September 12, 2018
September 12, 2018
September 8, 2018
It’s inaccurate. As in it never happened. In the first place, who could’ve survived such an experience? Can you imagine how inhospitable the belly of a whale actually is? A large whale such as a humpback, must have gallons and gallons of bile floating around its insides and even spending a few minutes inside its G/I system would be incredibly hot, disgusting and would quickly end in a painful death.
And yet here I am, inside a steaming hot whale of a cinder block building, with ribs of exposed beams and vessels of ancient electrical conduit, while a half dozen murderers pray as they wait for their time to be spat out upon the sandy beach of freedom.
Kairos is a non-denominational prison ministry and I’ve participated several times. And on a recent Saturday morning I sat and listened to men grapple with their reality and compare it to well known biblical parables. On this occasion, Jonah was one of those parables. Jonah was called by God to travel to a faraway city and preach to its citizens so they would repent of their sinful ways. Yet Jonah was a shy, apprehensive man and no one to witness to an entire city. So he ignored God’s command, climbed into a boat and sailed off to dodge his heavenly responsibility. Soon after he was tossed overboard in a storm, swallowed by a giant fish and three days later coughed up on the shores of Ninaveh, God’s chosen destination.
And most of these men can identify with Jonah. Sinners of a higher order, the majority of them committed their crimes as much younger men and after many years of imprisonment have come to see themselves as pariahs; repentent and reformed, yet not welcome in society. They’re covered with the bile and tattoos of hard time. They sing loudly, pray openly, and pine for the day when their penance has been served and are alllowed to clean themselves up and walk into the sunshine. That’s where Kairos comes in. Monthly visits and twice a year a four day walk that invites others to come to the risen Lord and find hope in this place of hopelessness.
Today we are reconnecting and singing. Simple, campfire hymns such as “They’ll Know We are Christians.”
“We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
As we heartily sing this verse, I realize these men are truly searching for their dignity in a place of mortal indecency. Their tattoos and scars harken to a time of voilent misdeeds yet their gray hair and soft tones speak of grace, hope, and sorrow for their sins.
“another twelve years…”
One gentleman, with soft eyes and tired feet, still paying for sins committed by a very young version of himself, confided to me that he didn’t want his life to be in vain. I can’t imagine a more desperate situation than watching time go by from a tiny cell in a penetentiary and afraid that you would never have a positive effect on anyone.
“I don’t want my life to be in vain.”
Jonah, swallowed up by a whale, and coughed up onto a sandy beach three days later. Broken, humiliated, and ultimately coerced by God to tell his story of grace and forgiveness.
“My brother, your life is not in vain.”
And in that moment the entire story of Jonah holds true. The stench of the whale’s belly is all around us. Carolina heat and humidity, the late summer variety, as oppressive and weighty as only a Southern summer can be coupled with dozens of worn khaki jumpers and gleaming razor wire. Men waiting, praying for their day in the sun, free from their shackles and able to walk in peace. In our bleakest moments we can turn to these allegories and find strength and encouragement, no matter where we lay ourselves down.
As a Kairos volunteer, we don’t ask about details. Our mission is to listen and show love. We sing, hold hands, offer encouragement and pray and often we’re uplifted by the faith of men that most on the outside believe have nothing good to share, nothing worthwhile to offer.
And as we’re parting ways, my brother hugs me and thanks me.
“Thank you for coming and listening.”
August 14, 2018
“Chef Malik, would you like to come to California and cook with me this summer?”
Her French voice crackled with sincerety and authenticity and I can remember thinking this could only be one particular woman on the other end of the line. Madeleine Kamman. Several months later I was flying to California’s Napa Valley to spend two amazing weeks with the her. Although she was a contemporary of Julia Child, Madeleine chose to have her greatest influence on the restaurant business and the American chef. In 1988 Beringer Vineyards asked her to create a finishing school for working chefs. She wrote the curriculum, created the course studies, wrote the press releases and opened the doors.
When I was accepted to The School for American Chefs, I was speechless. In those two weeks of July, 1990, I learned more about food than I had in my entire life. Why artichokes grow where they do, why certain regions are better for grapes, why wheat fueled conquering armies, why beer was the best method of purifying water in ancient times, why herbs are to be used at the very end of the cooking process, and so on and so forth. There was only four of us, Kurtis Baguley, pastry chef of San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental and Mark Malicki, chef of Iron Horse Vineyards, Maureen Pothier from Rhode Island, and dumb me from Charleston. We shared breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days and she took us all over the Napa Valley, San Francisco, and Sonoma Valley. Lunch at Domaine Chandon, Dinner at Souverain, baguettes from Acme, a wine tasting at Heitz with the Heitz’s, lunch at Chez Panisse, cheese, wine, and a bounty of fresh produce followed by more wine. My most memorable event of those two weeks was a visit to Chateau Montelena for a barrel tasting. I didn’t know much about wine but I did know they made some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. And the cabernet we had out of the barrel was so awful, I couldn’t swallow it. As I looked around for a spit bucket she pointed at me and remarked “Now you understand the artistry of this winemaker, yes?”
