Chef John Malik

a writer in a cook's body

November 10, 2020
by ChefJohn

The Coral of Belize

The sparkling water stretched towards the blue horizon and somewhere in the distance sky and water melted into one another. Our boat gently bobbed and on shore, a few flags softly fluttered in the salty breeze. I rolled off the boat, splashed into the water and landed on another planet.

Belize is home to the second largest coral reef in the world and naturally, it’s in danger from the prying fingers of mankind. We’re a thousand yards offshore tied up to one of the buoys placed here to keep anchors from dragging across the coral. A dozen large white floats mark the perimeter of the coral bed and we will swim in a clockwise pattern, staying within the floats. To my eye it looks like we’ll swim a bit more than a quarter mile.

Before we set off, our guide, Rayolando of Ramon’s Village, instructs us what not to touch (all of it, don’t touch a thing) and under the watchful eyes of a smiling Marine Warden, here to protect the coral, we slip towards the first buoy. A final adjustment of the mask, a gentle kick or two and we’re gliding across the surface.  Ten feet below us the sea grass sways to the rhythm of the sea. Its foot-long tendrils dance this way, then that, pulled by the tug of this massive body of water stretching from the west coast of Florida to the shores of Central America. We kick, follow Rayolando towards the coral. Our first visitors, a school of several dozen Gray Snappers, gives quizzical glances then falls in line with us. It’s likely they’ve been fed by snorkelers in the past.

Coral isn’t any one thing, it’s a community of oh so slow growing organisms, all in a symbiotic relationship. Coral provides food, shelter, nutrients, and stability to the water. It’s fragile. One touch from a human could remove its thin layer of protective slime and open it up to infection from algae. From there it’s a slow, inescapable death for that entire bed of coral. And when the coral dies, everything else dies with it.

The first coral bed we approach is the size of a minivan and it pulsates with life, a magical alien life. It’s life one would find in a Dr. Seuss book; translucent purple leaves the size of a large pizza, scaly green and orange tubes full of 45 degree corners, some with tiny eyeballs winking from inside, there’s yellow bumps, red rocks, and green bruises. There’s spikes and string and curtains of yellow fabric, all dancing to the beat of the water. Boulders resembling the preserved brains of long departed whales rest on rocky orange lumps while a kaleidoscope of Martian flowers jut from every crack and crevice. The fish are everywhere. Most brightly colored, impossibly blue or yellow or purple or black. They sparkle in the dappled sunlight, dash in and out of the coral. Green Parrot fish, Queen Triggerfish, French Angelfish, Stoplight Parrotfish, Blue Wrasse, Yellow Tail Damsel, Blue Tangs and Fairy Basslets. Most nibble away at the coral, some glide up for a closer look at the visitors. The curious ones come face to face briefly then squirt away. There’s so much motion yet this aquarium is silent. I hold my breath and float hoping to hear marine noise but it’s only the lapping of water over my head.

That school of Gray Snappers passes in front of me and now we’re briefly surrounded by Yellow Tail Snappers, hundreds of fish rush past on some unseen errand.

We swim to the next field of coral. If the first one was the size of a car, this one is a used car lot. Some of the cars come to a point and appear to scrape the surface of the water while others are bumps upon bumps.  All those bumps and spikes are teeming with fish. Tiny ones so colorful and darty, they fidget to and fro like Bob Ross’s paintbrush. A dash of yellow here, and splotch of green there and some happy little fish take shape. Rayolando points out a familiar shape in the sand floor, with two fat eyeballs. A large Southern Stingray has buried itself in the sand but cannot conceal his identity. His eyeballs track us as we glide ten feet overhead.

Southern Stingray, courtesy Ramon’s Village Resort

Soon Rayolando points out a slumbering Nurse Shark, safely tucked into the coral. Six feet long and the color of café au lait, its long tail and fat snout poke out from beneath the jagged edges of the coral. While most sharks must move to push oxygen-laden water through its gills, Nurse sharks have muscles in their gills and can breathe while motionless.

“Such lazy sharks” He quips.

We’re swimming again until a tug on my fin and Rayolando points east. Near the surface is a Barracuda. Maybe five feet long, glimmering silver. Barracuda are muscular, purposeful, menacing. They have a knack for pointing into the current and holding station. They do not dart or fidget about. They move when necessary or when hungry. As we give it a wide berth it eases away. It’s a live torpedo with a grimacing warhead, in search of a fleshy target. Later Rayolando would recount his uncle’s shanked attempt to spear one. The Barracuda rocketed into his chest, took a quick bite then was gone. Hauled out of the bloody water and 27 stitches later, the uncle vowed never to hunt Barracuda again.

Another tug and another finger pointing to the sea floor.

“Flounder” I say to the sea. Maybe two feet in length with a hint of blue around the edges of its body. Like the ray this flat fish has buried himself in the sand and left an unmistakable silhouette. When we surface, Rayolando calls out “Peacock Flounder. They change color to blend in with their surroundings.”


About to head out

At the edge of more coral bumps are Parrotfish, three varieties. Green, Blue, and Stoplight. I’ve seen Parrotfish before, in the Bahamas and Mexico. The Stoplight, though. Wow. Its scales glimmer individually, like traffic lights. As the fish slips through the water, each scale glimmers and flashes, undersea starlight. Some saltwater fish are all born as females, that’s Parrotfish. As they mature, so do their colors. Early on they’re dark brown with white spots then grow into a checkered pattern of dark-brown and white scales, bright red fins and tail. At this stage they’re mature females.  After this point they’ll morph into a bi-colored male with sparkling bluish green scales and a large yellow spot above its gills, that’s the Stoplight. Eventually the now male fish will age into spectacular greens, yellows, and blues. And as we’re swimming over this group of Parrotfish we’re seeing Stoplights in various ages so they’re showing a huge variety of color and texture. Streaks of sunlight reach out and as the Stoplights glide in and out of the coral, they catch the light, sparkle and shimmer like a disco-ball from the 1980s. It is a mesmerizing scene.

