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Robert St. John

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

Home Away From Home

December 4, 2019

BARBERRINO VAL D’ELSA, TUSCANY— My friend, collaborator, and business partner, Wyatt Waters, and I are working back in Italy this week leading a group of people through one of our favorite parts of the world. We’re turning all 25 of them on to the people, places, and things that we have discovered through the years. It’s good to be back. It’s good to see old friends. It’s also good to love what you do for a living, all of it.

I write this column from my small apartment situated below the villa, early in the morning, while our guests are still sleeping. By the end of this week, I will have spent four months in this room in the last three years. By the end of April, it will be five. If I add in all of the time I’ve spent at this villa since 2011 I would have to add a couple of more months. It’s funny how a place so far away, and so different, can feel so at home.

But is this place really all that different? I have always held that Tuscany is a lot like the American south. It really is. The scenery might be different, and the history is certainly richer and more storied, but the people are a lot like southerners and the pace of life is evocative of the American south. It’s an agrarian society, people love and value their families, they love sharing meals together, they’re friendly, and they kind and caring. For those reasons, it feels a lot like home. But many of the people over here have become part of our family, and for that reason, it feels even more like home.

I first came to this part of Tuscany because of a villa. It’s the same villa with the detached apartment that I am writing in now. At the time I was planning a year-long trip with my wife and two young kids. We were going to spend 10 weeks in Italy, but three of those weeks would be in Tuscany. I needed to find the perfect villa in the perfect location, and hopefully, I would find an owner of a villa that would be able to help me navigate the region as Waters was joining us for the Italian leg of the trip and he and I were working on a book focusing on Italy. Luckily, after much late-night research and internet browsing, I settled on a villa that checked all three boxes— it was the perfect villa, in the perfect location, with the perfect owner to help me navigate the area.

We arrived on the first of October of 2011 and celebrated my 50th birthday in the villa. It was love at first sight. My wife homeschooled the kids during the day, and Waters and I ventured out into the Tuscan countryside and into the nearby cities working on the book. He painted. I ate. We were— and still are— both pretty good at our respective jobs.

In a short amount of time, we began to assimilate into the small town a few kilometers up the road from the villa. We got to know the locals. We made friends. We became known as “l’uomo che dipinge, e l’uomo che mangia.” The man who paints and the man who eats.

The routine back then was the same most days. Waters and I would get into the car I had purchased when we landed in Sweden a few months earlier and venture out into the Tuscan countryside or into Florence or Siena. I would drop him off and he would set up for a painting or two, and then I would visit the food markets and small trattorias, osterias, and bars, and learn what I could form the locals.

On the days we ended up in Florence, I would drop him off at the city center and then go to the Mercato Centrale and just walk the aisles. I can’t remember how many paintings he finished during our Tuscan stint, but by the time we had finished our 10-week working tour of Italy, Waters had completed 128 watercolors, and if we subtract travel days, those were all completed in 63 days— an amazing pace. Somewhere around 60 of those paintings made it into our book “An Italian Palate.”

Today our routine will be much the same. We’ll get up, he will paint I will eat, it’s just that we have two dozen people joining us. It’s still just as fun.

Leading these tours has been a good way to get back over to this part of the world we love so much. It’s work— a lot of work, 14 hours a day for seven straight days— but if one has to work somewhere, one would have to look long and hard to find a more beautiful and historic place.

The friends we have made over here are like family. We visit them here, and they visit us back home. The friends who we encounter in our daily activities while we’re in this area are part of our lives, too. The ladies who work in the bakery I visit every morning seem happy to see me when I walk in. They know my order.

It feels like I belong in these places. Paolo, along with his mother, Giuliana run the small bar just off of the town square where all of the townsfolk gather for three meals a day. It’s our first stop whenever we come to town. Before we go to the villa or the grocery store, we go to Paolo’s (more formally known as Caffe Degli Amici), though everyone we know calls it Paolo’s. Mainly because Paolo is always there, and his mother is always in the kitchen.

We know the greengrocer, the butcher, and many of the restaurant owners. My favorite Florentine steak is served in a trattoria just down the road. The tiny grocery store that was hard for me to navigate years ago, has become as familiar as my Corner Market back home.

This is a place I never thought I would end up, doing a job I never dreamed I would do, even 10 years ago. Yet we have hosted over 400 people— all in groups of 25— in the last three years and will add another 150 in the coming year. It’s like most things that have happened in my life, when I find a passion, opportunities arise. It’s as simple as that. The best things in my life happened when I wasn’t looking for them or trying too hard to make something happen. It’s how I ended up in the restaurant business. It’s how I met my wife. It’s how I met Waters and started writing books and producing a television program.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s the things that come naturally are the ones that mean the most and last the longest. Though, by “come naturally” I don’t think it’s by providential happenstance. I believe God opens doors when we have enough faith to leave ourselves open to opportunities. At least that has been my experience. I am blessed, and I try to never forget to be grateful for each and every blessing, each and every day. The older I get the more I realize that the greatest things in life aren’t things— at least not worldly and material things. The greatest things in life are the relational things, whether that relationship is with God, family, or friends.

I am a rich man, not because I have a lot of money in the bank. I don’t. It’s because of the deep and meaningful relationships I have with a loving God, family, and friends— at home and abroad. It’s the experiences we get to share together that make for a rich and full life. At the end of the day, it’s not the stuff, it’s the lives impacted, and the memories shared.

Here’s to making more memories.


View this week’s recipe: Peposa

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