Then it hit me. Because only a true artist could taste that tannic, arsenic-like juice and know he would create something beautiful and timeless some 18 months later.
My two weeks at the School for American Chefs were the most amazing two weeks of my professional career and I only wish I had been more mature at the time. She opened my eyes to the many possibilities of food and wine, and the beauty of life’s often small pleasures. At the end of those two weeks, she pulled me aside and invited me to spend a year with her learning and cooking. “You need some finesse John, some polish, and here is where you will get it.” I was shocked and spoke about it with my bride. I turned her down. I was an east coast guy and so young and immature, and I turned her down.
Madeleine had a profound effect on the American restaurant scene. She helped encourage and guide the talents of some of our best known chefs at a time when American chefs were just starting to explore regional American cuisine. Chefs such as Jimmy Schmidt, Peter Hoffman, Paul Prudhomme, Joanne Weir, and more. And her fiesty attitude towards the dominant male chef mafia at the time was ground breaking. Her dedication in “When French Women Cook” is generations ahead of its time: “This book, in its own way a feminist manifesto, is dedicated to the millions of women who have spent millenia in kitchens creating unrecognized masterpieces…” And that book? It was published in 1976. Imagine if she were still alive today and cognizant, she would’ve marched down to Mario Batali’s place and dragged him out by his ear, and given him a scolding the likes only a French grandmother could.
She’d been suffering with Alzheimer’s for ten years and had been out of the public eye for a lot of that time. After losing my Mom to ALZ and spending my three years as F & B director in retirement communities and watching one too many families struggle with the effects of Alzheimer’s, I can understand that decision. Such a pity that she wasn’t able to enjoy her later years and the adulation she was due.
Thank you Madeleine. I did not deserve those two weeks and I’m so thankful you believed I did.
July 30, 2018
The go to model in today’s restaurant business typically features counter service, no matter how grand their culinary aspirations.
The restaurant industry has never been static and in the last five to ten years it’s really had an overhaul. I’d guess it’s because so many young cooks watched employers close their doors during the years immediately following the crash and recesssion of late 2008. When I was a young culinary apprentice, I, and most of my friends, aspired to own white tablecloth brasseries and cafes with a professional waitstaff in crisp black and white, a leather-bound wine list, and an occasional special of Dover sole with capers and beurre noisette. However, that model comes fraught with challenges. There’s pricey real estate, a large staff, that huge wine list, and the overhead that comes from lots of bricks and mortar. However, in that labor model, one’s waitstaff can make a significant amount of money. Remember how it was done? A polished waiter or waitress could size up your party of four, ascertain if you were in the mood for a quick meal or a leisurely dinner with multiple courses, cocktails, and matching wines, make sure you understand carpaccio is raw, and recommend the perfect dessert all while also taking care of three other tables. A great server can make an average meal into a memorable one. Pardon me while I sigh over my misspent youth and what the restaurant business once was.
Now the business model of success for an independent restaurant leans towards the lean. One orders from a chalkboard, fetches their own drinks, pays immediately and right away we’re asked for a tip. At the risk of sounding like Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man (yeah I’m at least 50), I don’t tip until I’ve actually received hospitality.
I suddenly feel defensive and yet, why? Why do I even need to defend this position? Heck for years the only folks that used this manner of table service were the fast food outlets and the old school BBQ joints. Sadly in my experience I’ve been shown these suggested tip percentages before anyone has even bothered to smile at me, welcome me into their business, or tell me about the daily special.
Recently we dined at a very well known cafe in the Southeast. We read the chalkboard, ordered our food and beverages, were handed a number on a metal pole, sat ourselves, fetched our own tableware and when we were finished I headed to the men’s room and found this sign reminding me to bus my table according to their directions.
It’s decision time for restaurateurs because the restaurant business is once again going through a period of reconciliation and guess where it’s growing by leaps and bounds? Delivery! More and more diners are choosing to stay at home and have dinner brought to them and they’re utilizing meal delvery services such as Bite Squad, Grub Hub, or Uber Eats. These services take a big bite out of an operator’s bottom line, starting at 15% per order, and that can have a significant impact on profit margin, and these services are only projected to grow over the next few years. Why, though? Why are more people deciding to eat at home and not in YOUR restaurant?