Stoplight Parrotfish, courtesy Ramon’s Village Resort

I turn to Amy to give a thumbs up and… Oh Shit! Five feet away the Barracuda is looking right at me, showing his teeth in a watery growl. His lips part, his teeth flash, his dark eyes stare straight ahead. I kick hard, flip over and he grimaces again as a dog would to protect his territory. I catch up to Rayolando whom offers some advice.

“Don’t get too close and don’t try to touch him.”

“Yeah, okay. The thought never entered my mind.”

Soon we’re over a small group of conch. Snails of the sea that move at a literal snail’s pace. Rayolando dives down and brings one up. His enthusiasm and knowledge of sea life is infectious, and he bursts with pride when describing Belize’s flora and fauna. He handles the conch gracefully, describes its life cycle, marvels at the smooth, luxurious texture on the shell’s interior and hopes the conch of Belize do not end up as Florida’s or those in the Bahamas, which are near extinction. Conch are easy prey for even the worst swimmers, and menus on Ambergris Caye are sprinkled with soups, salad, and fritters bearing their name.

Queen Triggerfish, courtesy Ramon’s Village Resort

A large ray glides over the conch with another fish in lockstep just above him. It’s a Parrotfish, hoping to catch a morsel of food when the ray finds something to eat. The ray flies past. Only the center of his body is still, the rest is undulating in a smooth liquid flow, as a radio wave would on an oscilloscope. Rays prefer to lie buried in the sand and don’t move often. We’re lucky to watch this one swim beneath us.

Queen Angelfish, courtesy Ramon’s Village Resort

We’re nearing the boat and Rayolando takes us a bit south towards a grassy area in search of a sea turtle. The Marine Warden had mentioned one was in the area and Amy would like nothing better than to see an adult turtle. Rayolando obliges and we swim over the grass bed for the better part of fifteen minutes but no luck.

Across the water with Rayolando of Ramon’s Village Resort

This isn’t a zoo so there’s no guarantees to spy a certain animal. And we’ve had an absolutely stunning 90 minutes in the water. Rayolando points to the boat some 100 yards away and finally I can get some exercise. My cyclist’s legs stretch out and I paddle hard, briefly imaging I’m chasing that damn Barracuda. At the boat, I spit out a bit of salt water, hand my gear to Rayolando then help Amy in.  I take one more dive into the salty water, immersing myself in its energy then pull myself into the boat.


Learn more about Ramon’s Village Resort on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

After a big glass of water, it’s time for a local Belikin beer at Gill-E’s Pour House. And this is the view from Gill-E’s.

If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

November 6, 2020
by ChefJohn


“Well shit. Now what?”

Sunday morning’s news wasn’t good. A tropical storm had formed in the Caribbean, it would strengthen, then head for Belize. As were we.

Our home had been emptied off its contents and was safely stored, our cats had new homes, our chickens likewise, our jobs but a memory. We had a few hours of final prep ahead of us and in the early afternoon a friend would drive us to Charlotte for our trip to Belize. By the time that friend showed up, Eta was a full-blown hurricane with further strengthening predicted. Its path put it on a collision course with Nicaragua, then Belize.

My dark side, the one I try to keep in check, imagined a worst-case scenario. Belize could receive a hammer’s blow 12 hours after we arrive. It was my own self-interest, of course. Instead of focusing on others, I concerned myself with my self. That night in Charlotte we received an email from American reminding us there’s no penalty for changing our plans. And we considered backing up our journey by several days so this storm could play itself out. Then we talked ourselves into rolling with the punches.

Three months earlier we took our dream and set it into motion. I’d been unemployed since mid-July with no sign of returning to work any time soon. The hospitality industry had been gutted and as a special events chef, no events meant no need for my services. A good friend had been working in Belize for the better part of three years and an April joke (Bob, you know of any bars for sale in Belize?) turned into a months long conversation with him, then my bride, Amy. She was gainfully employed yet we both believed we could find employment upon our return.

Could we live in on a small island, Ambergris Caye, in a small Central American country without cars, car insurance, health insurance, jobs, and all the trappings of a three thousand square foot house? We made a list of the positives and negatives, addressed each one, then agreed. Yes, we could.

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize

Our previous adventures to the Caribbean gave us a love of their diverse cultures and exquisite raw fruits and vegetables. To a professional cook, the allure of unfamiliar ingredients, authentic street food, and little federal oversight is very appealing. And now, on the cusp of our year-long adventure, we were racing to beat a hurricane.

Suppose you had planned a big move, a new job in a new town. And that town was threatened with a natural disaster. Would you change your plans? Hopefully not. We figured Belize was ours for a year or more so we should be for Belize. If we spent our first week or two there helping clean up, then so be it.

Our travel day started at 3:00 am, 90 minutes before our alarm, as we were both too wound up to sleep, as were our dogs. With 225 pounds of luggage, 45 pounds of dogs, and new regulations, documentation, and questions courtesy the age of CV, our journey would have new challenges for us, and other fliers.

In our defense, we would be away for at least one year

“Have you or someone you’ve been in contact with been exposed to someone that’s discussed, read about, drawn pictures of or shared photos of someone that may or may not have been exposed to someone with or without the virus known as Covid 19 in this lifetime or the next?”


After a lengthy interrogation, a few suspicious glances, and two trips by the customer service agent to, no kidding, “see his supervisor” we hustled aboard.

Ever flown with a dog? Life for our two had been quite unsettling as over the course of four weeks their cat, chicken, and turkey companions all disappeared to new homes. Followed by their favorite furniture. Wouldn’t you think you were next? They were shoved into carriers and pouches, driven across state lines, then squeezed into a box for the flight. Otis sat between my feet and when the engines throttled up for takeoff, his shaking could’ve powered a small generator. On our flight from Miami to Belize I let him sit in my lap and that was much more enjoyable for all.

Our little dog, Pumpkin, in her backpack for the flight

On the Belize City to Ambergris Caye flight, the Cessna Caravan offered us plenty of room, a new friend to meet, large windows and none of the aural assault of jet power. Otis’ excitement was infectious.

