Chef John Malik

a writer trapped in a cook's body

February 17, 2018
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Mexico for Two

Ealry morning capture of Hotel Unico 20 87 looking towards the beach

After four days of wonderful authentic cuisine and beverage in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, the most telling plate of food of our entire visit came after spending three hours in Cancun’s airport. We were hungry, we still had another hour and a half of waiting followed by a three-hour flight back to the states. So we ate at Guy Fieri’s Kitchen. Yeah, I know, but my wife thought we should get a good look at this particular train wreck.

As far as airport food goes, you’d be hard pressed to do worse

While the service was pleasant enough, the offerings were an obnoxious hodge-podge of every grilled meat and fried thing ever served on a TGI Friday’s or Chili’s menu.  And while I was dejectedly contemplating his “quad fries” (four different cuts of out-of-the-box fries) I realized they were the perfect analogy for the average American’s visit to this part of Mexico: fast American food at its least creative masquerading as something foreign, clever, and possibly dangerous. Welcome to Mexico, Yanqui.

 

I have a mid-January birthday and for the past 20 or so years I usually celebrate it with a long bike ride, or a hike. Something strenuous. Because when I think my heart’s about to burst out of my chest is when I feel the most alive. And this year my bride, fed up with hiking in 24 F weather, finally said “Enough!” And that’s how I came to dominate a 7:00 am spinning class, on my birthday, in a hotel on the Yucatan Peninsula. In between that, we feasted on amazing food, wine, cocktails, and snacks. We enjoyed a diversity of flavors, textures, and colors that were an absolute delight to our palette, and all while far too many of the American tourists around us stood in line for pancakes and scrambled eggs with “nothing foreign in them.” Long sigh…

To understand Mexico, you first need to understand hospitality, of which there’s many levels. At the bottom is Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport, especially when it snows, which it did when we arrived back in the states. Near the top is the excellent service one receives in exchange for an $8.00 meal at your average Chick Fil A, or the hospitality provided by a fine white tablecloth restaurant such as Stella’s Bistro in Simpsonville, SC, and at the top, there’s Mexican hospitality that goes a step above anything I’ve experienced in the US. Think I’m kidding? At the Cancun airport, just past the baggage pick up area, there’s concierge desks, a lot of them. Naturally everyone arriving in Cancun walks through this area. And it’s staffed with hosts (in suits and ties) greeting you then asking:

“Where are you going?”

“Akumal, Hotel Unico.”

“Ah, then you need Leopoldo. That’s his area of expertise. Please, right this way.”

Leopoldo, our concierge at the Cancun airport

We were escorted to the small desk of a smiling gentleman whose sole purpose was to answer any questions we may have.

“Will we need pesos?”

 

“Need? Perhaps. Most of the cab drivers require cash, and they’ll take pesos or American dollars. If you go to a market in the city, some may prefer pesos but most everywhere will accept your Visa, or American Express. If you want pesos, don’t exchange them here. Wait until you get to a local bank or perhaps your hotel. But those ATM style machines might charge you a big fee.”

When Leopoldo answered our questions, he summoned a host who helped us find our car. And all of this occurred courtesy airport staff. And for those of you that work at, or own say a coffee shop, burrito bar, taco joint, or handle luggage at the curb of Charlotte’s International airport, all of this happened without a “tip” cup or a “gas money for the crew” cup. We tipped because we received excellent hospitality, not because we spent thirty seconds in front of someone ordering a $4.00 drink. They’re going the extra mile because they want you to have a positive experience in their home.

About an hour and a half later we were welcomed to Hotel Unico 20° 87°, so named for its latitude and longitude.

Main lobby of Hotel Unico 20° 87°

I love it when people get together to think, ponder, and ask questions and then create solutions. Spend an hour inside a Lowe’s Grocery Store and you’ll see my point. They obviously started with the question: “What’s wrong about every traditional grocery store experience?” Then they went about changing that based on the answers. At Hotel Unico, the same approach is evident, starting with our welcome reception.

Front desk of Hotel Unico 20 87

Think about your last big trip. You were up late the night before, woke up early to get to Charlotte International where you were treated poorly, crammed into an airplane for a three or four hour flight, then into a taxi or a bus and then after all this you have to stand at a desk like your at the pharmacy. And it’s like this at even the most exceptional hotel.

Not at Unico. When we walked in we were escorted to soft seating, offered a bottle of water and/or a cocktail from the bar, then consulted on our reservations and plans for our five days. We were introduced to our personal host, Dorian, who coincidentally had a background in culinary arts, and he would be our primary contact for any request we would need during our stay. A taxi, a sightseeing trip, a dinner reservation, Dorian was our guy. Shortly we were presented with four candles, each a slightly different aroma, and were asked which one we would prefer our room to be treated with.

Now which one of these aromas would you prefer in your room?

All while we had a cocktail in hand and a soft couch under our fanny. Now that’s hospitality.  In the time it took us to check in and walk to the room, someone had rushed over and spritzed our room with that aroma. Neat touch, however, being so close to the beach gave us access to all the wonderful salt water air one could wish for.

Restrained luxury at Hotel Unico

An hour later we stood at one of the outdoor bars and ordered a couple of beers when a (very) drunk American staggered up with two 32 ounce tumblers and told “Jose” to “fill ‘em up with Crown Royal and a spritz of Diet 7Up.” At that point it was about 2:00 pm and as he sauntered back to his cast of friends it looked like we were the only ones not hammered out of our gourds. Really?

Our balcony came omplete with an exquisite jacuzzi. Every night the turn down service included different touches such as rose petals or chilled wine.

Well friends, that’s the dilemma of a large hotel in an international resort community. It’s always possible that a big group of folks could show up and suddenly you’re looking for the quiet pool or solitary stretch of beach. Luckily for us Hotel Unico is quite large with plenty of places to hide. However, why would you come to a gorgeous part of the world with a fascinating culture and plenty of diversions just to get slobbering drunk by the pool? Heck you can do that at home next to your own (kiddie) pool.

guest area of Hotel Unico

At 6:00 am one can get beautiful still shots of Unico’s normally animated pools.

Hostess at Hotel Unico’s dining room

We’ve been fortunate enough to travel and stay in some rather amazing places and I’m a fan of a great hotel. I spent a year and a half as the Executive Sous Chef of an excellent hotel in Charleston, SC and the satisfaction of working with a great team and making someone’s vacation memorable is an amazing feeling. And a great hotel can really set the tone for someone’s visit to a new city or country. It’s all about guest interaction and prodcuing those winning moments every time a guest interacts with one of your staff. If their smiles aren’t authentic, most of your guests will see right through that. Hotel Unico is one of those places that transcends the label of “hotel.” It’s professional, polished, luxurious, and yet comfortable. We’ve stayed in hotels that feel like museums and you’re afraid to smudge the brass or touch the handrails.  Hotel Unico offers the kind of comfort that comes when visiting an old friend or a lovely restaurant. And since this is an all-inclusive resort, don’t blink when you see the price tag because duing our stay we dined on exquisite food, snorkeled through clear Caribbean water jammed with aquatic life, shot a game of pool, listened to some amazing live music, had access to a serious gym, enjoyed cocktails pool side, a cooking class, etc. It’s worth it.

Mexican tableware on display at Hotel Unico

Hand carved spoons and a Molinillo (made for whipping up hot chocolate drinks) in the foregrouond. Hotel Unico

Prior to dinner we were invited to a cooking class hosted by Chef Ariel. Ceviche, the technique of curing raw seafood with fresh citrus juice, was on the menu. Ariel created a salad with cucumber, tomato, shaved red onion and plenty of fresh herbs.

Ceviche courtesy Chef Ariel, at Hotel Unico

One technique on display was to grate oregano by rubbing it quickly through the hands

Our first night the hotel offered an outdoor market-style evening complete with wonderful live music and a dozen or so food carts. Skirt steak, grilled shrimp, spicy grilled chicken, warm tortillas, fresh salads, churros, and on and on.

