NEW YORK— I first came to the city sometime in the mid-1960s. My grandparents lived here. My father had recently passed away, and my mother drove my brother and me up to stay with her parents for a few weeks. They lived in an apartment building somewhere around 72nd and 2nd. All I remember about that apartment is that they had a balcony that looked just like the one in the opening credits of Green Acres. As a six-year-old, the two things that impressed me during that initial New York visit were that they were filming a movie on the street outside their apartment, and automats. I was amazed by automats, and that is probably the earliest memory I have of a restaurant of any kind.
The automats were marvelous, Jetson’s-like technology. A very simplistic everyday site in the city back then, but Hattiesburg, Mississip,pi didn’t have anything that offered sandwiches that came out of a wall that looked like a post office box. The next time I visited this city was in July of 1969. My grandfather took my brother and me to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were playing the Senators. I can’t remember anything about the actual game, other than at the top of the eighth inning, Bob Sheppard came over the PA and announced that the Americans had just landed on the moon. They played the national anthem. Later that night we watched the moonwalk on television in my grandparent’s apartment. My mother took photographs of the tv as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
During my subsequent trips to this city— between then and now— I’ve focused on restaurant research and development. When I got into the restaurant business in 1982, I started collecting cookbooks and reading every article I could get my hands on about the restaurants and chefs in this city. I had no money to travel, but I dreamed of coming here as a restaurateur, as soon as I could, to eat my way through the city.
In the late 1980s, those trips began.
New York is universally considered the number one restaurant city in America; I wouldn’t argue that. I feel blessed to be a part-time New Orleanian which, for me at least, comes in at a strong number two, if not number one on occasion. The culinary energy in both cities is very strong.
Every trip I have ever taken to New York has been planned around restaurant reservations. Every other activity comes in second as the schedule always revolves around my restaurant to-do list. In the days before all the online services, the Zagat Guide was my gold standard for restaurant recommendations that I hadn’t read about in newspapers, magazines, or trade publications. These days, I mostly visit restaurants owned by friends. I guess that’s how it happens if one stays in this business long enough.
Though I am here this time for an entirely different reason than restaurant research and development. I was invited to speak at this year’s Welcome Conference at Lincoln Center. It’s pretty heady stuff for a boy from South Mississippi. But I’m honored and I look forward to that speech.
I’ve delivered hundreds of speeches over the past couple of decades and have received a lot of gifts and honorariums. Though when it comes to giving guest speaker gifts, Will Guidara and his team at The Welcome Conference, best all others— by a mile. At a dinner for the speakers the evening before the speech, I was gifted a personalized autographed bowling ball from Jeff Bridges that reads, “To the Dude of Hattiesburg, Jeff Bridges.” Amazing! Unprecedented and mind-blowing! If that is the speaker’s gift, you can imagine how first-rate all details were for the rest of the conference.
When I was traveling here in the late 1980s and all throughout the 90s and early 2000s— doing research and development and bringing ideas to the concepts back home— I never could have fantasized that I would ever be asked to speak at such an event. Though, as far-fetched as that scenario is, I certainly couldn’t have dreamed, in the deepest recesses of my imagination, that I would travel to Hyde Park, New York to visit my son who is attending the Culinary Institute of America. As excited and honored as I am to deliver a speech to the Welcome Conference, it pales in comparison to the joy I had seeing my son on campus, seeing the pride he felt as he gave his mother and me a tour, and spending time over breakfast and lunch while talking about his food classes and future dreams.
On the train home from Poughkeepsie, I thought back to 40 years ago, when I spent all my spare time in the library at the University of Southern Mississippi, thumbing through the restaurant trade magazines and dreaming what a career in the restaurant business might be like. I wish someone would’ve pulled me aside back then and said “Robert, grab a pen and a piece of paper and write down what you think a career in the restaurant will be like. Dream big. Dream bigger than anything you can imagine. Then take that piece of paper, stow it away in a drawer, and get to work.”
I would love to have that sheet of paper today, because, 40 years ago, I would have so undershot what a career in the restaurant business, and life as a restaurateur, has gifted me. I’m not talking about material and monetary things. Not at all. It’s the spiritual and relational things. I am blessed to love what I do, and to have a son that hopes to follow in my footsteps while carving out his own niche in this industry. It’s my dream that he’ll do even greater things. I truly believe he will.
Granted, there aren’t a lot of spiritual experiences derived from dining out in restaurants (at least not for most). But speaking to an international audience about your journey and the one thing that changed your life is very spiritual. And as great as that is, seeing your son in an environment in which he is thriving is even greater.
When I get home, I think I’ll call my son and have him take out a pen and piece of paper and dream big.