By Robert St. John
L. Frank Baum nailed it when he penned the line, “There’s no place like home,” in his novel about the man behind the green curtain in land of Oz. Five truer words may never have been spoken. Home is where our lives grow fuller and richer. It’s one of the main sources of joy for me.
And It’s not just a physical building on a street, down the block from other houses in one— of several— neighborhoods that make up a town or city. No. Home is a concept as much as it is a place.
Home is a fully realized noun. Home is people, whether they be friends, family, co-workers, random acquaintances, or other individuals who have chosen to live in a specific locale and impact our lives in certain ways. I believe home can be multiple places at once. Home can also refer to such things as pets and general material things.
With that established, I am so glad to be home.
I have spent the past six weeks working in Italy. When I speak to people about what I do in various European countries for three months out of the year, I make sure to use the term, “work.” Because it most certainly is. Whereas it would be very nice to vacation in assorted European locales for weeks at a time in the spring and fall, that’s not in the cards for me.
It is definitely work. Seven days a week with a half day off in the middle to the tune of 80 hours a week. Usually there is an off day in between groups when we restock the villas and organize things to get ready for the next group, but not always.
I have spent the past six years hosting Americans from all over the country through Italy and Spain. In all I have hosted just over 600 people, mostly from the south, in groups of 25 each turning them on to the people, places, and things— other people’s realized nouns— I have discovered through the years. Though two of those years I spent shuffling people over again and over again during Covid. So, it’s actually 600 people in four years.
Technically, all haven’t been in Europe. I hosted two comprehensive tours in Mississippi. Those were a blast, and recently I have been fielding a lot of requests to host another Mississippi tour or two. As soon as I can find a spare week, we’ll announce.
I’m also scheduled to host a group in Holland and Belgium on the first of May. I am excited about that upcoming 10-day jaunt. Everyone I have ever met from those two countries are some of the most wonderful people I have met in Europe, or anywhere for that matter.
I am not a group travel person. Never have been, never will be. But there is something about the way these tours transpire that make them feel like nothing more than a bunch of friends on the road together, discovering new and wonderful local food, art, and culture. Several of my guests over these past six weeks came up to me and said, “When you said, ‘this is not like group travel,’ I was skeptical. But it really isn’t.” Though no one can ever put a finger on why. It just isn’t.
Unlike in “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s not one man behind the curtain, there are dozens of people who make the RSJ Travel division of Different Drummer Inc, work. Simeon Williford has the title of “Executive Assistant” to me. But she does so much more than that. A large part of her workday is spent promoting, booking, scheduling, and organizing tour groups. It’s a lot of work, and she does a great job. When new tour dates are announced, the following hours are hectic as there are only 25 spots to fill with dozens— sometimes hundreds— of interested travelers. A few months ago, we released the new Spain 2023 dates and the tour sold out in 90 minutes. When we announced the Holland-Belgium dates, the spots were filled in an afternoon. The three spring 2023 trips filled in a day. Williford manages all of that, expertly while handling my schedule and the publishing business.
Maria Keyes is my longtime CFO. We’ve worked together for over a quarter of a century. The financial end of the trips is handled by her, while she’s also juggling all our restaurant’s accounting, and my personal financial matters. She is good is what she does and hits the ground running every weekday, and often in her off hours on weekends.
My longtime Italian friend, Annagloria— who also owns the villas we rent— handles most of the bookings and reservations for Tuscany groups. Her daughter Gemma helps with those duties and her other daughter Bianca works in various capacities during the week. Enzo, Annagloria’s husband helps with random things, from running to the airport to pick up late-arriving guests, to coming out to the villa (which is in a very remote spot) to help get the electricity back on after a lightning storm at five in the morning (if that sounds specific, it’s because it just happened a week ago).
Marina Mengelberg started as a tour guide, and still performs those duties expertly. But she also has joined me as a co-host on some tours and stays with guests in the second villa. Everyone loves Marina, and they all leave happier after spending a week with her.
Jesse Marinus is a travel professional and helps me book trips I do outside of Tuscany. He also travels with our group when we are in Rome, Naples, and all of Spain. He and Mengelberg are both Dutch and will be joining me through the entire jaunt through Holland and Belgium.
One of the key components of these tours is transportation. We crisscross Tuscany in Mercedes vans. I call Fabio Bellino, “The minister of transportation,” and he is. Transportation on any excursion such as this is vital to the success of a trip.
The people on the ground in the U.S. work to make it easy for guests to leave their home to spend a week with us. The people overseas welcome us into their “home” so we can appreciate all it has to offer before heading back to our own. And the 400 team members in our restaurant hold down the fort. I love Hattiesburg and I love Mississippi, it’s not like I ever need to go away to appreciate it, but every time I come home, I am so glad to be from here and to live and work here
Coming home after each excursion gives me a new appreciation of home and the people who I am surrounded by in my daily life. I flew in at midnight and was up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning on my way to Jackson to get to work at the new Italian restaurant. The timing there has been unfortunate. I like to spend the first three months at a new concept helping get its feet off the ground. The hard scheduling forced me overseas after the second week. I have been itching to get back. The to-do list is long. First items on the agenda are tweaking the menu, taking off a few of the items that aren’t selling and adding several authentic Italian items I learned through research and development during my six-week stint in Italy.
It’s good to be home to my people, places, and things. The work continues.
No peas, no cream. That’s real Pasta Carbonara.
1 lb. Dry spaghetti pasta
1 gallon Water
¼ cup + ½ tsp Kosher salt
3 TB Extra virgin olive oil
½ lb. Guanciale or Pancetta, medium diced
2 cups Parmigianino Reggiano, shredded
1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
4 each Whole large eggs, beaten slightly, at room temperature
½ cup Warm pasta water
Cook the spaghetti using the intructions on the package.
Heat the oil in a small skillet on medium heat. Add pancetta and stir frequently until cooked, about 6-8 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, grated cheese, remaining ½ tsp salt, black pepper, and pasta water (if the water is too hot you might want to add it in small amounts so the eggs won’t scramble). Mix well. Add hot spaghetti. Add the cooked pancetta and its oil over the pasta and combine thoroughly.
Divide among 6-8 serving bowls.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)