Outdoor dinner featuring street food carts with churros and an odd crispy pancake stuffed with cheese and warm Nutella

Unless you stick with the house wine, you’ll have to pay for your wines, such as this Shiraz from Mexico’s Casa Madura

The breakfast buffet was a kaleidoscope of color, textures, and heat levels. Being from south Louisiana I didn’t shy away from the salsa and peppers,but did steer clear of the fresh Habaneros. Powered up, we headed out for a day long trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

You know what your breakfast is missing? Fresh chopped Habaneros tossed in olive oil. Feel free to help yourself. I opted for the herb pesto in the middle, which turned out to be Habanero & herb pesto.

Fresh fruits such as guava, mango, papaya and grapefruit so sweet you’d swear it was dipped in honey.

Yellow Guava and sliced meats on the breakfast buffet

 

The fresh squeezed agua frescas were a welcome sight

On to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Our guide Alan was part of Cancun Adventures group and they were incredibly professional, timely and organized. On this one day we had a complete guided tour of Tulum,snorkeled through a large lagoon teeming with underwater rock formations and sea life, then snorkeled through one of the many caves, also kown as cenotes (Sah No Tays).

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are as close as you’ll get to a traffic jam in this part of Mexico

For 500 years Tulum was a vibrant city, and then it wasn’t. It was a port of trade with a bustling city center that traded with cultures up and down the Caribbean.

Alan, our host for the day, was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.

 

The iguanas, however, were not very enthusiastic

Cherimoya fruit

One of the revelations of our trip was a half hour at the greatest coffee shop ever, Ah Cacao, in Playa de Carmen. All their drinks were made with chocolate. Our Cocoa Tradicional was a warm latte style drink of almond, dark chocolate, espresso, and milk

While goofing off we toured a few vintage markets and one had all thse refurbished refrigerators from the 60’s. The owner replaced had the compressors and gaskets and if we lived closer, I would’ve taken one of these home.

Ready to take a detour from your sea-side resort? 30 minutes south lies Tulum; it’s geographically large, and the best known neighborhood goes by the name of Hotel Zone. And that’s where you’ll want to go.

The Food

If your idea of Mexican cuisine is one of these ubiquitous cantinas that dot our suburban Amercan landscape, where the food is an amalgam of canned beans, pre-shredded cheese, and flour tortillas so thick they’ll make a decent frisbee, a visit to Hotel Unico and Tulum will be an eye-popping experience.  The food we enjoyed had a unique geographical stamp and featured plenty of local produce, seafood, and Mexican wines.

A month or so before our trip, we read about a restaurant in Tulum called Hartwood. The writer praised its ethos, cuisine, and balmy outdoor dining room and the fact that thy cook everything over hardwood and since they have little refrigeration, they buy most everything daily.  When we showed up, sadly they were booked solid. Yet a short walk down Tulum’s only street revealed a dozen restaurants with this same ethos and outdoor dining. What magical sort of chef’s playground is this town of Tulum?

 

You can drink and dine under a gorgeous Mexican sky at Mur Mur

Yes those are swings at the cocktail bar of Mur Mur

roasted potatoes with chorizo and fresh herbs; octopus ceviche, intriguing cocktails, and delicious Mexican Malbec.

Mur Mur had a kitchen that would give an American health inspector night sweats. There was little refrigeration but plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything was cooked on a hardwood grill or wood-burning oven. It was cooking so pure and lovely I wanted to sell everything, move to Tulum and open up something similar

While we were enjoying our cocktails, they were still receiving fresh produce.

Downtown Tulum has one narrow street, plenty of traffic, and lots of diversions

Cenzontle restaurant. Also open air with plenty of wood-grilled vegetables and local seafood. The wonderful, crazy part of Tulum was the building codes, or lack of. We didn’t care because it was all so romantic and open and wonderful

Small plates at Cenzolte. Hibiscus empanada; Roasted piquillo peppers with avocado mousse and crema fresca; Octopus cocktail with Ginger mayo, cucumber, avocado, jicama juice, serranitos, chile de arbol oil.

Restaurant Cueva Siete at Hotel Unico

The challenges of providing a great dining experience in a hotel can be gargantuan. However, the food we had at Unico, and especially the two meals we enjoyed at their flagship restaurant, Cueva Siete, was downright magnificent. Have you ever seen a Recado Sauce at your favorite stateside Tex-Mex cafe? Neither have I. It’s a puree made from fire roasted chiles and a blend of herbs that may include annatto, oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic, and salt. So as you can imagine, depending on the chiles or herbs, it could vary wildly, which is a great opportunity for a professional cook. At Cueva Siete we had our first Recado and it was eye opening. One would thing a sauce made from chiles roasted this dark would be bitter and heavy. On the contrary, the herbs and stock were the prominent flavors and the fire of the chiles was tamed, literally by fire.

Tuna Aquachile with a black recado sauce, chilled radish, housemade cracker, vegetable ash

 

Xtabentun Duck L’Orange. duck breast with Xtabentun (zha ben toon) liquer, sweet plantain puree, buried carrots and corn, carmelized lime zest.

 

Roasted Rack of Tizimin Lamb, salt cured yolk, local vegetables, puffed and fried tortilla

 

Cheesecake. With macarons, Xtabentun pearls, dark chocolate, local berries, fresh mint

 

Stewed pineapple, coconut sorbet, puffed cheese fritter, Xtabentun liquer foam, romero powder

 

In this part of Mexico, they don’t really cook with peppercorns. The pepper they cook with is ground up dried peppers. Smoked or not, dried, then ground. At a market we saw an incredible variety of dried peppers.

 

Lobby Bar at Hotel Unico. Check out the stock for this bar; Habanero peppers, smoked chiles, dried chiles, smoked salt, and plenty of citrus. Seriously, you really should go.

 

Should you go to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula? If you love adventure, the smell of salt water, exploring a diverse culture, exciting cuisine, snorkeling, sailing, learning about a fascinting ancient culture, and tremendous hospitality, then by all means go. You’ll fly into Cancun then need to have pre-arranged transportation to get you south. Once at Hotel Unico, they’ll be happy to help you finalize your plans.

Hotel Unico 20° 87°

Cenzolte Restaurant

Mur Mur Restaurant

 

 

 

November 1, 2017
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Ghosts of Parents

Quiet and cold from November’s chill

This house now waits for warmth and voices to fill

Its once boisterous halls where grandkids held court

And aromas of bacon and coffee mingled with tales of youth and sports

“It’s never easy” the agent said

Packing, sorting, and selling the things once held precious by the dead

Oh look! she said

When I was a child this was my favorite…

Her voice trailed off as her own ghost danced through the room of twin beds

Memories?

Those are sealed tight

Kept safe away from the fading light

Only unpacked when the ghosts of parents pay a visit

to make sure she’s alright

October 16, 2017
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Murder Control

Robert’s grip was as strong as steel. His heavily tattooed arms were as thick as my quads and in his grip I felt helpless. You see, Robert was a convicted murderer and even after spending almost four days with him, I wasn’t prepared for what came next. His tears…running down my neck, staining my shirt, and carving into my soul. What could I possibly say to this man that would provide any level of comfort?

Robert (not his real name) was an inmate serving two consecutive life terms at Perry Correctional Facility. And I was there as part of Kairos, a non-denominational Christian ministry that goes into prisons to minister to inmates. I’d met Robert my second day at Perry when we were placed at the same table. Me, two other servants, and six inmates spent the better part of three days getting to know one another then listening as the men eventually confronted their past, and tried to make peace with their future. And through it all, there was Robert. It was obvious from the first morning that he was looked up to by the other men and it wasn’t because of his size (all of six feet five and rippled with muscle) but rather because of his demeanor. He was calm, confident, and had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was told he would often break up arguments with insightful reason, fights with requests to settle things via discussion, and disputes through mediation and concessions. And I believed it because I saw him do this several times during our discussions. He was conscientious, well-read, courteous, and an excellent negotiator. And several times during that long weekend I listened to him speak and pictured these inmates in street clothes and realized that if we were at a Starbuck’s, no one would be able to tell that these men were all doing hard time.

