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Robert St. John

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

Tuscany 2018 (part III) The Accidental Tour Guide

April 25, 2018

PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— There is a line in the 1981 Talking Heads’ song “Once in A Lifetime,” in which David Byrne poses the question, “…well, how did I get here?” That song keeps coming up on a music playlist I made for this trip. I’m sitting in a small little apartment located under the terrace of a 1000-year old villa in the Italian countryside, in what I guess are the servant’s quarters. I am in the middle of co-managing the second of three groups of 25 people who have come over here to tour this part of the world with my friend, collaborator, and world-class watercolorist, Wyatt Waters and me. I am slipping away for a few minutes to type this week’s column while our guests are having their “free day” in Pisa, Luca, and Florence.

It’s a crisp morning, and the view from my little apartment is probably the best view of any servant’s quarters in Italy. I am here working hard to lead all three of these groups throughout Tuscany, but it doesn’t feel like work, and I certainly don’t feel like a servant. I am an accidental tour guide.

It’s a side job I never sought, and a calling I never dreamed of, but it has turned into an additional occupation. And as is the case with my other responsibilities and positions, one that I enjoy very much.

So, how did I get here?

Like most things in my life, I fell backwards into it. It’s true. I started working in restaurants because I flunked out of college. I opened our first restaurant immediately after I went back to college and earned a degree. I became an accidental chef because we fired our original chef on the opening night. As I have stated many times before, the extent of my cooking experience at that point was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas when I was six-years old.

I unintentionally became a columnist because the local newspaper asked me to start writing a weekly column. After saying “no” for several weeks, I relented. That was 1998, I’m in a couple of dozen newspapers these days and I’ve never missed a week. I inadvertently got into the book writing business from a one-off conversation at table number three in the Purple Parrot Cafe. I met Waters the next day. I signed a three-book deal with a national publisher because of a similar unplanned conversation at table number five in the same restaurant. It’s freaky how things have worked out.

The television show, “Palate to Palette” has been a 10-year roller coaster and is a direct result of someone in the marketing department of the former Turner South network reading one of my columns and, purely by chance, talking the network into purchasing the non-exclusive rights of the piece to use in their imaging and branding. That lead to a pilot for Turner South. That lead to a 10-year period of dormancy after Turner South was sold. Which brought us to this point where— on a lark— Waters and I just produced the show “Palate to Palette” ourselves.

If I were a type of bird, I would be the newly discovered species called a fluke.

While researching food for our Italian concept, Tabella, I was testing recipes with a Jackson friend, and over a lunch with Waters— on a whim— we came up with the idea to do an Italian coffee table cookbook. On the subsequent promotional tour to promote the book we encountered people who asked if we would be interested in taking them on a tour of all of the places we wrote about and painted while over here. We made one social media post, and seven tour groups later, here I sit.

That’s really been the story of my life. I feel like I have fallen backwards into most everything that has happened to me. At one time I considered it luck. But I don’t really believe in luck any more. I think it’s a matter of being open to opportunity when it taps you on the shoulder. Actually, sometimes opportunity has had to knock me in the head with a 2×4. Nevertheless, it’s a blessing to have spent a career doing what I love to do, no matter how “fluky” it has been.

If I were to ever write a business book, it would be the shortest book in history. One page. Simple advice: Surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented that you. Set the course. Guide the ship. Trust them and get out of their way. Follow your passion, not the money. Be open to opportunity, no matter the messenger, no matter how it is disguised. Always remember that business is problems, and a successful business is problems well handled. If you can’t handle problems, get out of business. The End.

I never planned on being a tour guide in Italy. I don’t speak the language. Actually, I mangle the Italian language in almost every sentence. But, like Waters, I am passionate about this part of the world. We love it. We discovered people, places, and restaurants during the time that we were writing the Italian book, and we love sharing them with other people. Before we started bringing paying guests over here, we were bringing our close friends. There is something deep inside me that loves turning people on to things I have discovered. I’ve been that way since I was a little kid.

So, I was sitting here listening to the Talking Heads, looking out onto the Tuscan countryside and wondering what it is inside me that drives me to share discoveries with people. I’ve done it through this column over the past 20 years by discovering hidden, out-of-the-way restaurants, undiscovered chefs and personalities, and turning people on to them. It’s what I love to do.

I think Waters described it best when he said, “When you are with someone who is seeing something you love for their first time, it’s like you are reliving the moment when you experienced it the first time.” See what I mean by surrounding myself with people who are smarter and more talented?

That has to be it. There’s only one chance to have a first experience. But through these tours we’ve been hosting, I can see the look on people’s faces when they turn the corner in the Academia and see Michelangelo’s David for the first time. I share their delight when they see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. I watch the amazement in their eyes when I take them to Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop in Panzano, and he cranks up the rock and roll and the party spills into the streets. I’m there when they get their first glance at the architecturally amazing Antinori winery as we pull into the winding drive. They always react as I did when we walk the sacred grounds of the Florence-American cemetery. I see the gleam in their eyes when they take their first tastes of Guliana’s minestrone, Fabio’s spinach torta, La Fattoria’s palate cleanser of lemon and sage sorbet, Nadia’s baked apples, Rosanna’s tiramisu, and Trattoria Mario’s lasagna.

When I start to break it down, I guess it’s not so hard to see “how I got here.” I just hope I can stay on course and continue to follow these passions— currently known and newly discovered— and I pray that I am paying attention the next time opportunity knocks me upside the head with a 2×4.

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