For the 20 years I have written this column, I have never missed a week. Not one. No matter where I have been in the world, I have always made time to write a thousand words or so about food, travel, and family.
Typically, I sit at my desk early Monday morning and awkwardly type out— using my trusty three-finger typing method— whatever is going on in my life at that moment. The restaurant business offers a world of opportunities for a columnist. There is a story around every corner. The same goes for fatherhood. In their youth my kids would say, “Dad, I’m going to tell you this story, but you are going to have to promise me that you won’t write about it.”
My typical reply was something like, “Honey, I can’t wait to hear your story, but I can’t promise you that. I will promise to give you full credit, however.”
Traveling offers a wealth of material. Whether I am driving 90 miles up the road back home in Mississippi, or in some remote European town or city.
Today’s plan was to endure the flight over to Europe, and get to our villa in the Italian countryside, where I would write a column about being back in my second home— Villa il Santo in the tiny blip on the map Petrognano, outside of a slightly larger blip, Barberino. The timing would have been perfect. Had the airline cooperated, my friend, collaborator, and business partner, Wyatt Waters, and I would have arrived at the airport, picked up our rental car, joined our friends Annagloria and Enzo for lunch in their villa, Gone to the market to stock both villas for our incoming guests tomorrow, and then had a little downtime.
During that downtime, Waters would paint, and I would write this column sitting on the terrace of Villa il Santo overlooking 30 miles of Tuscany countryside. It would be around the same time I write my column back home.
Instead, I am sitting at Gate B30 in the Amsterdam airport. Our connection into Florence keeps getting pushed back. Instead of 30 miles of grapes and olives looking west towards San Gimignano, I am looking out onto a concrete tarmac and seated next to a people mover that keeps repeating the recorded phrase “Mind your step,” every 15 seconds. Seriously, every 15 seconds, the same recording over and over and over and over. “Mind your step, mind your step, mind your step, mind your step, mind your step.”
In the eight years we’ve been traveling over here, we have rarely run into a delay or situation. I guess we are due. Out of the 250 guests we have led on tours over here the past two years we have only had two lost luggage cases (both were delivered within a day), a half dozen re-routings, and one major delay with a substantial part of our group leaving from Atlanta last year.
The Florence airport is surprisingly small. If the winds aren’t just right, they will re-route incoming air traffic to Bologna or Pisa.
With all apologies to Bob Dylan, we’re stuck inside of Amsterdam with those Tuscan blues again.
Though what buoys me are thoughts of the days ahead. I never planned on being a tour leader. Nevertheless, sometime in my mid-fifties, it happened. It started when I took my family on an extended six-month tour across Europe. A couple of years after that, I teamed up with Andy Weist, a friend and history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, to lead a tour we called Battlefields and Baguettes where we took a group of a couple of dozen people from London through Normandy and Belgium, and eventually into Paris. Weist, being a war historian and author, took us through battlefields and war cemeteries during the day. I led the group to local eating establishments in the evening. It was a blast.
During the 10 weeks we spent in Italy on that extended European tour with my family, Waters and I wrote a coffee table cookbook filled with his beautiful watercolors and my recipes. On the subsequent promotional tour for the book, people who had followed his social media while he was painting all over Italy, and readers of this column, kept saying, “We would love for you to take us to Italy to the all of the places Wyatt painted, and eat in all of the trattorias and osterias that Robert wrote about.” At first, we just thought it was people making polite conversation while we signed their books. But we kept hearing the same things over and over, until one day I called Waters on the phone and said, “I think people want us to take them to Italy. Do you want to do this?” He didn’t hesitate.
So, here we are, a day away from leading three tours over as many weeks with three more scheduled for later in the year. That’s 150 people in six groups this year. I never planned on being a tour leader. It’s not something one announces to their fourth-grade class while others are telling the teacher that they want to be a fireman or policeman. Though I never planned on being a restaurateur until I started working in restaurants. I also never planned on being a columnist, author, public speaker, or television host. Those things just happened as I left myself open for opportunity.
I also never planned on spending any quality time in the Amsterdam airport, but life happens. Our flight is about to start boarding, and Waters and I will be headed to the heart of Tuscany, to turn three groups of 25 people each onto a place we have come to love. We will introduce them to people who have become our close friends, and there will be enough food, wine, and fellowship to last a lifetime.
If I never hear the words “Mind your step,” again, I think I will be fine.
Roasted Garlic Crostini
1 loaf Ciabatta bread sliced thick, about 16 slices
1 cup Roasted garlic, smashed
5-6 leaves Fresh sage, chiffonade
Preheat oven to 300.
To make the crostinis, place the sliced Ciabatta on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until crispy, about 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature. If you are doing this ahead of time, store at room temperature in an airtight container for 2-3 days.
Spread 1 TB of the smashed roasted garlic on each crostini. Stack the sage leaves, roll them tight, and slice thin with a sharp knife (chiffonade). Divide the sage among the crostinis and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over them as desired.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.