Chef John Malik

a writer trapped in a cook's body

August 14, 2018
by ChefJohn
1 Comment

Thank you, Madeleine

“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.

 

madeleine kamman school for american chefs

My diploma has faded just a bit

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
by ChefJohn
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A Side of Hospitality

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.

Restaurant Consultants in Greenville, SC

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.

Jeez…

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
by ChefJohn
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The Things You do For Love

“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.

435 goat-hauling horsepower

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?”

They might look cute, and looks can be deceiving

And that was our Father’s Day weekend in Piedmont, SC.

Yeah and about that fainting, we have yet so see it happen.

Now get to work on that poison ivy

 

 

 

 

 

June 16, 2018
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Racing Butterflies

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.

my occasional racing partner

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.

Training ride with Dan Ripley, Chris Nordmeyer and Brian Kenna

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.

End of day two, 2016

$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.

Lining up for the start of day three, 100 miles, Orangeburg to Charleston, 2017

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.

Team Coast Busters at the finish of the 2017 Ride to Remember. Melissa Grinnell, Brian Hale, Brian Kenna, Julian Loue, me, Steven and Emily Banks

Thank you.

May 9, 2018
by ChefJohn
3 Comments

Life, and Death, on Tin Roof Farm

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.

Our bees bringing home the pollen

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.

Clover? The honey bees love this so I don’t mow it all down at the same time. Leave a patch, cut a patch.

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.

This little guy showed up one morning. Even when they’re babies, Possums aren’t very friendly. We named this guy Bitey McBitey then put him outside where Mom came looking for him.

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.

Our Lavendar Aacaunas in happier times.

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.

Hen on her roost as the sun starts to set.

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.

Our Tom and Hen with a few chickens.

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.

Turkeys prefer to roost instead of sitting.

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.

They often napped together

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.

Turkey Yoga

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
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