Well…shall we start with hospitality, or the lack of it?
What happens when someone walks into your establishment? Does one of your team smile at them immediately? Are they made to feel welcome? Are they made to feel special? Are they asked specific questions such as “Is your steak cooked the way you prefer? How’s that beer, is it everything I promised?”
Or are they met with zero eye contact, a sullen “next?” and paper signs reminding them to drop their dirty glass in one bus tub and their tableware in another?
There’s an art form to hospitality and the less it gets practiced, the less diners want to be diners and instead will choose to be eaters. They’ll order online, have their food delivered, and eat in their own home because they don’t feel special or important in your dining room. Heck if we’re carrying our own food around, fetching our own drinks, and cleaning up after ourselves, what’s the point of driving to your restaurant?
And if your restaurant, cafe, brasserie, or food truck is looking for an edge in this ultra-competitive business or needs to get its mojo back, perhaps I can help. Give me a call and we’ll talk, I can’t help everyone but maybe I can help you.
June 18, 2018
“Too many broken hearts have fallen in the river
Too many lonely souls have drifted out to sea
You lay your bets and then you pay the price
The things we do for love, the things we do for love”
10 CC from their hit, The Things We do For Love, 1977
She wanted goats. Why? I’m not sure. Because they’re cute, because they’ll devour our poison ivy, she wanted another challenge, maybe because our little farm didn’t have enough quadrapeds. Maybe she considered them a substitute for the Alpacas we’re not going to get though she really wants.
I see them as a gateway drug to the Alpacas. If we’re successful with the goats, she’ll try to convince me Alpacas are next on the list.
The end result is this past Friday we drove to Honea (honey-ah) Path to pick up two Tennessee Fainting Goats. Both males, brothers. Because goats are herding animals and they can’t live solo. They need goat companionship, at least that’s what she told me. They looked so innocent and goat-like at the real farm where they grew up.
After their 45 minute ride home in the back of our Ford F150, these cleft-foot whirling dervishes wanted nothing to do with our so-called bucolic pasture and goat-proof fence.
Cats, chickens, our turkey, the goat chow, the neighbors, the goat water bowl, the apple tree and all that delicious looking poison ivy was no match for these two. In the space of three minutes it was all scattered to the four winds and in no time they were free. They spent the weekend ravaging through the vast kudzu playground of Piedmont, SC.
All weekend we received Bigfoot quality reports from our neighbors. Text messages, app notifications, whispered phone calls.
“We just saw them under our boat”
“I think they’re behind our tractor”
“We heard bleating behind our shed”
Off we dashed to the F 150, dropping our sanity in favor of a cup of goat food and a couple of ropes. And all we found were a few droppings and a muddy foot print or two.
“Look! Behind those leaves! Is that them?”
A distant bleat, a gray shadow blending to green then nothing.
Then on our Monday morning dog walk they taunted us right out in the open. They appeared on a neighbor’s driveway. I bolted once again for the F 150 while Amy made her best goat call.
“Baaaaaaa” she said, hoping to say in goatese: “You’ll be safe and happy with us. We have poison ivy.” And the goats rewarded her lousy imitation with curiosity.
“Your toes were eaten by sharks?” They responded. “We don’t believe you but take off your shoes and we’ll come take a look”
Their curiosity got the better of them and soon they were in the rear of the Ford. Perhaps exhausted by their weekend at Bernie’s of Piedmont, perhaps hungover from their fill of kudzu, they tolerated the ride back to Tin Roof Farm where they’re now tied up until they can come to terms with their new home.
And the Golden Grove neighborhood may breathe a sigh of relief. Their gardens are safe and the Maliks are no longer knocking on doors and asking, “Uh, have you seen two little goats?”
And that was our Father’s Day weekend in Piedmont, SC.
Yeah and about that fainting, we have yet so see it happen.
June 16, 2018
The sweat is stinging my eyes, rolling across my lips, drenching the back of my neck, and clouding my glasses. My heart is thumping along at 175 beats per minute, a few beats over my recommended maximum, and I’m fighting for every pedal stroke while gulping air like nobody’s business. I’m gripping the bars and twisting, pushing myself to my limits and I’m maxed out. I cannot go any faster.
And still this damn butterfly is outrunning me.
It’s a big one, one of those pretty swallowtails that fan out across the upstate this time of the year. It’s lazily fluttering around me and I’m determined to beat it to the top of the mountain, yet right now he definitely has the upper hand. That’s what a 6% incline can do to a cyclist.