From the morning chill of Charlotte in November to the warmth and salt air of Central America in a day. Crystal the innkeeper arranged a taxi to get us to Feathers Guest House. After unloading and changing, we clambered aboard a gas-powered golf cart and with sixty seconds of directions, we were off. My wife has a knack for finding her way around.

Our dogs are strapped in tight

The streets of Ambergris are a mixture of cobblestones, pavers, salt water, and pot-holed gravel. Single speed bikes, motorcycles, scooters, the occasional truck and a multitude of golf carts bang and dart their way across the island. I found myself humming Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi” as we bumped through San Pedro looking for sustenance. We were in a real-life game of Super Mario, dodging and weaving while trying to grab those shimmering gold stars.

Within five minutes we passed a guy on a bike with a rack of baked goods over his front wheel. Little sausages wrapped in pastry, chicken empanadas, miniature coconut pies, cheese stuffed hot peppers. Two of each, please. And all were so wonderful and obviously handmade as their edges showed a human touch. Our dogs gobbled up the sausages and we snacked on the rest.

Yes, please
Mennonite produce on Ambergris Caye

We passed a vegetable stand, then other, and yet another. Plum tomatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, cucumbers, papayas, dragon fruit, onions, garlic, oranges, brown eggs, limes, carrots, and pineapples called to us from every corner. And every bit of it was grown here in Belize. Many years ago, Mennonites from Canada settled here and set about farming. Today they have a vibrant community and make up about four percent of the population and they craft gorgeous dairy products as well as the farmed produce. As we scuttled through San Pedro we screeched to a stop in front of a tortilla shop, Leonel’s Tortillas.

A tiny little place with just enough room for 50-pound sacks of dried corn, salt, 25-pound bags of calcium hydroxide, a proper grain mill, a large mixer, and a flat top grill. The young lady inside was making her tortillas from corn dough she ground herself and her tortillas couldn’t have been better. She charged me 2.00BZ for ten amazing tortillas, two of which we ate right away while our imaginations ran wild with taco possibilities.  In comparison, the last meal we had in the states was two dreary plates of canned and frozen mediocrity, courtesy a huge restaurant next to our hotel in Charlotte. TVs adorned every bit of wall space, beer taps sold every traditional draft beer, their menu offered every artery clogging special from wings to potato skins to nachos and their construction must’ve set their investors back three million dollars. Yet their food was as mundane as their brown plastic plates. Years from now, when the aforementioned restaurant in Charlotte has been rebranded many times over, travelers will still be reading about and seeking out Leonel’s tortillas for a perfect example of a tortilla. Leonel’s tiny shop produced a single food with sublime passion and skill and did so with a minimal investment. That gargantuan restaurant in Charlotte with all its equipment, staff, furniture and massive construction costs had not one bit of soul, no passion, offered nothing memorable. In our first few hours in Belize we sampled something so complete, so beautiful, the finest example of a culinary staple that represents an entire culture, the land from the American southwest all the way to the middle of South America. And ten of them cost us $1.00.

tortillas from Leonel’s

Our adventure to Belize, barely a day old, had already paid dividends.

~ John

The next evening, with our pineapple, some dark rum, and three less than admirable purchased cupcakes, my bride produced a bread pudding we shared with Crystal and her daughter. And here’s the recipe:

Amy’s Pineapple Rum Pudding

November 4, 2020

After tasting the dry, bland ‘cupcakes’ from the corner bodega, I thought I could turn them into something delicious. I crushed pineapple with a meat mallet for our rum cocktail and used the leftover pineapple for this dessert.


3 each, day -old vanilla cupcakes
1 cup freshly crushed pineapple from the corner stand, (save the juice for a Caribbean cocktail)
2 Mennonite brown eggs
½ cup of Media Crema
¼ cup of evaporated milk
2 tablespoons honey from the Lebanese Hardware store
1 pinch of ground allspice
1 pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of butter
2 generous tablespoons of Belizean Rum

  1. Set the oven to 350°. Prepare 2-quart casserole dish by rubbing with coconut oil, then place the butter in the dish and place that in the oven for about 5 minutes until the butter is melted. Remove the dish from the oven. 
  2. Crush the cupcakes in a medium bowl and add to the crushed pineapple.
  3. Wisk the eggs, creams, honey, allspice and salt, together and pour over the cupcake/pineapple mix. Pour the rum over the mixture and stir. 
  4. Add mixture to the casserole dish and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until set. It will jiggle slightly when you shake the pan. 

Finish with whipped heavy cream or chilled crema. Should serve about six.



If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

September 22, 2020
by ChefJohn

My Own Funeral

I went to my own funeral this past weekend. It was a somber affair, me slipping through this mortal world, quietly seeking out signs of my joyous former life.

The mourners hugged me, questioned my whereabouts, wondered when we would see one another again and at the end of the day my memory was toasted with strong drink and winsome reflection.

I spent a year plus as Chef of the Loft at Soby’s. The Loft, a private event space, is akin to a very attractive two-bedroom apartment with an open rooftop, a comfortable living room, a dining room that can hold about 24, and for the right price comes with a handsome bartender and a talented chef.

With Lucas Haramut, Loft Manager and Bartender

Over the course of my year as that talented chef, we successfully hosted a wide variety of events, everything from harmonious business groups celebrating another great year to boisterous celebrations of future lives led. It was exhausting, rewarding work. It kept me on my toes and in the hum of the culinary world without having to tax my 50+ year-old short term memory with the rigors of cooking on a hot line.

