wanted to spend time with a true cowboy.  We were told that Granddaddy gave Mr. Wayne a tour of the Ojo yet was unimpressed with the actor’s quick-draw of a Colt revolver.  While on the Ojo, the Baylor family grew vegetables and mangoes, shot deer and antelope, milked cows and made their own tortillas, bread and butter. And when it was time for her to find her own way in life, she went to nursing school in San Antonio then at the invitation of another nurse, took a train to New Orleans and Hotel Dieu hospital where she soon fell in love with a young law student, Tom Malik.

mom and Dad

And she was beautiful, too.

Life in south Louisiana was often too safe for her.  Our venomous wildlife tended to keep to itself, unlike the wildlife of central Mexico that was constantly trying to slither into your home.  Alligators and water moccasins weren’t nearly as exciting as rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions.  My tales of face to face encounters with armadillos or raccoons were often trumped with her stories of gunfights, rodeos and petty revolutionaries. And she never quite accepted Creole food over her favorite Mexican dishes.  In our town, her cooking skills were an anomaly.  For the bulk of my childhood, “Miss Virginia’s House” was the only Mexican restaurant in LaPlace, Louisiana. My friends, sons and daughters of Cajun and Creole descent, were fascinated by my mother’s cuisine and I was the one that gravitated to her kitchen.  She favored enchiladas and pollo en mole’ over crayfish etouffee or chicken gumbo and my friends considered her food incredibly exotic.  With her own hands she taught me the difference between crepes and pancakes, biscuits and scones, jam and jelly.  We cleaned freshly harvested ducks, redfish and frog legs and it wasn’t unusual for her to drive across town just for tomatoes, onions or the right sausage.

My mother could be incredibly compassionate.  A surgical nurse in a busy New Orleans hospital, it wasn’t unusual to see her cry when a patient passed away yet if I ran to her with anything less than a subdural hematoma her prescription was usually a kiss. “You’ll be fine, just wash it with a little soap and water.”

My mother taught me many things but most of all she taught me resilience. By the time I was probably five my appeals for something to drink were answered with “If you’re thirsty then suck on a button.” In other words, I was quite capable of getting my own ice water so I should go to it.  And when I failed at something, she offered a standing invitation to “get back on that horse.”  And she loved a good practical joke.  Perhaps her sense of humor stemmed from being born on Halloween.  She certainly relished that holiday.  One Halloween, when my brother and I were too “mature” to trick or treat, we decided to hand out dry dog food kibble dipped in orange icing, Halloween candy at its best!  When my mother discovered us creating this treat (I’m sure one of my sisters ratted us out) her fury quickly turned to raucous laughter yet she insisted we throw away the candy lest we end up on the front page of our little newspaper on All Saint’s Day.

Her zest for adventure was never quite satisfied by suburban life or our family vacations to Washington, DC or Orlando, FL.  She yearned to move back to west Texas or central Mexico, live on a big ranch, commute on a horse and carry a gun.  Yet she was faithful and loving to her husband, to the point of tenderly caring for him and his failing heart during his final years.

She taught me how to throw an ax, tell a story, sharpen a knife, identify poison ivy, filet a fish, offer a hand, poach an egg, wear a suit, pick out a ripe tomato, make a fist, stand up to a bully, and most importantly, to pray on my knees.  Goodbye Mom.  I love you.

Would You Like to See my Cleaver Collection?

We’re a peculiar lot.  Professional cooks often have quirks and idiosyncrasies that most rational people would find perhaps, circumspect.  Yet we earn those quirks sincerely.  It comes with our territory.  Long hours in a brutal environment, late night trips to the emergency room and looking at all those tattoos and piercings can make anyone a little crazy.  Clay Miller is no different.

“When my girlfriend first came over to the house, I was going to cook dinner for her.  She opened the fridge to search for something to drink.  I looked at her and calmly stated ‘There’s something I have to show you because I wouldn’t want you to accidentally find it and get the wrong impression of me.’  And then I showed her my collection of cleavers.  And these just aren’t any cleavers; they’re big two-handed ones with enormous carved handles and gleaming blades.  I was afraid she would take one look and bolt for the front door.”

Clay Miller didn’t decide to become a professional cook until later than most of us do. He didn’t grow up under the tutelage of a family cook.  It was only after he earned his degree in Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism did he pursue cooking because he figured he should have an understanding of both sides of the business.

“Soon after graduating culinary school I ended up working for Guenter Seeger at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta.  I had only been there a few weeks when I caught this aroma; one of the more experienced cooks was making a sauce and I walked over and asked him about it and how he made it.  I wanted to know what was in the pot and how to make someone else as curious as I had been.  The flavor of that sauce was almost magical and it was at that point that I started to take this stuff seriously.”

So seriously that in 2010, Food & Wine magazine named him one of their best new chefs.  “Ever since that day I’ve been in love with cooking.  I know that sounds crazy, that I would go to culinary school because it just seemed like something I should do.  But that’s my story. Some cooks know from an early age that cooking was all they ever wanted to do.  Though I may have found my passion late in the game, I found it.  And then Guenter put in his notice and told us he was leaving to open his own place.  I had been at the Ritz less than a year and felt that I was just finding my groove. Guenter was such an amazing chef and had a phenomenal reputation so we all figured the guy to replace Guenter would have super-hero status.  And when Joel Antunes arrived, well, we got our super-hero.  He was such an amazing chef and quite the dynamic personality as well as a genuinely nice guy.  There were no secrets with him.”

So there were no cleavers in the closet with Joel?

“Ha! Exactly.” 

Now Clay Miller makes his living in South Beach Miami doing of all things, frying upwards of 2,000 pounds of chicken a week at Yardbird.  That’s right, two thousand pounds.  And he calmly states that his patrons are often the super-model elite of Miami, gliding into the dining room not to exercise caution or try the latest gluten-free foam flights but rather to indulge in deep fat fried chicken.

This Saturday, Clay Miller will be in good company as guest chef at the Euphoria Food & Wine Festival in Greenville, SC courtesy of the bacon-fat infused kitchen of Stella’s Southern Bistro, Open Table’s highest rated restaurant in the Upstate.  Along with chef-owner Jason Scholz, King Estate’s Randy Ford and James Boyce, executive chef of Huntsville, AL’s Cotton Row.  Perhaps at the end of the night, when the last dish has gone out and the bourbon has been poured someone will ask Clay Miller about his cleaver collection and if his girlfriend ever come to terms with all that sharpened steel?

“She’s now my wife and even better, she helped me hang those cleavers throughout our kitchen.”


a writer trapped in a cook's body