Kairos has been around since World War Two and its mission is simple: listen, listen, love, love. In order to participate, the inmates must be vetted by the prison chaplain. And the servants, the visitors from the outside, must be willing to be a conduit, to lead these men to a conversation about the love of Jesus Christ. What I learned on those visits is the men I met came from broken homes and rarely had anyone listened to them; until they came under the influence of a gang, or other criminal element. The gang provided the family that they were devoid of at home. Most of our men had been in prison for years and most were looking at many more years of incarceration. What did they do to end up behind miles of concertina wire? I don’t know and we don’t ask, we just listen. We read scripture, sing a bit and conduct team-building exercises that would be familiar to any office group. And those exercises gradually become more meaningful, more spiritual as the weekend goes on.

And on our final day, after our lunch, after our church service, and maybe twenty minutes before me and the other servants would pack up and leave, Robert pulled me aside because he wanted to tell me something. In short order tears filled his eyes as he told me his story, familiar yet vivid. He was the product of a broken home, of a Mother that spent time working two jobs and battling alcoholism, of a life on the streets that started when he was old enough to remember. He wiped his eyes then turned to me. “If only I’d had someone like you in my life; a man, a father, someone to teach me the difference between right and wrong, to teach me how to treat a woman, to drag me to Sunday school. Maybe things would’ve turned out different for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger. Maybe.”

Then he hugged me and through his tears choked out “Thank you and God bless you.” What could I say? I would soon leave for my comfortable home and warm bed, and he would have to trudge back to his tiny cell where he would likely stay until he died of old age. The only words I could muster were: “God bless you my brother.”

The men I’ve met through Kairos, men that are doing hard time, twenty, thirty, fifty years, they all have the same story and the same wish. They all came from broken homes. They didn’t blame their situation on the government, on gun laws, who was or wasn’t President, their attorney, or the cop that arrested them. And every one of them ached for a father figure. Not a fancy car, not a huge house, a pile of cash, tailored clothes or an in-ground pool. They just wished for a Dad. Every. One.

Our culture glorifies violence at every opportunity, 24/7. We’re inundated with it. It’s in our video games, on Youtube, TV commercials, music; I could keep going but you’re probably already shaking your head in agreement. At the same time, culture loves to mock Dad. He’s clumsy, dimwitted, inept, and muddles through life clueless to the many attractions of modern culture.

And inside the prison system, the men I’ve met that were looking at another thirty years inside their cramped, stifling prison cell ached for that man. That bumbling, inept man that knows the difference between right and wrong, how to treat a woman, how to throw a baseball, how to fix a leaky roof. The man that knows the value of a steady job. That was the man they never knew. And that was the man they wished they had. That was their dream.

Take time to be a Dad, to be a mentor, the father figure someone else didn’t have. Reach out to that young apprentice, the one wearing Wal Mart slacks and a clip-on tie, take the time to listen to someone’s story. You just might be all the difference, all the positive influence that someone needs.

God bless you.

July 5, 2017
by ChefJohn
1 Comment

It’s Better in the Bahamas

“Where are you taking Amy for your 30th anniversary?”

“The Bahamas.” I answered

“Oh you’re going to love Atlantis”

Carriearl Hotel on Great Harbor Cay, Bahamas

My mind suddenly filled with visions of turbo-charged slides rocketing screaming kids under shark filled pools while sea turtles languidly swam through massive salt-water tanks tugging signs for “all you can eat conch fritters.”

“Uh…well we’re not actually going to Atlantis.”

Not us. We’ve been to Disney World many times so why bother with a Bahamian version? We wanted to see the real Bahamas, up close and personal. For years we’ve seen the commercials and often wondered; is the water really that blue, that clean, that amazing?

Yes the people are very friendly in the Bahamas, especially LeeAnn at Sandyport

Are the people really that friendly? Are the starfish really that big?

The starfish are huge!

Six months ago, with our 30th anniversary on the horizon, we started to plan our trip. We knocked around a multitude of destinations and we both kept coming back to the tropics. We’ve never been to the Caribbean and the thought of sinking our toes into a place that keeps time with the tides, where the sea is the clock, where we could enjoy the peace and serenity that only a natural setting offers was just too intriguing. And as we looked around we were captivated by the Instagram profile of one Katie Storr.

She’s a dive master with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas and her underwater photos sold us on the Bahamas.

We blocked off our calendars and made our plans. We would stay at Sandyport Beach Resort, go bird watching with Scott Johnson, a science officer with the BNT, snorkel on Sandyport Beach, take a cooking class at the Graycliff Hotel, find the best bar in Nassau, seek out Bahamian cuisine, take in the national art Gallery, take a seaplane ride to a small hotel on another island, leap into a 600-foot-deep blue hole, and of course go diving with the folks at Stuart Cove. After we’d made our plans and were counting the days, the owner of Carriearl reached out and asked if we’d mind being their guest chefs for a night.

Would we mind? Are you kidding me? So how was it and what did we learn that would be of assistance to those planning their own Bahamas adventure? Well for one we brought too much underwear and I’ll explain later.

Now that’s why you want a window seat.

On a miserable, dreary day, we flew out of Charlotte, NC and had a bumpy flight dodging thunderheads until we were off the coast of Florida. The weather broke, the clouds and turbulence gave way to a gorgeous horizon that slowly turned from black to a shimmering turquoise. Bahamas means “shallow sea” a name given by Christopher Columbus. If you’ve never been to the Bahamas, the sight of that water can really bring out the child in an adult. As we eased below ten thousand feet and the vista opened, animated voices filled the aircraft. We touched down at Lynden Pindling International, so named for their first Prime Minister.

Now to find an Uber. Uh…first lesson learned, Uber hasn’t made it to the Bahamas and there are no taxi services, only private taxis. Each taxi is independent, so if you’re at a hotel or Airbnb, the manager will have a few drivers he or she prefers.

Bahamian Taxi

As the Bahamas are surrounded by 20 mph salt-laden air, the cars tend to look like outcasts from the latest Transformers movie. And they drive on the wrong side of the road. So, our first impression was a bit of a culture shock.

“We drive on the proper side of the road, John,” claims our friend Serena Williams. If you don’t know, this group of islands was a British territory until 1973. And apparently the British left behind so many right-hand drive vehicle and wrong side of the road drivers, it made sense to carry on this tradition.

Our first three days were spent at Sandyport Beach Resort. If you’re looking for a shimmering steel and glass high-rise hotel where a bucket of ice costs $5.00 ($6.50 with tip), look elsewhere.

Sandyport is about five miles from downtown and an equal distance from the airport. Their rooms are tailored for those of us a little more self-sufficient. There’s a laundry, fully stocked kitchenettes, and three or four restaurants within walking distance. Many more if you don’t mind a mile’s walk.

Room with a stunning view at Sandyport Beach Resort. From our balcony we saw all manner of sea life in this little harbor including sea turtles.

Their beach is a very short walk away. Prior to check in, Serena brought us to a local market and we picked up some gorgeous local grouper, tuna, and a few necessities, such as rum  and limes.

Vernon Moss welcomed us with a disarming smile and a beefy handshake. The hotel’s General Manager, he was also our concierge and de facto guide for our stay. He’s a native Bahamian and happy to share the ins, outs, and quirks of the Bahamas. Our second day we were schedule to fly to Andros island via a local airline with a 6:45 am departure. He wisely recommended arriving an hour early. As it was, we departed 25 minutes early. Why? Because all the passengers were there. Thanks, Vernon.

Vernon Moss, Sandyport’s General Manager

Check in, had a quick look around then into shorts and off to the beach. And it’s breathtaking. The water is well, see for yourself

Our Keens are dangling over six feet of water so clear, one could almost count the scales on the yellowtail snapper

Two hours into our vacation and this is our first view from the beach. The bartender actually said “It’s a bit hazy today. Maybe tomorrow it will be beautiful.” Sandyport is more than a hotel, there’s condos, apartments, shops and businesses.  And they are all connected by a small harbor.  The view from the balcony is worth the price of admission.  From here we saw a multitude of fish, rays, birds, and even sea turtles.  We were told a manatee and her calf dwelled in the harbor, but we did not see them.  The staff at Sandyport offered us snorkeling gear and we were off to the water.