Wedding bells often chimed

In mid-March, when the world came crashing down, I took a voluntary two-month furlough and assumed I would return in three months. I was used to life in the fast lane, where every day at work finished with the smiles of strangers, pats on the back from CEOs, accolades from brides, and an aching upper body. And all that just screeched to a halt. The next day I stood in our back pasture, my body trying to idle, and convinced myself I would return to work, all this is temporary. I would keep busy, find projects, apply paint here, fix a fence there.

spring time dish for a private dinner

However, fixing fences and painting walls was not enough for me. It didn’t provide the creative outlet, the constantly evolving time constraints, the interaction with other humans similarly engaged in a dance with the clock.

ready for 50 guests

When people say “I’m a people person”, I’ve found they’re usually disingenuous. When someone says, “I’m in hospitality”, I know exactly what they’re saying. They enjoy making people happy in a fast-paced environment. They live for the sights and sounds of a well-run restaurant, the chance to serve a $250 bottle of wine, the sizzle of vegetables in a pan of melting butter, the squirt of fresh cream on a peach cobbler, the anticipation of a guest as they watch you approach with a tray of frosty craft beer. These things cannot be had while painting a wall or repairing a fence. And as those things became further and further away, I felt part of me fleeing with them. Every day away my former employer became closer to making ends meet without their roster of events, and without their event staff.

Until Euphoria, our town’s food and wine festival arrived. The dinner I had planned a year ago, an evening cooking with another chef whose skill set, courage, and creativity I dearly envy, had long ago cancelled. I would’ve, too. Euphoria, however, was bound and determined to move forward and I didn’t have the heart to back out. So I spent this weekend at the Loft, cooking with another couple of chefs, both wonderful talents, both fully engaged in the evening.

2019, mugging with catfish gumbo and chef josh thomsen

Except the event left me hollow. Most of the restaurant’s staff kept asking me if I had returned. “Hey, look who’s back.” Some were excited to see me, even just for a weekend. The owner had good news to celebrate, the restaurant would have a busy, for 2020, weekend and there was even a wedding in the Loft on the prior Friday night.

my evening view

My hopes buoyed.  “A wedding!? Nice. How many guests were there?”

“Ten” was my answer.

My wife and I had a month earlier decided to leave town for a couple of years, however, I yearned for my former life and really wanted to be invited back. I wanted to hear those words from the boss, “Chef, think you could come back to work soon?”

Ten guests at a wedding was my answer. A Zoom wedding at that, where guests watched virtually, perhaps shed virtual tears and popped their own celebratory adult beverages from the comfort of their own backyards.

Ten guests at a wedding doesn’t get me an invitation to return to work. The shades were pulled down and I returned to peeling eggplant and portioning crab cakes.

stealing a bite after the guests are gone

In the Loft there were signs of my former life, a favorite spoon, a dimple in the wood, a label in my handwriting. Like wilted flowers on a tombstone, they were no longer evidence of love and attention but rather signs of mortality, of a former life, once spent sizzling vegetables in butter and making brides happy, now spent mending fences in the company of a few clucking chickens.

We are moving away for a couple of years, because why not. Maybe I’ll find meaningful work once we settle in.  And perhaps, when we return, I’ll receive a text, or a phone call from my friends. “Chef, think you could come back to work?” And all will be forgiven.

September 12, 2020
by ChefJohn

Tin Roof Farm is For Rent

Are you looking for a unique rental home in Greenville County, South Carolina?

Our Tin Roof Farm in Piedmont, SC, a 15 minute drive from downtown Greenville, SC is available for rent. And we’ll rent it to you with, or without chickens.

Our farm house, built in 1959, has been significantly renovated and features almost 3,000 square feet, hardwood floors, double pane windows, three bedrooms, a real home office, two bathrooms, dining room, living room with functional wood-burning fireplace and attached screened-in patio, a lovely kitchen with a dual fuel range, new dishwasher, two car garage, and a large, freshly painted deck. We also have a new septic system. Our back pasture is two acres and over the years we’ve grown wonderful tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries, squash, lettuces, eggplant, potatoes, and more. We have two compost bins and a small barn. Our farm can be rented with a dozen chickens, or no chickens. If you’d prefer with chickens, we’ll give you a tutorial on caring for these curious birds and they’ll reward you with fresh eggs almost daily. They’ll also keep the pasture clean of nasty bugs like ticks and fleas. We also ask you keep the two barn cats in place as they provide a valuable service for the chickens. However, that’s up to you.

Piedmont, SC

We will leave you a riding mower and give you a short tutorial in proper use. We’ll also introduce you to Cliff at C & W Mowers and he’ll care for the mower if you’d like him to perform annual maintenance. We have a respected plumber, a brilliant A/C guy, and a wonderful woodworker that shall be called for any problem with those systems.

Tin Roof Farm

Our next door neighbors will manage the rental for us and be there for you should you have a small issue, just don’t call them in the middle of the night because the toilet is clogged.

Great Room

We’re looking for the type of folks that know how to use a toilet plunger and we’ll even leave one for you. Of course we’ll provide a tutorial on that as well.

master bathroom
main bathroom
main bathroom
Our kitchen
A common sight, Eastern Bluebird

Tin Roof Farm has well water (no water/sewage bill!) with a three stage filter and we’ll give you a tutorial on proper management. We also have a rough basement and the basic lawn tools will be there. Our farm is approximately a 15 minute drive from Augusta Road & Church Street in downtown Greenville and only about a five minute drive to the I-185 connector, and less than 10 minutes to I-85.

Dining Room

Our nights in Piedmont are not ruined by light pollution and you’re still a short drive to town or the interstate.

The back pasture faces east and gives you gorgeous sunrises, and you can enjoy your coffee on the deck and listen to the land wake up.
Our patio at night

Tin Roof Farm also comes with two barn cats, Fettuccine and Lasagna, and we recommend they stay because they know their way around the barn and provide a valuable service. Know someone looking for something as unique as our farm? Have them email us using the contact form below. Tin Roof Farm is available on November 1st, 2020

2,100 per month, Three thousand security deposit, One Year Minimum Rental Agreement, Two Year Agreement is available. Renter’s Insurance required, all utilities (AT&T Internet, Duke Energy, Trash Service, Piedmont Gas) in your name.

In order to view our home you’ll need to make an appointment with us and send us a recent credit report. Your bank will provide this complimentary. In order to rent you’ll have to pass a Tenant Screening Process in compliance with the Fair Housing Act; background check (your SS numbers are required), credit application, proof of employment, etc. You’ll also want a love of animals, and a desire to live in harmony with nature (we don’t do chemicals on the lawn or near the animals). We will rent to a single family only, no multiple families.