It’s the constant tug of friction and gravity and climbing never gets easier, you just get faster. I’ve been on big climbs such as Caesar’s Head where it just goes on and on and my 185 pounds feels like 300 and my 19 pound Trek more like an anvil. And still I drag that anvil to the top of the mountain, grunting and sweating, racing the butterflies all the way.
It’s been a good cycling year and in a few weeks, when I line up for the start of my fifth consecutive Ride to Remember, I should have 2200 miles under my 2018 belt. And it won’t be enough.
Because it’s really about raising money and not about cycling. It’s not about the miles but the diagnosis, it’s not about my heart beat, it’s about the slowing heart beat of the 200,000 people in the United States with early-onset Alzheimer’s, the 5.7 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, and the approximately 85,000 that will die from Alzheimer’s this year.
What can I do about it?
The amount of money consumed by Alzheimer’s is staggering. Research and clinical trials burn through 500+ million dollars a year and yet Alzheimer’s remains the 6th largest killer of Americans with no end in sight. Americans will spend about 275 billion dollars this year caring for people with Alzheimer’s, and our group of cyclists will net about $700,000.
$700,000. And to raise that we’ll cycle across the middle of South Carolina in the middle of damn July. When someone calculates charitable donations raised versus sweat expended, our group will surely be in the top ten.
Surely there’s a better way to raise $700,000 for the SC Alzheimer’s Association, and when you figure it out, let me know.
Until then, I’ll be racing that butterfly to the top of the mountain.
And since we’re talking about money, please drop me a few dollars by clicking here. All of it goes to the fight.
May 9, 2018
When we lived in the suburbs, I really enjoyed cutting the grass and maintaining the landscaping. Our previous homes in Greenville had traditional lawns. One big square of grass in the front, and one big rectangle in the back, each bordered by bushes or shrubs with the occasional tree poking up in the middle of the lawn. When I cut the grass, I followed the same path, every time. My path was designed to provide the most amount of coverage in the least amount of time. I taught my son the same technique; start on the perimeter, make 90 degree corners, and work your way in and you’ll end up with a nice tidy cut and an attractive lawn. Neat. Orderly. Routine.
We had cats and dogs and most of them lived a long, happy life. If they got sick, they let us know. They whimpered, looked at you with sad eyes, shunned their breakfast or sat in the corner until you took pity on them and got them to the vet.
And then we bought our three-acre farm and on our two-year anniversary of living here, it’s time to share some observations.
There is nothing orderly about it.
Sure we try, but even cutting the grass can be a challenge. There are no straight lines or 90 degree corners to be had, anywhere. With a dozen or more chickens, two turkeys, two dogs, and fifty thousand honey bees, one’s path with with a rumbling Craftsman mower is constantly weaving. Honey bees are surprisingly docile, until you get too close with a fast moving machine that sends earthquakes through their home. What defines too close? That changes with the weather. So I let the grass have its way ten to fifteen feet from their hives. Because honey bees have only one way of expressing their displeasure with humans. And it hurts. Each hive has a queen and she lays upwards of 1,500 eggs per day. One thousand and five hundred. The typical honey bee only lives for 30 days or so. And when they die their bodies are shoved out of the hive by healthy bees. That’s usually the first thing the hive does in the morning. There’s no fanfare or ceremony, just a quick burial at land.
Remember how much you hate clover? Most of our suburban friends went nuts with the herbicides because for some reason, this stuff makes an ugly lawn. Our bees, however, love it because it produces a crazy amount of pollen per square yard. So I leave patches of it here and there. Our pasture never looks neatly cut.
When we started looking for farm animals, several real farmer friends of ours warned us not to name our animals or treat them as pets. Goats, chickens, turkeys and the like, should they get sick, “have little will to live.” Unlike your Springer Spaniel, they won’t let you know if they’re sick, they’ll just waddle into a corner and pass away. Another farmer bluntly warned us that life on a farm is cheap. Animals will disappear, wander off, or die, at the drop of a hat.
A few months after we moved in, we got our first chickens. A variety pack. Another few months went by and my bride found some Lavendar Aracaunas. Beautiful chickens that were very friendly. It was normal for them to fly onto my shoulder, beg for a treat, or follow us around.
We were so enamored with them, we named them. When an invitation came to discuss backyard chickens on a local TV program, I brought these two along and they were willing guests. Four weeks later they both died within a few days of one another. They were probably egg-bound.
