By Robert St. John
There is something deep inside of me that enjoys hosting people. It borderlines a compulsion or obsession. I’ve been that way since I was a little kid. Whenever I heard a new song on the radio, in my youth— and I had enough money to purchase a 45 single— I would ride my bike to the record store, by the record, and then spend the next week trying to get my friends to listen to it. I love turning people on to music. Six decades later, I still do it. A lot. Conversely, I also enjoy learning about new music from friends who have similar tastes.
In the years I worked in radio I was able to hear new music before it ever hit the market. That enabled me to introduce all sorts of great music to my friends before any of them had heard. When I got out of the radio business and moved into the restaurant business the search for new discoveries was the same. Though this time for food items, design elements, and restaurant concepts.
I have spent over 40 years in the restaurant business. Much of that time has been traveling around to different cities— and restaurants in those cities— to discover new dishes and new methods, as well as new themes, designs, and concepts. Restaurants are my hobby. Some of my friends live to play golf at Pebble Beach or Augusta. I live to travel to Chicago and go on a four-restaurant progressive dinner in one evening. It’s even better if I have people with me who have never eaten at those restaurants, or have never experienced a multi-location progressive dinner, St. John style. It’s a blast.
Several years back my church offered to give a test on spiritual gifts. Despite years of Sunday School, I had never heard of spiritual gifts. Had someone asked me if I had any, I might have been at a loss to answer. Though the test that evening stated that I have the spiritual gift of hospitality. Had you given me a list and asked me to list potential spiritual gifts, I would never have thought that hospitality would be on the list. Though there it was on my answer sheet, front and center.
I took the spiritual gifts test two other times at two different churches. Both times the test results stated that I had the spiritual gift of hospitality. The first thing that hit me was— I am certainly in the right business. The restaurant business is the hospitality business. But secondly, it answered the lifelong question of why I get such a kick out of turning people on to things I have discovered. It’s just another form of hospitality. It could be called “hosting.” I do a lot of hosting these days.
This hosting thing took a new turn several years ago when people started asking me to take them to Italy to tour to revisit the restaurants and places I discovered on a very long European sojourn back in 2011. Those requests sounded like a great idea, but I only planned on doing it once. That one time turned into 16 or 17 trips overseas, I have stopped counting. Each trip with 25 people, and each designed with the sole purpose of creating the most complete experience— whether in Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Milan, or the entirety of the Spain— for the guest.
Those trips are nothing more than a modern-day extension of me going out and buying a 45 record in 1970 and turning my friends on to it. It’s just done overseas, and the music, food, and scenery are better. It’s basically coming from a premise of— I love this, I think you will love it too, here let me show it to you. Though, as a host, I am as happy as my least happy guest. So, it is always my number-one goal to keep everyone happy.
Traveling with a group of 25 people, especially the way I travel in groups, takes a lot of planning. Transportation is crucial. The vans must be where they are supposed to be at the scheduled time, or everything goes awry. Whether it’s picking up guests at the airport, dropping them off at the end of a trip, or just being at the meeting point in the city center of Florence or Rome. Our ride must be there. Lodging is also crucial. A night’s stay at a bad hotel when someone is already jet lagged will ruin an entire trip.
When we are in Tuscany, our friend Annagloria and her daughters handle a lot of the logistics. When we are in Venice our friend Chiara is on duty. In Milan our friends Barbara and Alberto help me make reservations and get us around town. It truly takes a team.
In 2022 I will spend 14 weeks hosting guests in Italy, on the Amalfi Coast and Rome, and several weeks with several groups in Tuscany, a long trip covering the majority of Spain, and we will be preparing for a new journey next year into Holland and Belgium. I am the host. But to pull off something as complicated as 25 people moving around a strange city or country not knowing the language takes a lot of boots on the ground and a logistical team to help me pull this off. One of those people, who does an excellent job at that is my friend Jesse Marin.
Jesse is a Dutch citizen who lives in Rome. I met him through another Dutch citizen who lives in Tuscany, Marina Mengelberg. She is also one of my boots on the ground tour guides who helped me with all the logistical issues while we are traveling overseas.
Jesse landed at the New Orleans airport last night. He will be here for two weeks. This time he is not the boots on the ground guy. I am. We are here to host him and give him a break from his busy schedule of booking tours all over the world. It’s a job I take seriously and it’s a job I enjoy. We will spend two days in New Orleans showing him the city, my son will take him out at night to show him the night life, and then we will cross the border into Mississippi and I will proudly show off my home state to my Dutch-Italian friend. The final leg of his tour will be in the Florida Panhandle before he heads to a friend’s weddinng in Miami and then fly home.
When he landed, my son picked him up at the airport and I met them at one of my go-to restaurants, Gris Gris on lower Magazine. As soon as he sat down he said, “I don’t really know what to do. I am not used to this. I am always the one planning the trip. My mother asked me my plans, and I told her that I didn’t have a clue. This is weird.”
My wife kids Jesse that he never works and is always on vacation in some exotic locale. The truth is he’s always working. He just works in vacation spots. “I got this, Jesse.” It’s time for me to host you. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.”
In the trattorias and osterias on the western coast of Sicily the day’s fresh, raw seafood catch is often displayed on ice in the dining room. One picks their specific fish and the server takes to back to the kitchen where it is prepared. There is usually an antipasta display and several vegetable courses served buffet style. Caponata is often among the offerings. Everyone prepares caponata differently. This preparation was inspired by my friend Annagloria, who is a native of Florence, but a lover of all things Sicilian.
1 each Red bell pepper, large diced
1 each Yellow bell pepper, large diced
1 each Large red onion, large diced
1 rib Celery, sliced
¼ cup Green olives, rough chopped
2 TB Capers
¼ cup Pine nuts
¼ cup Raisins
½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup Red wine vinegar
1 TB Sugar
1 each 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, with juice
1 tsp Kosher salt
½ tsp Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375.
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Transfer to a large roasting pan and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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