View of the beach from the Blue Sail Cafe

If you’ve never snorkeled, the Bahamas is a great place to learn.  The water is clean enough that if you accidentally gulp down a quart, you won’t become ill. Try that on an Atlantic coast beach and you might end up in ICU.  And because the water is so shallow there’s little waves so you won’t be dodging surf boards.  The small rock jetty at Sandyport provided a haven for all manner of sea life including snappers, grunt, angelfish, sea stars, barracuda, porcupine fish…I could keep going. Complimentary snorkel gear, a three-minute walk to the beach and we were swimming through a massive saltwater aquarium.  We’d been in the Bahamas less than three hours and we were already on sensory overload.  When it was time for a drink, we didn’t have to go far.  The Blue Sail Café, owned by Chef Jacques Carlino, a Frenchman for a penchant for turning out amazing pastries, is right there.  And with this view, why get into a taxi? The lunch menu looked familiar to anyone that’s dined at a country club in the states.  A variety of sandwiches, burgers, cold salads and macaroni and cheese. Wait a minute. I thought I was in the Caribbean?  Where were the mangos, papayas, pineapples, etc.  “Sorry Chef. This is the West Indies, not the Caribbean. There’s little agriculture so not much locally grown fruits and vegetables.”

We settled on the wood fired pizza, and it was damn good especially when it was paired with the local beer Kalik. Soon we were back in the water for another swim because we wanted to earn our massage.  We don’t do yoga poses or juice cleanses, but we’re all about a real massage.  And Sandyport has a great masseuse and an amazing setting for a massage.

How’s this for the setting of a massage?

Who needs a TV with this view?

Eventually we made it to downtown Nassau for a visit to the Graycliff Hotel and a cooking class with their chef, Elijah Bowe.  Many years ago, Chef Bowe spent time in South Louisiana working for Chef John Folse, so we had plenty to talk about.  Like me, he’s a disciple of Paul Prudhomme.  Chef Bowe is a natural showman, he engaged with us readily, and entertained us with vignettes of his career and life in the Bahamas. He provided a station for each of us to join in on making conch chowder, snapper en papillote, Caribbean slaw and macaroni and cheese.  The Graycliff is perhaps the most well known restaurant in the tropics due to their 200K+ bottle wine list.

our fellow culinary student and Bahamian multimedia personality, Ianthia Smith

 

The Graycliff Hotel

 

In the kitchen of the Graycliff Hotel with Chef Elijah Bowe

 

That’s some entrance.

 

Enjoying Chef Bowe’s conch chowder in the glorious dining room of the Graycliff Hotel

Our class was a 3+ hour affair and if you’re one for cooking classes and having fun in a professional kitchen, you’ll certainly enjoy this.  After our class, it was time for a walk around downtown Nassau.

Bahamian architecture

Bahamian architecture

 

Queen Elizabeth sweats it out at Parliament Square

 

The Bahamas National Gallery has some stunning works of art, especially the captivating paintings of Thierry Lamare

Famous mass-murderer Christopher Columbus

That evening, Vernon Moss and his wife took us to the Fish Fry neighborhood for Bahamian cuisine.  Finally, I thought, we’re going to have something local and authentic.  And the menu is closer to a Calabash, North Carolina fish house than what I was expecting.  Fried fish, shrimp, conch, chicken wings, and cheeseburgers.  French fries, slaw, and macaroni and cheese.

Local food at Oh Andros

Vernon senses my disappointment and explains how everything on the islands must come in on a boat or barge. And due to the shallow topsoil and limestone, agriculture is tough.  Alright, I understand the limitations of transportation, however, if we’re going to stuff a barge full of French fries and hot house tomatoes, we could just as easily be sailing in tropical fruit and vegetables.  I was dumbfounded as to why someone wasn’t serving or at least trying to create Bahamian cuisine.  Sure, we had delicious conch dishes, but I couldn’t find a distinct cuisine. Macaroni and cheese?  Sorry but there’s nothing about that dish that can lay any sort of geographical stamp to the Bahamas or West Indies. Yet it was everywhere.  Yes, we had delicious food at the Graycliff and the conch chowder, poached snapper and guava duff felt very Bahamian/Caribbean, but that was it as far as local dishes.  Everywhere we went we were greeted with burgers, fries, pizza, etc.  The place several Bahamians recommended to us, Oh Andros!, served us a mountain of fries, rice, Cole slaw and macaroni and cheese. I understand it’s tough to grow anything and most of the tourist clientele are American, but how come some Bahamian chef hasn’t stepped up and defined a Bahamian cuisine?

So, if you’re looking for a fine meal in the Bahamas, you’ll end up at the Graycliff or a French or Italian themed restaurant. On one of our evening forays into Nassau, we spent a pastoral hour at bar of Café Matisse. BJ Ramsay, their bartender, was the perfect antidote for a hectic afternoon downtown. He’s the bartender that every fine restaurant should have, a knowledgeable, engaging soul with an appreciation for spirits.

Bartender BJ Ramsey at Cafe Matisse, Nassau, Bahamas

After asking me if prefer Scotch or Bourbon, (Bourbon), he poured me a glass of locally produced, wood-aged sugar cane rum from Jab. And damn was it good. Notes of dried fig, apricot, white pepper and vanilla bean and that sweetness of cane. I’ve got a small bottle now at home.

When we left Café Matisse about 6:00 pm, downtown Nassau had rolled up the sidewalks. When the big cruise ships are docked, Nassau is teeming with activity. When the ship’s whistle blows at 4:00 pm, most of the shops close too. By 5:00 pm there’s not much going on. On our fourth day, we headed to Carriearl Hotel on Great Harbor Cay, via Tropic Ocean Airways. When we first thought about a tropical vacation, Carriearl was what we had in mind. A boutique hotel, only four rooms, on a quiet island with little distraction save for the water and adult beverages. When the opportunity to stay at Carriearl came around, we were all in.

Tropic Ocean Airways’ Cessna 208 Caravan Floatplane

On a trip of many firsts for us, perhaps my favorite was the seaplane flight. Our pilots were professional and courteous while they entertained all of my questions. While Amy and Serena enjoyed the ride from the cheap seats. During our thirty-minute flight, the visual majesty of the Bahamas was on full display. Shades of turquoise, sapphire, crystal, and indigo floated across our field of vision. In every direction, stretched out to the horizon the water shimmered and glistened like a Monet in motion.

Flying out of Nassau, headed to Great Harbor Cay

Soon we were over Great Harbor Cay. We flew parallel to the island, spotted our hosts on the beach, then cut across the island and landed perpendicular to the beach. When we touched, the water dispersed by the floats sparkled like diamonds in the sun.

Thank you to Tropic Ocean Airways

We taxied to the beach, the engine was cut then Kent tugged the Cessna in backwards while Marty and his son Oliver helped us off. Seriously that might’ve been the coolest thing I’ve ever done. From there it was a short walk to Carriearl.

The grand entrance to Carriearl Boutique Hotel

So how do I accurately describe a visit to Carriearl?  Again, if you’re looking for a Disney-style vacation, Carriearl is not for you. Great Harbor Cay is sparsely populated. No theatres, no museums, hardly any night life.  However, if you fantasized of spending real down time in with 48 hours or more to do as little as possible and do it on the prettiest, quietest beach in this hemisphere, then Carriearl is waiting for you.  Go for a swim, grab a book off their shelf, a beer or rum at the bar then disappear into the luxury that such solitude can supply.

While our bedroom had an excellent air conditioner, we spent a lot of time in their common room which was anything but.  In the morning, Marty would open the expansive glass doors and their common area became an extension of the beach.  Of our three days there, the highs were in the mid 80’s with a steady sea breeze.

 

Angie and Marty have owned Carriearl for 12 years and turned into a hotel in 2012.  Built in 1965 by Earl Blackwell, New York’s “Mr. Celebrity” and the publisher of The Celebrity Register, named for his parents, Carrie and Earl, it’s easily the most memorable hotel we’ve visited.  Since we arrived on a Saturday and we were their guest chefs for the evening, we didn’t have much time for lounging.  Two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts had to be prepared.  When we agreed to do this, we didn’t ask for anything special in the kitchen. Great Harbor Cay is no different than the rest of the Bahamas, plenty of great seafood but very little locally grown anything.  So along with Chef Eddison Lightbourne, we went to work.  Chef had local shrimp, sweet and spicy red peppers, garlic, onion, romaine and that became Grilled Romaine lettuce with pickled shrimp and spicy rouille. Loaves of whole wheat bread, English peas, lemon, fresh mozzarella, and pea shoots became Welsh Rarebit with an English pea and lemon puree.  My bride turned almonds, eggs and fresh mint into almond macarons sandwiched with mint buttercream and vanilla ice cream. By 7:00 PM their dining room echoed with that happy sound of satisfied diners. It’s a combination of forks on plates, glasses being hoisted, bread being buttered and wine being poured.  For those of us behind the scenes, we often judge the satisfaction level of our guests by the tempo of the dining rooms melody.