Imagine a reproductive system capable of producing one gorgeous, calcium-covered egg every day; now imagine that system working perfectly every time, every day, in every chicken. It just doesn’t happen. When a young chicken is egg bound, it’s usually fatal. The egg gets stuck, another egg is being created and begins pushing on the stuck egg and soon binds up blood vessels. We followed the prescription and soaked her in a warm, epson-salt studded bath but it was no use. Fortunately we didn’t really treat them as pets so their loss didn’t hurt that much.
We’ve lost maybe six chickens and four chicks. The chickens just turn up dead. One day they’re running around minding their own business and the next morning they’re dead in the barn. No sign of disease or injury, they just give up and die. When a chicken dies, the other hens will peck at her in an insulting manner. Almost as if they’re mocking her.
When the little chicks die, they just disappear. Maybe a hawk or a snake patiently waiting near the tall grass.
Dogs are incredibly social. If you brought your dog over the first thing our Otis would do is invite the visitor to play. Chickens and turkeys are very cliquish. They stick to their own little group and when you introduce new chickens to your yard, they keep their distance from each other. The hens that have raised chicks teach them to keep clear of us, of snakes, of other potential dangers as well as where to find the best bugs.
Last summer we bought five turkeys, four males, one female. Heritage breed, Naragansett Turkeys. We wanted a real turkey for Thanksgiving and decided to keep a male and female so we could raise a half dozen or so a year. After Thanksgiving our solo male became more aggressive and by Spring he decided I had to die. It was nothing personal, he just saw me as a threat to his yard supremacy. It’s quite unnerving to have a 40 pound bird with T-Rex claws come at you with all his might, and after losing five hard fought battles to me, he’s learned to keep his distance. He still wants me dead so I keep an eye on him when he’s near. My death is all that interests him. He certainly doesn’t want to be a Dad and our Hen Turkey hasn’t gone broody, even though she’s laying eggs.
Not surprising because our chickens rarely sit on their eggs. Only when a hen goes broody do they sit on eggs. What triggers “broody”? We’d love to know because it’s a great mystery. Maybe something to do with the size of the flock? Or maybe a desire to raise chicks, to be a Mom, to bring life into their world.
So if we wanted to hatch baby turkeys, we needed an incubator and would have to play Mom for the first 30 days or so. And that we did. Of the two that hatched, one of them died in a few days. Our healthy baby turkey stayed inside for about three weeks. Remember how cold the first weeks of April were? Turkey poults (that’s what baby turkeys are called) need to stay dry and very warm, 90 degrees warm. So our little guy stayed inside for several weeks and kept close to the heat lamp. As her feathers filled out, she was able to spend more time outside. However, she was a bird without a family and little ones like this need a Mom to teach them the dangers of the outdoors. There’s circling hawks and snarling crows, snakes waiting patiently in the grass and ill-mannered hens that think nothing of pecking at strange birds that aren’t their own.
So we were careful of her time outside and learned a lot about baby turkeys. We noticed about two dozen calls, everything from “where is everyone” to “this food is delicious” and they do it all without moving their lips. Unlike our baby chickens, they’re very affectionate. However, we knew better to name her and we kept her at a distance because we’d been told that life on a farm is cheap.
She would follow us across the yard or the house and she loved to climb inside the fur of Otis and purr happily. In a proper turkey life, she should’ve been tucked under the wing of her Mom so that’s why she loved to burrow into Otis’ fur, or our armpit. If she was on your shoulder, she might mistake an eyelash for something yummy so it was best to close your eyes. We tried to introduce her to Mama turkey but unfortunately Mama didn’t want anything to do with her, and she needed someone to protect her, to look after her.
Once the warm air decided to stick around, we moved her outside. It’s impossible to potty train a turkey and her droppings were growing by the minute. However, we loved the pitter patter of her feet as she ran down the hallway, the high pitched purr she made when we gave her a little bacon fat, the cartoonish squeak she made when Otis licked her, or the low grumble she made when she was hungry. When company came she was the life of the party. She jumped into laps, tugged on shoe laces, and fluttered into hearts.
We kept an eye on her and made sure she stayed out of trouble. And we were proud of ourselves for not naming her, not getting too close to our farm animal, and not enjoying her company too much. We tried our best, but we’re only human.
Then she disappeared.
It was a sunny afternoon and our chickens and turkeys sounded happy and I was in the house with all the windows open. No calls of alarm from the other birds, no barks from Otis, no squeak from our little turkey, she was just gone.
And that’s why we didn’t name her or grow too close to her. Because on a farm there is very little routine, very little order, and these farm animals have a way of just quietly slipping away.
February 17, 2018
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fresh fruits such as guava, mango, papaya and grapefruit so sweet you’d swear it was dipped in honey.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
November 1, 2017
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
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
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.