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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

This Travel Gig

April 10, 2017

Someone once told me to make myself “available for opportunities” and they will “surely come.” It sounded like a bunch of new-age gobbledy speak when I first heard it, but damned if it’s not true.

That has been the story of my life.

In 1981, I flunked out of college and headed back home with my head down and my tail tucked between my legs, ashamed, embarrassed, and uncertain. It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me as I got my first job working in a restaurant and instantly discovered an inner passion for the restaurant business. I knew at that moment what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I have written often about how we fired our chef on the opening night of the first restaurant and how that led me to get back in the kitchen to learn how to cook. In retrospect, it’s one of the defining moments of my career— one incident that seemed so devastating at the time, turned out to be so beneficial in the long run.

When I speak to groups of young people I always tell them to embrace mistakes and move on. We never know what will come from those seemingly unfortunate circumstances.

In the late 1990s, I was asked to start writing a weekly column by my hometown newspaper. I declined. I gave them a few dozen excuses as to why I didn’t have the time or skill needed for such an endeavor. They persisted. Eventually I agreed. Now, 18 years, 936 columns, 22 newspapers, and more than 750,000 words later, I’m still here— and I’ve never missed a week.

I never planned on writing a book, yet I am currently working on my 11th book. I guess I somehow unconsciously made myself available for opportunities, and they fell in my lap. I have no other explanation. Throughout my life I have been very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, I have surrounded myself with extremely talented people, and have been the beneficiary of several lifetime’s worth of help, luck, and God’s grace.

That brings me to the most current occupation to be added to the career list of: restaurateur, chef, author, columnist— travel guide.

Like so many other career paths in my life, I never planned on being a travel guide. I have always loved to travel, and to turn people on to great restaurants, cities, and sites. For two decades, I have enjoyed the time I have spent writing about travel. When my friend, watercolorist, and frequent collaborator, Wyatt Waters and I were on the promotional junket of our third collaborative book project, An Italian Palate, we encountered people at book signings and promotional events who constantly said, “I wish y’all would take me to Tuscany the next time you go.”

I didn’t think anything of it at first. I assumed it was just conversation filler while we signed their books. Yet people kept asking again and again— “take us to Tuscany.”

A year or so later, I was a co-leader of a University of Southern Mississippi tour. History professor and author, Andy Wiest and I came up with the idea over dinner one evening. We called it Battlefields and Baguettes. The plan was to take a group of Southern Miss alumni over to Europe. Wiest would take the group to battlegrounds and cemeteries during the day, and I would be in charge of taking the group to experience local cuisine in the evenings. The trip was a success and everyone had a blast. I kept telling the tour organizers, “Look guys, I have these people asking Wyatt and me to take them to all of our old haunts in Tuscany. Put something together and we’ll lead the group.” Though when we returned home, everyone got busy, we all moved on, and the idea floundered.

Nevertheless, people kept asking to go to Italy. Finally, I called Wyatt on the phone and said, “Let’s do this.” He agreed, and another job title was born— tour guide— and from that job I was able to expand another one of my passions, travel writing.

To test the waters (pun intended), we made a Facebook post one day to judge the potential interest of people who might be interested in travelling with us to Tuscany. We offered to take people behind the scenes to meet the people we had met, to eat in the places that tourists don’t usually visit, and to experience Tuscany like a Tuscan. By the end of the day, the trip was full, with a waiting list. We agreed to take another group in the spring and that trip filled up so fast we decided to stay over in Italy and bring the second group in after the first group left. We then started talking about leading a tour of Northern Italy and it is half-filled and we haven’t even announced it.

Some might say that I made myself available, and the opportunity presented itself. I tend to think it’s more of a result of passion. I love to travel, I love to write about travel, and I love to turn people on to new experiences. Either way, I’m having a blast.

So, I am off to Italy as a part of this new, part-time tour-guide/travel-writer gig that has happened. Like so many other things in my life, it wasn’t planned, though I developed a passion for it. The next four installments of this column will be written in the heart of Tuscany, where Wyatt and I will— once again— go behind the scenes in one of the most beautiful, flavorful, and culturally rich corners of the globe.

Stay tuned.


View today’s recipe: Pasta Carbonara


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