Grilled NY Strip, cauliflower puree, roasted baby carrots, mushroom thyme butter

 

Busy night at Carriearl

The next morning, one of our guests, Steve Johnson, local harbor master and legendary bush mechanic, along with friends Jay and Karen Campbell, took us to Hoffman’s Cay where we snorkeled through spectacular water and caught enough conch for us to make a heavenly lunch of conch salad.  As conch are over fished by commercial operators, Steve was careful to make sure we only used the larger conch, and we only used what we needed.

Conch are incredibly beautiful. Photo by Jay Campbell

 

Harbormaster Steve Johnson shows me how to clean conch. Photo by Jay Campbell

Earning my keep with fresh conch salad. Photo by Jay Campbell

 

With Steve Johnson at the 600 foot deep Blue Hole of Hoffman’s Cay. Photo by Jay Campbell

After a long day of boating, fishing and swimming, we were grateful for the comfort of Carriearl, the cold beer and the hospitality of Angie and Marty.  Did I mention they are British?  On Sunday evenings, Chef Lightbourne prepares a classic English Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding (popovers to you and me) and roasted vegetables.  Sure, it feels out of place, but so what?  It was an amazing dinner, expertly prepared and graciously served.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, fresh roasted vegetables, and two gravies

 

The bedrooms at Carriearl come complete with Paddington Bear

 

Carriearl sunrise

Remember I mentioned taking too much underwear? Well on this leg of our adventure, we realized we had too much clothing.  If you’re headed to the Bahamas, it’s likely you won’t need but one pair of dressy clothes. A nice pair of slacks and shirt for the men, a simple black dress for the ladies. It’s warm and of course humid so keep it casual. Dress loose and light. Shorts, loose clothing walking shoes, swimsuit and definitely a wide-brimmed hat are necessary. The sun is relentless and there’s plenty of shallow water and shiny sand for those rays to bounce off, so use sunscreen.  Keep in mind that snorkeling is a great way to fry your head. Our hotels had a solid supply of snorkeling gear so we’re glad we didn’t bring any along. Seriously though, when you’re hanging out at a bar with a view like this, you’re not going to care what you’re wearing.

Carriearl harkens back to a different time. It’s an oasis in the middle of the sea, a simple, rustic retreat that’s delightfully luxurious and properly British. Even though there’s wi-fi, we tried to stay off it. Because Facebook will always be there, but a view like this was only going to be ours for a few days. And in those days, we danced across the prettiest, most secluded beach, swam with an amazing collection of fish and sea life, jumped into the deepest blue hole, enjoyed wonderful meals, and made friends for life.

Airport security office at Great Harbor Cay airport

Paradise in the West Indies

Enjoy this short video I’ve made on our flight and stay at Carriearl.

Eventually it was time to return to reality, and Nassau. We had one full day left before headed back to Greenville and it was spent with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. After four or five snorkeling trips, it was time for something bigger and better, SNUBA.

who’s the whiny kid ruining my photo?

You need to do this! Snorkeling and diving with Stuart Cove

With SNUBA, one is attached to an air tank that sits in a raft. The raft holds two tanks, one for each couple, and each diver has about 25 feet of airline. The dive master (Jody Ford) is on tanks and she tugged the small raft while we swam. The tank gave each couple over 45 minutes in the water while Jody kept her eyes out for something unusual. She had several and signals, one being for a shark which she used about 30 minutes into our dive. Myself and Nick were down about 20 feet when she pointed to the shark. We took off in the direction of the shark so enthusiastically that she had to show us the “Whoa!” sign. We were dragging the raft, and our wives, towards the shark and for whatever reason, they didn’t share our enthusiasm.

That’s Stuart Cove divemaster Jody Ford

We came within twenty feet or so of a four-foot reef shark that obviously saw us and paid no attention to us. We watched him/her languidly swim across the coral for a few minutes then he slipped out of focus and was gone.  It was one more first on a trip of many. If you’ve never snorkeled or gone diving, don’t worry. Stuart Cove provides a thorough hands-on training session prior to getting into the water. Our final day in Nassau was spent at Sandyport and our last Bahamian meal was a fine latte and an exquisite almond tart, courtesy Chef Carlino.

 

The Bahamas isn’t perfect. It’s a bit on the funky side and there’s a level of organization it hasn’t achieved. If you prefer your vacation destinations to aspire to a Four Seasons level of cultivated reality, best to look elsewhere.

Conch Salad shack, Nassau, Bahamas

While we were told to watch out for crime, we never felt threatened. So, if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination and you revel in authentic travel, absorbing the local culture, snorkeling or diving, and you’re able to unplug and truly relax, you’re going to love the Bahamas.

Nassau has a few homes such as this one. Gorgeous Caribbean/West Indies architecture that’s crumbling into the limestone.

One vignette sticks out. One afternoon we boarded a # 10 bus to head back to Sandyport. Another couple came on then the husband asked the driver if he had a minute to run around the corner to grab a sandwich for his wife.

Blue Sail Cafe at Sandyport Beach Resort

“No problem, mahn. I pick you up.”

After our bus filled up, we made a short detour and picked him up. No problem.

Queen’s Staircase in Nassau

 

Dinner at Sandyport Beach Resort, courtesy yours truly

 

Care to book a room at Sandyport Beach Resort? Click here

The solitude of Carriearl more to your liking? Click here

Tru Bahamian Food Tours & The Graycliff Hotel

Want to fly in a seaplane? Tropic Ocean Airways

Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2017
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Tears of his Daughter

Nuclear chemist, forensic toxicologist, and crime lab director; dad to Amy, and my father-in-law; David Todd Stafford has passed away. As a young nuclear chemist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he researched radioactive fuels for the Department of Energy, as toxicologist for Shelby County, TN (Memphis) coroner’s office, he wrote the toxicology report on Elvis Presley. As Director of the Chemical Pathology and Toxicology Lab at the University of Tennessee (Memphis), he taught forensic pathology, as a contractor to Hewlett Packard, he traveled extensively helping crime labs come to terms with gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers.

Dr. David T. Stafford

What’s a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer? Imagine a machine that can break down a substance to the atomic level while providing DNA-like information on that substance. Naturally it’s a rather complicated machine, and for years this was his favorite toy. With it he was able to find accelerants in the ashes of a suspicious fire; chemical combustibles in the ruins of a fraudulent gas line explosion, opioids in the body of someone burned beyond recognition. And his professional experiences led to an enormous amount of published works in journals, books, and presentations.

In his later years, as a professional witness, his 18 page curriculum vitae often succumbed fraudulent cases before they went to trial.  A traumatic amputation at a factory followed by a massive lawsuit? Once Dr. David Stafford was on the job, if the injured had any illegal substance in his body, he was going to find it.

In the late 90s, the FBI’s crime lab suffered a mountainous scandal and its director was fired. When the search was on for a new director, David was on the short list. That’s how significant his reputation was.

In his signature gruff manner he answered their queries with, “What the hell would I want to do that for?!”  He was too private a man for such a public position.

Incredibly self-sufficient, born in rural Kentucky and working by the age of 12, he insured his own path to college with exemplary grades and a full ride to the University of Louisville, followed by a master’s degree and Ph.D in chemistry, courtesy Virginia Poly Tech.

He loved Kentucky Bourbon but only if he wasn’t driving. He loved his daughters, his grandkids, true BBQ, camping, and his adopted state of Tennessee. Years ago he took us to the UT – Vanderbilt game and when the Volunteer’s band broke out Rocky Top, he stood up and sang right along, at that moment as happy as only a Tennessee fan could be.