Tutorial sign off agreement required on all systems including but not limited to mower, chickens, well, well filters, septic, A/C filters, fireplace, barn, sump pump, kitchen range, and garage.

June 25, 2020
by ChefJohn

The Restaurant Coach

“Chef Malik, we’d like to talk to you regarding our new restaurant in Sumter, SC, and coaching us through our reopening.”

Sumter? Are they kidding?

That was my first thought. A fried chicken house in Sumter wanted to waste thirty minutes of my time with inane questions about canned green beans or instant grits. “Hey Amy, you’re not going to believe this one!”

Carolina Grove marketing photo courtesy Kailey Phillips and photographer Micah Green

My wife’s eyeroll wasn’t directed at the residents of Sumter, but at me. And deservedly so. I had assumed the worst, judged a book by its cover.

“Can you please call them and do not assume anything.”

You can see where this is going, correct? As I’m on furlough from the Table 301 Group the only thing I had on my agenda was yard work, twice monthly #QuarantineKitchen videos for IonGreenville, and yard work. So i picked up the phone and a few days later was on my way to Sumter.

Carolina Grove Restaurant at Sunrise. I took this photo at 6:40 am.

Jim Mayes, Jr and son Jim Mayes III, a recent Clemson graduate, wanted to go into business together. Their family goes back several generations in Sumter and as they pondered ideas for a new family business they kept coming back to a restaurant. Although neither had been in the business, they both realized it was something they dreamed about separately.  And in mid-January of 2020 they opened the 100 seat Carolina Grove. They’d done a lot right like hiring a consulting firm out of Atlanta, spending time at several of their favorite restaurants in Charleston and Kiawah, and setting their sights on cooking as much from scratch as possible.  They opened to a packed house practically every night and business was good until the pandemic forced all of us to close in early March.

Samantha slicing roast beef for our French Dip. We roast our own top round for this sandwich and it makes a huge difference.

However, the restaurant business can be a bucking bronco if not effectively managed. They suffered from complaints that showed a lack of consistency, had a high food cost, a lack of teamwork in their kitchen, and their clunky website did them no favors with respect to SEO and visibility. Upon closing in March they parted ways with their chef, then found me.  After spending an early April afternoon with them, we came to an agreement. The Mayes saw this as an opportunity for a second grand opening and we set a course of action. I would coach their kichen and its new chef, manage creation of a new website, work with their front of the house staff to achieve a higher level of service, and fine tune their wine and beer list to create something more intriguing, and show off South Carolina beers.

Our version of the Cobb Salad, the Poinsett Park Salad. When working with colors it is best to seperate them and that can really make your plates pop.

A large project like this requires a plan and goals. I broke down each area of improvement into five projects, set goals for each, then we brought in their team bit by bit and got to work.

My list of daily “To Dos”

They were already doing a lot right. Making their own pickles, their own sauces, their own dressings however their recipe book was unnecessarily complex. Indeed, the first recipe in their book was lemonade with water being measured in quarts, sugar in pounds, and lemon juice in milliliters. Three different measures to reproduce the easiest recipe in their catalog. Long sigh. That sort of misstep in the simplest recipe meant they probably had missed other innocuous cues in different areas of the restaurant.

A pimento cheeseburger isn’t diet food. It should ooze of excess and have a naughty side. Micah Green photo.

 Those are the sort of things that needed change and that’s where we went to work. Standardizing recipes, simplifying processes, shoring up marketing, and the biggest challenge was giving their menu a voice.

If one is going to create a successful restaurant that’s going to stand the test of time, the food must have a voice. Ideally it would carry a geographic and cultural pedigree that resonates with the community, the city, the state. Why not smoke our pork with pecan instead of hickory? Why not use local cucumbers to make our pickles? Why not use peaches, local onion, local pork if the price fits into our cost? And why not do something cool with Shaw Air Force Base?

Carolina Grove owner Jim Mayes III with our fried chicken sliders tossed in Viper Sauce. They were using hot sauce by the gallon and spending a fortune on it. So why not make our own? And we named it Viper Sauce after the pilot’s nickname for the F-16s stationed at Shaw Air Force Base a meer three miles away. It’s been a big hit with the base’s airmen.

Now for a halo dish.

Think about this. Suppose it was just the two of us, somewhere far away from your favorite restaurant. You’re blindfolded and I offer you a bite of something magical. Maybe a crab cake from the Augusta Grill, perhaps the shrimp and grits from Soby’s, how about the pulled pork from Henry’s on Wade Hampton, or the chicken liver mousse from Stella’s in Simpsonville. And in a second you know exactly what you’ve bit into.  And that’s what I challenged the Carolina Grove team to achieve. One dish, one bite, no question, it would be a Carolina Grove signature item.

We came up with several.

We roast our own beef top round for our French Dip style roast beef sandwich.

Macaroni and cheese. Made with a cream based bechamel sauce and finished with sharp cheddar, gruyere, parmesan and touch of cider vinegar.

Our sweet tea brined and pecan smoked pork chop with a serving of baked macaroni & cheese. Micah Green photo.

A sweet tea brined pork chop smoked over pecan wood and grilled to order. We serve it with a country ham red eye gravy and mashed sweet potatoes.

Our crab cake made according to Louis Osteen’s perfect recipe. Photo by Micah Green.

And a signature dessert of baked apple dumpling with a fire ant sauce. As we in Greenville have adopted the swamp rabbit as a city mascot, Sumter has fire ants. From the local college to many local businesses, they’ve branded themselves as fire ant this and that. The Carolina Grove team created a dessert sauce made from Red Hots candies and served that over our dumpling and the end result is a fire ant mound you can eat. Cool, right?

Apple Dumpling with Fire Ant Sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream. Photo by Micah Green.

Working with the Carolina Grove team from mid-April through mid-June we were able to revamp their marketing, the website, their social media, their menu, beer and wine list and the way their front of the house staff managed the dining room. A little thing here, a small change there and pretty soon we’re on our way to making the entire experience better. And to really get them moving I brought in my Table 301 teammate and marketing genius Kailey Phillips.

