Welcome to America, my Dutch friend

There is something deep inside me that likes to receive people. It’s borderline compulsion or obsession. I’ve been like this since I was little. Every time I heard a new song on the radio, in my youth – and I had enough money to buy a 45 rpm single – I rode my bike to the record store, near the record, then I spent the next week trying to get my friends to listen to it. I like bringing people to music. Six decades later, I still do. A lot. Conversely, I also enjoy learning new music with friends who have similar tastes.

During the years that I worked in radio, I was able to hear new music even before it hit the market. It allowed me to introduce all kinds of great music to my friends before any of them had heard it. When I left radio and moved into the restaurant business, the search for new discoveries was the same. Although this time for food products, design elements and restaurant concepts.

I have spent over 40 years in the restaurant business. Much of that time has been traveling to different cities – and restaurants in those cities – to experience new dishes and new methods, as well as new themes, designs and concepts. Restaurants are my hobby. Some of my friends live to golf in Pebble Beach or Augusta. I live to travel to Chicago and participate in a progressive dinner at four restaurants in one evening. It’s even better if I have people with me who have never eaten at these restaurants or experienced multi-place progressive dining, St. John’s style. It’s awesome.

Several years ago, my church offered to administer a spiritual gifts test. Despite years of Sunday school, I had never heard of spiritual gifts. If someone had asked me if I had any, I might have been unable to answer. Although the test that night said I had the spiritual gift of hospitality. If you had given me a list and asked me to enumerate potential spiritual gifts, I never would have thought hospitality would be on the list. Although it was there on my answer sheet, front and center.

I took the spiritual gifts test two more times at two different churches. Both times the test results said I had the spiritual gift of hospitality. The first thing that struck me was that I am definitely in the right field. The restaurant industry is the hospitality industry. But second, it answered the lifelong question of why I love drawing people to the things I’ve discovered so much. It’s just another form of hospitality. This could be called “hosting”. I do a lot of hosting these days.

This accommodation story took a new turn several years ago when people started asking me to take them to Italy for a tour to revisit the restaurants and places I discovered during a very long stay in Europe in 2011. These requests seemed like a great idea, but I only planned to do it once. That one time turned into 16 or 17 trips abroad; I stopped counting. Each trip is with 25 people and each is designed with the sole purpose of creating the most complete experience – whether in Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Milan or the whole of Spain – for the guest.

These trips are nothing more than a modern extension of my going out and buying a 45 in 1970 and rousing it to my friends. It’s just made overseas, and the music, food, and scenery are better. It basically comes from a premise of – I love it, I think you’ll love it too, let me show you. However, as a host, I am as happy as my least happy guest. So it’s always my number one goal to keep everyone happy.

Traveling with a group of 25, especially the way I travel in groups, takes a lot of planning. Transportation is crucial. The vans have to be where they are supposed to be at the scheduled time, otherwise everything goes wrong. Whether picking up guests at the airport, dropping them off at the end of a trip, or simply being at the meeting point in downtown Florence or Rome, our ride must be there. Housing is also crucial. One night in the wrong hotel when someone is already jet lagged will ruin an entire trip.

When we are in Tuscany, our friend Annagloria and her daughters take care of 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 around town. It really takes a team.

In 2022 I will spend 14 weeks hosting guests in Italy, the Amalfi Coast and Rome, and several weeks with several groups in Tuscany, a long trip covering the majority of Spain, and we will prepare for a new trip next year in Holland and Belgium. I am the host. But to pull off something as complicated as 25 people moving around a foreign city or country without knowing the language, it takes a lot of boots on the ground and a logistics team to help me pull it off. One of those people who is doing great work in this area 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 on-the-ground tour guides helping me with all the logistical issues when we travel overseas.

Jesse landed at New Orleans airport last night. He will be here for two weeks. This time he’s not the boots guy on the floor. I am. We are here to welcome her and give her a break from her busy schedule of booking tours around the world. It’s a job I take seriously and it’s a job I enjoy. We will spend two days in New Orleans to show him the city, my son will take him at night to show him the nightlife, then we will cross the border into Mississippi and I will proudly show my home state to my Dutch-friend Italian. The last leg of his tour will be in the Florida Panhandle before heading to a friend’s wedding in Miami and then returning home.

When he landed my son picked him up from the airport and I met them at one of my favorite restaurants, Gris Gris on Lower Magazine. As soon as he sat down, he said, “I don’t really know what to do. I’m not used to that. It’s always me who plans the trip. My mom asked me about my plans and I told her I had no idea. It’s weird.

My wife tells Jesse that he never works and is always on vacation somewhere exotic. The truth is that it still works. He just works at vacation spots. “I get it, Jesse.” It’s time for me to welcome you. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Ahead.

Hailing from Hattiesburg, Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He wrote a column for a weekly syndicated newspaper for over 20 years.

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