A slight man with a full beard, he had a giant of an intellect. For years Amy’s extended family would get together at Pawley’s Island and I’d always bring him a book as a present. One year I gave him the biography of Nobel prize winner and physicist, Richard Feynman. Four hours later he handed it back to me and pronounced it fascinating, all 500+ pages of it.

Dr. David T. Stafford and his favorite dog, Percy

After watching Amy’s grandmother languish away in a nursing home, he begged me to “hold me under the water until the bubbles stop” if he ever became incapacitated.  It didn’t come to that. After 82 years he was still sharp as a tack yet his body had repeatedly failed him.

So with his only surviving daughter, son-in-law, and grandson holding his hands, he slipped quietly away while Willie Nelson sang “Blue eyes crying in the rain” and the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy lashed at the windows.

On that day one of my tasks was to contact all his attorneys to let them know he was passing away. One of them sent me an email, a judgement he had pronounced on a fraudulent employee that had a six pack in the plant’s parking lot, proceeded to cause an accident, then blamed it on her employer. David’s well-reasoned opinion and composure on the stand was still vital to this attorney, 10 years later.

David was a man of facts, of numbers, of research. He was a ruthless card player, a crime fighter, an excellent gardener, and a patient teacher. He sent many physicians into the world of health care better prepared to cure and save. He was also a loving father with a gentle soul. Godspeed, sir. To whom shall we now turn for our fatherly advice?

Dr. David T. Stafford

February 21, 2017
by ChefJohn
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Sourdough School

Last summer we bought the farm.

Tin Roof Farm in Piedmont, SC

I’m not kidding. And after we moved in, we set about utilizing the many opportunities that come from having acreage. Now here we are nine months later and we now have a dozen chickens, we’re looking for honey bees, and we’d like to get something a little larger next year, such as a couple of alpacas.

Spectacular sunrises are common out here.

Yet I’ve been very happy to wrangle some of our farm’s tiniest inhabitants, its wild yeast.

In case you didn’t know, yeast is a single-cell plant and it is literally everywhere. Although it can be found on your grocery store’s shelf, it can also be found on the leaves of your plants, the dirt in your yard, in your armpits, or under your toenails. However, once yeast gets into a warm, moist environment and has access to food (carbohydrates), that’s when the fun starts. As yeast dissolves carbohydrates, such as sugar, flour, grains, etc., it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. And that gas, CO2, is responsible for so many wonderful things and yet we often take it for granted. Just for starters (baker’s joke), yeast and/or bacterial fermentation is responsible for beer, wine, Kimchee, coffee, chocolate, pickles, champagne, sauerkraut, yogurt, vinegar, and bread.

And that’s why I despise those hand sanitizers that confront us at every grocery store, bank, or doctor’s office. Our bodies are covered in bacteria and most of that is good bacteria. We need the good stuff to keep the bad stuff in check. And those sanitizers kill everything they touch which leaves the door open for the bad bacteria to reproduce and consequently leave us vulnerable to infection.

So back to yeast and our farm. We have a peach tree. And back in the fall I removed several dozen leaves and placed them in a bowl of flour. They stayed like that for 48 hours and every time I went into the kitchen, I shook that bowl. That process dislodged the wild yeast from the leaves and deposited them into the flour. Then I removed the leaves, covered the flour with water, stirred in some of my neighbor’s honey, left the bowl on the counter, and waited.

Peach leaves and flour

In about five days I had a bubbling, oozy stew. Sourdough starter. And for hundreds of years this is how bread was made. For many generations, from American cowboys to ancient Egyptian bakers, sourdough starters were created in this manner then carefully protected and carried across continents or across town. That commercial yeast in the little yellow packet has only been around for about 75 years.

Bubbling starter

Now that you’ve created a sourdough starter, you’ve got to care for it. First, keep it in a large jar, much larger than you need. Because one day it’s going to go mad and produce enough CO2 to spew a sticky morass all over your refrigerator. And if it’s in a small glass jar, it just might blow up that jar exercising its desire to travel. Second, it needs to be fed often. Much like a teenager, your starter will become sullen and mopey if it isn’t fed. So a couple of times a week it’ll need a few tablespoons of flour and water. If you’re going to make bread, it’s ideal to feed your starter the day before so it’s quite active. And if you make bread on a regular basis, you’ll need to feed this starter more often.

I keep a very large Mason jar of starter. When I feed it, I add flour and water then shake vigorously after I’ve screwed the lid on.

There is no perfect recipe for a starter because there’s so many varieties of yeast. The yeast in my pasture can be quite different from the yeast in your backyard, your water might be different, the ambient temperature in summer will cause your starter to be more active than in the winter, etc.

Now let’s make some bread.

I’ve got friends that bake professionally, on a large and small scale. Lionel Vatinet, Kurtis Baguley, Ryan Martin, Jenni Field. When they bake they do so with a commitment to proportions and scales. And I don’t do that. I’m not saying I’m a better baker, but I’m only baking for two, and I don’t charge my wife for the bread. Occasionally I give my bread away but if I were in a large kitchen, baking bread daily, I’d be carefully measuring every scoop of flour. I promise.

My good friend Kurt Baguley. He’s a pastry chef at Disney World and he owns Pane D’or bakery in Orlando.

Kurtis is the one that helped me refine my bread technique. To achieve a great loaf of bread, the dough must be stretched, then baked covered and when I started out on this sourdough journey, that’s where I was remiss. So let’s start with a basic recipe that works for me, and it might work for you. Because bread is like that sometimes.

Pour about a cup of starter into the bowl of your stand mixer. I use a Kitchen Aid because Kitchen Aid gave me this one and it’s probably ten years old and still works like a charm.

Now add in about a cup and a half of warm water, body temperature warm. If your water is too hot, you’ll kill your starter. If your water is too cold, that’s not a big deal because you won’t kill the yeast but you will increase the proofing time. Yeast like a warm, moist environment so they’ll need to warm up before they start eating the sugar and flour.

For reasons unknown to modern man, sometimes a sourdough starter gets super happy and does this.

Then a cup of whole wheat flour, and three cups of bread flour. Plus a tablespoon of salt and two tablespoons of honey. Or sugar, or brown sugar, or molasses. Or leave the sweetener out altogether. But keep the salt. The bread flour is important because it has a higher amount of protein, about 15%, than all-purpose, which is about 11%. And that extra amount of protein (which is gluten) is going to give you that crispy crust you’re looking for.

Using the dough hook and the lowest speed, mix until you have a cohesive ball of dough.

Sometimes my starter is thick, sometimes it’s a bit runny. So long as it’s bubbly, it’s all good.

Is your dough looking soupy? Add in a bit more flour. Is your dough stiff and dry? Add in a bit more water.

Now remove the dough from the mixer, cover it with plastic wrap and leave it on the counter. For how long?

I don’t know. Maybe overnight, maybe 24 hours. You got somewhere to go? After the dough has doubled in size, put it in the fridge. Remember we’re dealing with a live substance here. If you place your dough in a cold environment, you won’t kill the yeast, only slow it down. If you give the yeast a warm, moist environment, such as the kitchen counter in July, you’ll make it happy but like any wild party, it’ll quickly burn out. If it’s late February and 38 degrees outside, leave it outside for 24 hours. A long, slow fermentation will work wonders for the complexity of your bread. Just ask any brewer or winemaker. And as a bonus, that fermentation will convert the starches into sugars and alcohol which will create that characteristic sour notes and deep flavors.

The point is to understand fermentation. And fermentation is not an exact science. Personally I prefer to ferment my bread dough for a minimum of 48 hours in the refrigerator then for another six to eight hours at room temperature.

In order to achieve an enticing crumb and crust, the dough needs to be kneaded then stretched about an hour before baking. That overlaying of the dough creates that wonderful interior. This loaf was made prior to my knowledge of the purpose and benefits of stretching. It was also shaped into a boule then baked on a sheet pan.

My first loaf was delicious but a bit too predictable and the crust not nearly crusty enough.

Now in order to create a crispy, crackly skin, you’ll need to bake your bread covered. After experimenting with different vessels, I found the container of my crockpot works the best, and as a bonus, one of my All Clad lids fits perfectly. I spray the inside with Pam first, add the dough, let it proof for a couple of hours then into the oven.

This set up works great for me.