My teammate Kailey Phillips. She created marketing ideas and a schedule for the team at Carolina Grove. Photo by Micah Green.

We’re not done yet. I’ll return in a few weeks to spend another seven days with them and return once a month for three or four months. In the meantime, I’ve got individual team members responding to me five days a week on how we can be better. What can we do today as a team that will make the customer experience better tomorrow?

Jim Mayes III and yours truly

And the next time you’re in Sumter, SC, stop in and have lunch or dinner at Carolina Grove. And let me know what you think. And should you or someone you know be in need of a James Beard (Best Chef, Southeast, 2008) nominated restaurant coach, one that can bring a variety of skillsets to your restaurant, hotel, or catering operation, drop me an email at

July 18, 2019
by ChefJohn

The Skeptics Have Landed

50 years ago, three American astronauts traveled to the moon, two of them landed on it, then all three returned safely to Earth. In the following years six other missions went to the moon, one failed to arrive (Apollo 13) while the other five had successful flights. 12 Americans have set foot on our moon and no country since has managed to pull this off.

Left to right: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin

Apollo wasn’t a ten-year journey that began with President John F. Kennedy’s promise of landing on the moon. It began with American researcher Robert Goddard. He was the pioneer of staged rockets and thereby set in motion the potential for space flight. Goddard’s research paper “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” was published in 1919 yet his work was dismissed by our government and the military. The German rocket scientist and developer of Germany’s V2 rocket, Werner von Braun, was a student of Goddard’s research and admitted as much to his American captors.

Robert Goddard with a two-stage rocket of his own design. March of 1926

After World War Two he was granted asylum in the US in exchange for his knowledge of rocketry, and of course von Braun accepted. His early work with the US Army became the Redstone rocket and from there he was soon assigned to work with NACA, the precursor of NASA. And when Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, the US government was frightened into a spending (and learning) spree that would twelve years later put Americans on the moon courtesy Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon in July of 1969. The Apollo missions are the crowning achievement of American exceptionalism and our desire to explore. And for some unearthly reason, entirely too many earthlings believe we fabricated the entire thing.

Werner von Braun at his office in Houston

And these people have no knowledge or understanding of 1960s rocketry, metallurgy, navigation, or communication. They have no idea who Robert Goddard or Werner von Braun was (without Google), how much research was done by the Air Force’s X15 program, what a Redstone rocket was, who Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, or Wally Schirra was or how many Americans were directly involved in the effort. I’ll give you a hand. In 1969 a tick over 400,000 people worked directly or indirectly as contractors for NASA. So were they duped by NASA or were they all in on it? Seriously, four people can’t keep a secret much less four hundred thousand.

The TV broadcast of Armstrong’s walk was captured by a satellite dish in Australia (Parkes Observatory) before being beamed to receivers across the planet. A dish pointed at the moon. Were they in on it? Their story was captured on a quirky feature length film starring Sam Neill back in 2000. Why aren’t they picketing Sam’s home?

Our astronauts returned with rocks and soil samples that have been analyzed by universities across the country. Heck our last mission even included a geologist, Harrison Schmitt. All those rocks were studied in excruciating detail and are on display in museums across the country.

Moon Rock in Toronto Museum

Each Apollo mission left a laser reflector on the surface and anyone with a strong enough laser can point it at one of those and record their exact distance to the moon at that point in time. Have you seen the episode of Big Bang Theory where the guys did just that?

The Big Bang’s Moon Laser

The Apollo vehicles, scarred and pitted by space travel, can be seen at several museums beginning with Air & Space in Washington, DC It’s all right there. So why would someone “believe” in World War Two, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Gandhi, or the Armenian Genocide and not in our moon landings?

Laser reflector left on the moon’s surface

What is it about the moon landings that brings out the vitriol? Is it all because the flag looks like it’s fluttering? Hey that was an easy one for four hundred thousand rocket scientists. It was framed with rods just like your window shades are. And yet that’s all the evidence they need to scream “FAKE!”

And scream they do. They hide behind fictitious or anonymous social media profiles and SCREAM at anyone that looks on Apollo with awe. They loudly proclaim through comical verbiage (woke AF!) that someone like me is somehow asleep at life’s wheel. That knowledge is the provenance of Wikipedia, and Elon Musk is the father of space flight. That I’ve been hoodwinked by four hundred thousand people. That when my 13 year-old self shook Michael Collins’ hand at an airshow in New Orleans I looked up with awe at nothing more than a huckster selling Fulcanelli’s Elixer.

Apparently their parents never told them “yelling something loud enough doesn’t make you right.”

The real reason these people think the landings were fabricated is because they and/or their generation weren’t involved. “We weren’t there, therefore it didn’t happen and those people weren’t smart enough to pull it off so they had to fake it.”

Apollo 17 on the launch pad

This all boils down to world-class penis envy, Saturn 5 pun intended. Another generation engineered a vehicle to take men to the moon and return safely, all without using modern appliances, modern techniques, an Apple product, Google navigation, or crowd-funding.

Well here’s a heads up, none of those modern conveniences were used to create steam boats, the pyramids of Egypt, diesel trains, powered flight, trans-Atlantic telecommunications, gun powder, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, submarines…shall I keep going?

The reason is faith in previous generations. Those people/that generation weren’t nearly as smart as I am/my generation is, therefore it’s a lie. They weren’t capable and we are.

From Robert Goddard to Werner Von Braun to Neil Armstrong, America’s walk on the moon was accomplished over the course of fifty plus years of trial and error, death and disaster. If you believe it was fabricated I know the musings of a dumb cook won’t change your mind.

February 11, 2019
by ChefJohn

The Final Serving of Conch Salad

I love almost everything about South Carolina. Except for Frogmore Stew. There. I’ve said it. Overcooked shrimp, sausage from who knows where, undercooked red potatoes, and way too much Old Bay.

Frogmore Stew

That pretty much describes 90% of the Frogmore Stew I’ve ever had. And yet I’ve eaten a lot of Frogmore Stew and loved every bite.