I bake the bread at 425 degrees for 35 minutes, remove the cover, then continue baking to 195 degrees. I use a Taylor thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf.

Turn it out onto a baker’s rack and let it cool before slicing it.

Oh who am I kidding? I slice right into that sucker then slather it with butter and honey.

After months of experimenting with the starter, I used some to make a sourdough pizza, and jeez that was amazing.

And a duck egg and cheese sandwich from a loaf of rye.

Now if you’re looking for a recipe with more precision, just click here, but watch the video below first. That’s a loaf of roasted sweet potato, cinnamon, oatmeal, pecan, and honey sourdough. Once you get the hang of a basic bread recipe, you can think of that recipe as a starting point for all sorts of wonderful additions, such as pecans, and chocolate, and raisins, and basil pesto, and…

October 20, 2016
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Godspeed, Mark

The sky in front of us was crowded with angry, dark clouds. The kind that only a summer storm can produce. Clouds so low, the green tops of the surrounding pine forest threatened to skewer them as they waddled towards us. In another half mile, we would be in the thick of this storm and the only thing separating us from the asphalt was a half inch of rubber.

Deep breath. Now add up the positives.

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A passing photographer caught Mark Kelly leading the group through the storm. He’s in white at the front, I’m to his right behind, third one back.

There was no lightning, the rain would cool us off, most of us had lights and it was a Sunday morning in July, near Givhans Ferry, SC, so traffic was practically non-existent.

I slipped to the outside and asked everyone to give themselves just a bit more room then tucked back in and waited. Then I reminded myself that a year ago I could barely walk, and I had much to be grateful for.

The darkness grew closer and the rain was so thick it resembled a grey curtain hanging in front of us. Well…we only had about 40 miles to go before we reached Charleston, the rain wouldn’t last forever, and Mark Kelly was on my right shoulder. If I had to pedal through this Carolina downpour, Mark’s the guy I want next to me.

Since my return to cycling in 2014, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road with Mark and I’ve enjoyed every one of those miles. Cycling is an amazing way to spend a pretty day and we happen to live in a very beautiful part of the country with a vibrant cycling community.

Cycling is also about suffering. There’s hills and mountains to climb, faster riders to try and stay with, and goals to achieve. My racing days are well behind me but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to push myself. And in 2014 when I asked Mark Kelly to join myself and Bill Englert in the Ride to Remember, I was hoping he would push me.

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Bill Englert, Mark, Father Bob Chiles, and myself

In the three or four months we had to get ready, we got to know each other on a deeper level and our friendship grew as strong as our legs. While riding, Mark is the guy that forced me to go just a bit faster, climb a bit harder, push myself a bit longer. And when we lined up for that first Ride to Remember, even though I didn’t feel ready to ride across the state, Mark convinced me that I was.

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Brian Hale, Mark, Bill, me, Emily Banks, and Kate Plumer at the start of the 2014 Ride to Remember. We called ourselves the Coast Busters and at this point we had each raised an average of $1800.00 for the SC Alzheimer’s Association.

Three days and 250 miles later, we crossed the Ravenel Bridge into Mount Pleasant and stopped at the top for a photo. A lady that was jogging past asked us if she could help and when Mark handed her the phone, she asked us where we had ridden from.

“Greenville” he replied.

She raised one eyebrow with a look of disbelief. “Oh isn’t that nice.” She handed the phone back and quickly jogged off, convinced she was in the company of two delirious drifters.

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Mile 251 of the 2014 SC Ride to Remember. With Mark Kelly at the top of the Ravenel Bridge.

In the last three years we’ve shared a lot of miles and sweat. We’ve marveled at God’s hand in creating the Upstate of South Carolina, and treated each other to espressos and the occasional doughnut or cinnamon roll. And wouldn’t you know, he’s usually been faster than me.

On one ride up North Carolina’s daunting Skyuka Mountain road, Mark gained a thirty second advantage on me. Which was fine. About half way up this five-mile climb, a gentleman in a pickup truck passed me as he was headed down. He stuck his arm out the window and pointed up the road and encouraged me with “That fella’s just around the next corner.”

I smiled and thanked him. “Yup. And that’s where he’s gonna stay.”

At the top of Skyuka, we spent a few minutes enjoying the San Francisco style fog. His enthusiasm for the ride, even though our view was obscured, was unabated.

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Mark Kelly at the top of Skyuka Mountain looking down at the Green River valley.

Looking back, I wish now I would’ve been able to stay with him. That would’ve given me a few more minutes in his company and perhaps another memory to share and cherish.

Last week Mark told me he’s moving to Washington, DC. He’s a professional whose knowledge is highly sought after in the higher education field and he’s been presented with a significant opportunity to share that knowledge with a broader audience. I’m happy for him and his wife and if I were in his shoes, I would’ve made the same decision. That doesn’t make parting any easier.

After the shock of the news wore off, we made small talk about how much we both love DC and that it’s only a short plane ride away. And how much he and his wife love Greenville and naturally they’ll return as often as possible to visit friends. In that moment I saw us on the road, three years prior, shoulder to shoulder, facing a torrential downpour and he’s there to provide a few calm words of reassurance.

Life is dynamic. We learn, we grow, we live and love and in so doing we’re often presented with opportunities. And in those moments we either press on, or we pull over. Perhaps to seek shelter, perhaps to wait out the metaphorical storm. Mark is the guy that presses on. Because on the other side of that storm we were greeted with sunshine and a gorgeous Carolina sky. And now Mark has an opportunity to press through a storm of change and he’s moving forward.

Damn. I’m really going to miss him. My rides won’t be the same because every time I look over my shoulder, I’ll look for his confident shadow and his calm presence.

Godspeed and keep the rubber side down, my friend.

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Good luck, my friend.

 

 

 

August 15, 2016
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Helicopters in The Sand

The big, twin rotor helicopter thundered down our beach. My son, all of three, with his mop of curly brown, salt-crusted hair, was mesmerized. As it passed in front of us, the gentleman in the doorway in his olive drab uniform and glistening white helmet, waved a giant’s wave.

Chinook

 

“Oooh Daddy!” was all my son could say.  His eyes glowed as we watched this enormous machine, rotors beating the air, turbines whining, march steadily north. When it slipped out of sight, I grabbed a stick and drew a helicopter in the sand, big enough for the two of us. I gave him the stick and the pilot’s seat and we lifted off from our little piece of beach and flew out over the ocean. We dipped and dove and chased seagulls, dolphins and the setting sun. For a few minutes we enjoyed a perfect fantasy, a father and son moment of fleeting magic as pure as the sparkle of those tiny fish that glide through the breaking surf.

We came in for a landing when we were told it was time for lunch. When we returned to our helicopter, the tide had washed it away. No matter, I assured him, I would carve a new one. But our imaginations had moved on to something else and we never flew another helicopter.

Fifteen years later, I’m on that same stretch of coast line. And all I see is beach, and sand, and salt water. A helicopter approached from the south and buzzed past.

Then I carved a helicopter in the sand and for a brief moment he was three again, and we climbed into that sandy patch of magic and took off. We buzzed the tree tops and seagulls, boats and dolphins, pirates and whales until she asked: “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

I sat down in my helicopter and waited for the water to wash away my sins. And I saw moments in time; of tempers flaring and patience lost, of rash decisions and time stolen, and I asked for forgiveness, from him, and God. And I asked for one more flight with that little sandy haired boy in that magical helicopter.

One more flight.

And my answer was a salty wave that washed across my toes, streaked across my face, and carried my helicopter out to sea.

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August 11, 2016
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Where Have All The Good Cooks Gone?

From the minute I walked into my first professional kitchen, I knew I was meant to be there. I loved everything about it. The pace, the intensity, all the insane foods that I’d only read about and the impossibly high standards set by a larger than life Parisian-born Chef. You did not question his methods, authority, or technique but you observed, you learned, then emulated. Every day in the kitchen of Christian’s was an immersive experience and every day I learned something new, every day I got better, faster, cleaner, more efficient and more respectful of my Chef, the ingredients and the experience that diners were paying for. And what I found was joyful. Unlike many other occupations, people arrive excited to see you. Who loves going to see their attorney, dentist, or their mechanic? You may love the level of service you get or the job your mechanic performs, but dropping off your car for a day or more isn’t exactly the highlight of your day. I think the world of my attorney and doctor friends and value their abilities immensely but the thought of a professional visit to their office isn’t on my list of weekly highlights.

Aah, but being a professional cook in a sophisticated downtown bistro or an up and coming brasserie on the East side; that’s a different story. Dinner at a new or established restaurant? This is an experience we look forward to, plan our week around, post on Instagram about. And to be able to provide that sort of expectation and experience is a feeling of value and worth that’s tough to put a number on. So how come no one wants to cook anymore?

Paul, Daniel, John

The Lazy Goat, Fried Green Tomatoes, Firebirds, Diggers BBQ, Adam’s Bistro, Eggs Up Grill, Bacon Brothers, and the list goes on and on. All of these restaurants are looking for cooks. And now as summer rolls to a close and a lot of short term help heads back to school, the skilled labor situation will just get tighter. Is the labor market for the culinary arts so precipitous that Greenville could see another high-profile restaurant such as Breakwater, close its doors, too?  Many in the hospitality field are quick to blame the current labor shortage on Greenville’s recent growth spurt but I’m not sure this is the case.  In my younger days, when I was running kitchens and cooking, it was no different. New Orleans, Charleston or here in Greenville, there was always a shortage of good cooks, and restaurants were always on the lookout for a solid pair of hands. Why?

Well there’s several reasons but I think the most obvious is that the skills required haven’t evolved much at all. Sure there was a brief flirtation with high-tech machines and molecular gastronomy but for the most part, a professional kitchen still relies on flames, pots, pans, knives, and steel. Those basic pieces of equipment aren’t going away any time soon, either. So while other industries may have evolved and moved forward, professional cooking’s evolution has taken place not in the kitchen but rather in procurement. We all want to know about the local tomatoes, chicken, mushrooms, etc

Also, in the past ten years or so, Greenville has attracted a new crop of high tech manufacturing, marketing, and IT firms that source their own labor force. Positions with these types of firms pay quite well and that can up the cost of living in an urban area like Greenville’s. Naturally there’s going to be entrepreneurs that want to take advantage of a growing customer base but the average chef/cook in the Southeast US makes about $36,000 annual. If you’re a cloud-based IT firm that’s just wrapped its hands around a 50 million-dollar investment, you’ll have no trouble attracting, and paying, top talent. If you’re the local Southern bistro that’d like to feed those folks, well you can’t afford to attract top talent if you’re only offering 13.50 an hour. The real advantage of cooking at a creative or innovative restaurant is not monetary, but rather because the owner or chef provides an avenue to entrepreneurship or promotion.

And that’s the secret that Anthony Gray, Executive Chef and owner at Bacon Brothers, tries to remember and reinforce daily. “If I get a good one, I’ll try to do anything to groom that person to grow with the restaurant. The ones that stay have an appreciation for quality ingredients and hard work, it’s (Bacon Brothers) not an easy kitchen to work in.”

Good cooks aren’t going to move here from Austin, San Francisco, or New York to make 13 or 14 dollars an hour. Those good cooks are going to come from your local labor pool. And even though an ad for a cook may get a dozen applicants, maybe more, the challenge is finding the right set of qualities.

Jeff Kelly, Executive Chef at the Peace Center believes his “biggest challenge is finding people that can produce consistent results. And there’s drive, integrity, passion and they need to have the willingness to put their heads down and learn.”

The Peace Center

Photo courtesy the Peace Center

It’s a natural tendency to label one’s own generation as better than a succeeding generation but Jeff Kelly believes this latest generation has little respect for the traditions of the kitchen. “It’s not like it was when I was coming up. So many of these young cooks think they deserve a (salary) position without paying their dues.” And paying dues means learning how to make a proper Hollandaise, an aromatic veal stock, handmade pasta, or a smooth and creamy veloute’ before you plop grilled local asparagus on a plate with a sprinkle of salt and proclaim it as innovative.

On the other side of town, Chef Brian Province works in Greenville’s health care field and he believes the key to retention is no different. He’ll receive dozens of applications for a single cook’s position, maybe phone interview a quarter of those, then set up one on one interviews only to have a handful even show up. “That’s the worst problem.”  His key to retaining cooks? “Your people have to feel needed and have an ownership mentality.

Cooking is a tough, physically demanding job and if one is going to succeed in the culinary arts, one must be willing to give up a lot. Weekends, holidays, birthdays, and healthy knees are all casualties of this business.  Yet its rewards are multi-dimensional. And while other industries may succumb to out-sourcing, robotics, and high tech downsizing, a professional cook will never lack for work and with a lot of hard work and diligence, will have the opportunity to make their own way in this industry.

Anthony

Chef Anthony Gray of Bacon Brothers

The restaurant business has always been, and always will be challenging. Slim profit margins can get even slimmer when rent, or the cost of that local asparagus goes up. Your favorite chef-driven bistro probably has a profit margin of about five percent so the question of “why not pay better” isn’t an easy option. The restaurants that survive, and thrive will be the ones that do everything just slightly better, including attracting, retaining, and motivating their staff.

And if you enjoy my writing, perhaps you’ll enjoy my novel, Doughnuts for Amy. Published by Winter Goose Publishing early this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 28, 2016
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Help Wanted

Many years ago I was the Executive Sous Chef at the glorious Mills House Hotel in Charleston. When I took this position, I really thought I would soon be their Executive Chef. During the interview process the Executive Chef repeatedly told me he would soon be headed to a hotel in the Caribbean. His position in the Caribbean never materialized, and I left the Mills House after 18 months. He was still there ten years later.

I loved being a part of this hotel. Its location, architecture, the team I worked with, the steady influx of interesting visitors, and its numerous quirks (the ghost on the fourth floor that liked nothing better than scaring a housekeeper) of this 140 year old grande dame all made for a memorable 18 months. My main responsibility was the gorgeous Barbadoes dining room and upon accepting the position I was told to “make the customers happy.”

Mills House

So when I saw an ad for Executive Chef of the Mills House, my heart skipped a beat. Wow…should I apply?

And then I read the ad in its entirety. After a very short job description, the ad rolled through the “fundamental requirements” of the position, most of which I’ll share with you. The BOLD is all mine.

Work with other F&B managers and keep them informed of F&B issues as they arise.

Keep immediate supervisor fully informed of all problems or matters requiring his/her attention.

Coordinate and monitor all phases of Loss Prevention in kitchen areas.

Prepare and submit required reports in a timely manner.

Monitor quality of all food product and presentation.

Ensure preparation of required reports, including (but not limited to) Wage Progress, payroll, revenue, employee schedules, quarterly actions plans.

Oversee all aspects of the daily operation of the kitchen and food production areas.

Respond to guest complaints in a timely manner.

So reading between the lines, one would think the Mills House is a hornet’s nest of problems. Notice all the negative words and connotations? The first requirement is to handle “issues” which we all know is code for “problems.”  The second requirement is to tell your supervisor about your problems. The third requirement is to keep an eye on your staff because they’re going to steal, or allow food to spoil. The fourth requirement is to fill out reams of paperwork detailing the theft and problems in your kitchen, the fifth requirement is to “monitor” quality and food presentation. So if the food looks terrible but I monitored the process to make it look terrible, I’ve fulfilled my requirement, correct?

And notice the seventh requirement is to respond to guest complaints in a timely manner? Monitor, problems, comply, reports…shall I keep going?

What Debbie Downer wrote this job description? And who’s going to respond to this in a positive manner?

Come on, people! This is one of the best known hotels in the South, in one of our country’s most heralded food cities. So why wouldn’t you look for someone that can “excite your guests” or “lead a staff of dedicated professionals” or “spot and encourage excellence in your team” and “define and interpret the lowcountry cuisine of the Mills House”?

Think about this the next time you’re looking for help in your company. What corporate picture will your job description paint? Will your candidates see a Pollack-like abstract of chaos with problems, distrust, and paperwork or will they see an opportunity to join a cohesive, goal-oriented team and the chance to make a difference?

I’ll be staying in Greenville for the foreseeable future. And while I’m here, if you’re looking to inject a little spice into your company, especially if you write job descriptions for Wyndham Hotels, perhaps I may be of assistance?