Because you don’t make this for four people, you make it for 40. And all of that overcooked shrimp I’ve had has been in the company of great friends. Maybe it was at a wedding reception, perhaps at a graduation party, or maybe a big 4th of July celebration. It’s contextual. Food is the central part of a celebration, even if we humans are just celebrating friendship.

Lining up for conch salad

Which brings me to the Bahamas and their conch salad. This is a simple dish of diced onions and tomato, fresh lime, a little chopped parsley, and sometimes diced peppers. Often times those peppers are those spicy little fireplugs, Scotch Bonnets. And of course the last ingredient is that giant saltwater snail, Conch. It’s pulled from its shell then diced and sliced into bite sized bits and pieces. Now before your salivary glands hit overdrive, there’s something I need to point out. Without the lime and saltwater, there’s very little flavor in conch salad. There’s little agriculture in the Bahamas so those limes, tomatoes, and onions are usually the same ones you’d find in a Wal Mart in Little Rock. Perhaps the limes were grown in one of the Bahamas outer islands, perhaps not. Most likely everything but the conch has been imported.

This is why we go to the Bahamas

However, when you put conch salad into context, things change dramatically. This is one of those dishes that’s greater than the sum of its ingredients. You see, proper Bahamian conch salad must be enjoyed at the edge of the Caribbean. And on most days that’s an achingly beautiful sight. The sea, an impossible shade of blue, can stretch to the edge of the horizon in such a way that both blue canvases melt into one another. The Caribbean of the Bahamas is shallow and when combined with an endless supply of sunshine creates such a memorable experience everyone from simple cooks to ultra wealthy celebrities covet.

Fresh conch salad

Spend a few days there chasing conch salad and you’ll be convinced it’s one of the most wonderful seaside charms on the planet. Because it is.

Sadly though, the conch won’t last much longer. It’s a familiar tale of overfishing that anyone from south Florida, or south Louisiana can understand.

The author holding a queen conch

In the early days of Paul Prudhomme’s meteoric rise to chef stardom, he so popularized the austere dish of Blackened Redfish to the point that Louisiana redfish almost disappeared. Saved by a coalition of concerned outdoorsmen that rang the warning bell, Redfish is now once again back on menus. The challenge of saving the conch is that it’s basically a large snail and it moves at a literal snail’s pace. And that makes it an easy catch. Yes there are limits to the sizes that should be harvested but in the Bahamas there’s very little enforcement. And conch salad isn’t a staple of tourism. Bahamians across the islands eat it, indeed it’s part of their cultural identity and no less important at a celebration than our Frogmore stew. Yes, the sum of tomatoes, limes, onions, pepper, and fresh conch is much greater than its parts. And that’s why the conch will disappear from the Bahamas; everyone wants it, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it.

 In south Louisiana we were successfully able to ask the question “What if the redfish disappear?” And a majority of the residents didn’t like the answer so they went along with the moratoriums and limits. The question was a call to arms and many of us answered the call.

There’s a multitude of biological reasons that make conch slow to reproduce and susceptible to collapse. And if one is going to save Bahamian conch, everyone in the Bahamas must be in on the plan. Everyone must be a part of the solution. The Bahamas National Trust has spent years making videos, flyers, press campaigns and more and yet, conch salad is served every day, everywhere. They’ve even asked the question, “what will we do when the conch disappears?”

Sadly the answer appears to be a shrug of the shoulders.

December 24, 2018
by ChefJohn

Merry Christmas Dad

Robert could’ve passed for an NFL linebacker. He stood six foot five and every inch of his frame was chiseled muscle and dark tattooed skin. On another day, his embrace, if not for the tears that ran down his cheek, might’ve felt life threatening.

“Brother Malik, if only I had someone like you in my life when I was growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger. I’ll be eighty when I get out of this place. Eighty. What good will I be to anyone?”

Robert is a convicted murderer serving two life sentences and his first chance at parole will be sometime around 2060.  After spending four days in his company and admiring him as his fellow inmates turned to him for fatherly advice and counsel, he broke down and told me his story. And it was the same story I’ve heard from the other convicted murderers I’ve met. Broken home, wrong side of the tracks, a life on the street, high school dropout, mom with two or three part time jobs and no father figure, murderer at 17, tried as an adult. Send him away. End of story.

Over the course of those four days I learned Robert spent his time reading everything he could get his hands on; history, textbooks, novels, the bible, operations manuals, law books. And he didn’t just read, he absorbed. He was a study in calm confidence and as we took turns debating the meaning of gospel passages, Robert was always the one the other prisoners asked, “what do you think?”

It was during one of those discussions I imagined all of us in street clothes, enjoying coffee at a Starbuck’s, and no one knows my friends are killers.

The reality of the gymnasium at Perry Correctional is much darker. This place is spartan; not much more than layers of gray paint surrounded by layers of gleaming concertina wire. It reminds me of the German POW camps from those old black & white WW2 movies my brother and I used to watch. Even the food is lifeless. A typical meal might be baked chicken with cornbread and instant mashed potatoes.

Today is different. Our Kairos team has brought BBQ brisket, green beans, carrots, yeast rolls, Cole slaw, and plates of homemade chocolate chip cookies. We’ve also brought hope in the form of a relationship with the risen Jesus Christ. And by all accounts, Robert has already accepted Christ, he’s only new to Kairos.

What did he do? I don’t know and don’t ask because that’s not why we’re here.  We’re here to listen, that’s all. We plant the seed and pray for growth. That seed just happens to get planted inside the walls of a state penitentiary.

My dad was a judge for 25 years and he sent a lot of men, and some women, away for a long time, sometimes forever. Men like Robert. And when I listened to their crimes, I thought “yeah send that miserable bastard away forever. Let him die in prison.” And when I’ve met men like Robert, men that pray for forgiveness daily, I’ve questioned everything I know about our criminal justice system.

Robert wiped his eyes and asked me to pray for him. For the strength to endure his daily trials, the confines of his tiny cell, the drudgery and violence of prison life and the strength to make the best of it.

“If only I had someone like you in my life, someone to teach me the difference between right and wrong, how to treat a lady, how to see the good through so much bad, maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger.”

What could I say?

“God bless you, my brother.”

“Merry Christmas brother Malik”

If Robert survives to see his parole board what will they base their judgement on? Good behavior?  I suppose. They won’t base it on the tears of pain and regret he cried every night for sixty plus years. The years spent agonizing over his childhood decisions, the multiple pages of dairies full of regret and affliction, the dreams of having that one thing in his past that he desperately longed for. Not a better attorney, not more gun laws, not more school programs. A strong father.

Life is seldom black and white. It’s shades of gray, ambiguous, nonsensical, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes what we believe is so far from the truth, reality jolts us like a lightning bolt splitting a tree.

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it all presents and pine, hot chocolate and old songs? Or is it friends, family and wine? Perhaps it’s stories of a day many hundreds of years ago and the birth of a child destined to change the world. Maybe those stories seem so far away and ridiculous, as if something out of a children’s book.

And you’re correct, those stories can feel that way.

To Robert, Christmas means hope, and faith, and those stories are strong enough to melt the heart of a murderer.

Sometimes when I’m cycling, I’ll ride past Perry and even if no one is in the yard, I wave. Perhaps he’s looking out the crack of a steel reinforced window or behind several layers of concertina. Or maybe he’s been moved to Lee or somewhere in Georgia. I don’t know. I still wave, and maybe wipe away a tear.

“Merry Christmas, brother Robert.”

October 24, 2018
by ChefJohn

You’ve Already Won

So you didn’t win a billion dollars. Well here’s a news flash: Money is no guarantee of happiness. I know because I’ve won the lottery and it’s so much more than money.

Every time my wife kisses me, when she whispers in my ear and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, when she casually strokes the back of my hand or surprises me with an afternoon text message of love, I know I’ve won.

When I see a good friend on the street and they smile and hug me for no other reason than they’re happy to see me, when I dangle my feet in a mountain stream and that clear, chilly water effortlessly races across my feet, when I watch the sunshine sparkle on a South Carolina lake, it’s as if I’ve won the lottery.


When my one of my kids brings home an A in math or performs a random act of kindness, when I take the time to appreciate the lines of an architect’s steel and glass creation, put there just to please the human eye, I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

When I spot Orion, Betelgeuse, Saturn, or Venus in the sparkle of a crisp winter sky and can share this with one of my neighbors, or when I catch the perfect apex of a downhill, off-camber corner on my Trek then power up the succeeding hill, I really feel like a winner.


When I feel the crunch of January’s frost on November’s fallen leaves, I know I’ve won.


When someone much older than me offers me a bit of advice or a story from their youth, or when someone much younger asks me for advice or a moment of my time, I feel like a winner.

When I hear the words of a favorite author or philosopher speak to me across thousands of years, when I help someone change a tire or show my son how to change a spark plug, when I throw a football with my son or help my daughter with a history essay, I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

When my dog jumps into my lap and offers up that goofy mile wide smile of his or when I find a dozen fresh eggs in our barn, yeah I’m a lottery winner.

When I have gracious service at a humble counter-service café, when I take that first bite of a Pimento Cheese Burger, when I’m handed a chilled glass of a local craft beer, or when I bite into a warm Chocolate Croissant that my wife made with a mere handful of ingredients, I’ve definitely won the lottery.


When I hear a glorious rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the solemn call of a White Throated Sparrow, the rumble of a late-’60s carbureted Ford V8, or the sassy call of a Mockingbird, I’m certain I’ve won the lottery.

When I look at photos of an amazing trip we’ve taken, one resplendent with palm trees, chilled local beer, handmade tortillas, and soft Caribbean waters, I realize I’ve won the lottery.

When I bite into a warm, handmade biscuit resplendent with fresh butter, cane syrup, or local honey or a perfectly roasted Brussels sprout and flavors of bacon fat, garlic, and maple vinegar pop on my tongue, it feels as if I’ve won the lottery. When my bride makes an egg and cheese sandwich on a few slices of sourdough that came right out of our oven, I know I’ve won the lottery.


See? You’ve already won. You just didn’t realize it. Find your winning numbers by appreciating the beauty found in your every day. It’s already there, it’s all around you. Find your fortune then go and spend it by sharing it with others.


September 12, 2018
by ChefJohn

Preparing Your Restaurant for Florence.

Are you prepared for a week without power? Here’s my tips to help your restaurant survive Hurricane Florence.
Tonight. Cook and serve whatever you can. Offer to-go meals, half price specials, whatever it takes to move your food. When you’re preparing to close, freeze what you can, clean out all garbage, make certain you’ve got clean cans and bags plus bleach, gloves, and possibly masks for your return. 

Review your emergency response plan with your executive team. Don’t have one? Don’t write one now. However, you can divide up the big stuff between your management folks. Appoint someone to do your crisis management (post updates, contact insurance company, find a generator and fuel) while another should collect/manage all contact info for emplyees and another could be your first response team to get to the restaurant as the winds and rain die down.
Is your IT system and data backed up? Call those guys right now and make sure.
Have a clear plan for communicating with your staff and share it with everyone! A private/secret Facebook page may work well for this. Post regular updates and make sure your staff is comfortable with their own personal preparation at home. When it’s time to close, make sure everyone knows when this is going to happen and who will contact everyone to let them know the next steps.
Before locking up, shoot video of the entire property, take your time doing this. Food, liquor, everything. This will be very helpful in the event of a catastrophic loss.
Upon your return, and before any hourly staff enter the premises, make sure the building is safe. Your work comp may not cover an hourly staff member falling off the roof or pulling furniture out of the walk in cooler. Document all discarded food and beverage and any additional costs such as a generator or fuel. Check with your accountant and insurance agent as you may be able to enter damaged food as a loss based on potential sales and not raw food cost.
Do NOT save anything perishable in the event of a power outage. You will not know how long your power has been out and you cannot smell food-based pathogens.
And remember, people come first. Everything else can be replaced.