Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Robert St. John: Welcome to America, My Dutch Friend

 There is something deep inside of me that enjoys hosting people. It borderlines a compulsion or obsession. I've been that way since I was a little kid. Whenever I heard a new song on the radio, in my youth— and I had enough money to purchase a 45 single— I would ride my bike to the record store, by the record, and then spend the next week trying to get my friends to listen to it. I love turning people on to music. Six decades later, I still do it. A lot. Conversely, I also enjoy learning about new music from friends who have similar tastes.

 In the years I worked in radio I was able to hear new music before it ever hit the market. That enabled me to introduce all sorts of great music to my friends before any of them had heard. When I got out of the radio business and moved into the restaurant business the search for new discoveries was the same. Though this time for food items, design elements, and restaurant concepts. 

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

 Several years back my church offered to give a test on spiritual gifts. Despite years of Sunday School, I had never heard of spiritual gifts. Had someone asked me if I had any, I might have been at a loss to answer. Though the test that evening stated that I have the spiritual gift of hospitality. Had you given me a list and asked me to list potential spiritual gifts, I would never have thought that hospitality would be on the list. Though there it was on my answer sheet, front and center. 


I took the spiritual gifts test two other times at two different churches. Both times the test results stated that I had the spiritual gift of hospitality. The first thing that hit me was— I am certainly in the right business. The restaurant business is the hospitality business. But secondly, it answered the lifelong question of why I get such a kick out of turning people on to things I have discovered. It's just another form of hospitality. It could be called “hosting.” I do a lot of hosting these days.


This hosting thing took a new turn several years ago when people started asking me to take them to Italy to tour to revisit the restaurants and places I discovered on a very long European sojourn back in 2011. Those requests sounded like a great idea, but I only planned on doing it once. That one time turned into 16 or 17 trips overseas, I have stopped counting. Each trip with 25 people, and each designed with the sole purpose of creating the most complete experience— whether in Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Milan, or the entirety of the Spain— for the guest.


Those trips are nothing more than a modern-day extension of me going out and buying a 45 record in 1970 and turning my friends on to it. It's just done overseas, and the music, food, and scenery are better. It's basically coming from a premise of— I love this, I think you will love it too, here let me show it to you. Though, as a host, I am as happy as my least happy guest. So, it is always my number-one goal to keep everyone happy.


Traveling with a group of 25 people, especially the way I travel in groups, takes a lot of planning. Transportation is crucial. The vans must be where they are supposed to be at the scheduled time, or everything goes awry. Whether it's picking up guests at the airport, dropping them off at the end of a trip, or just being at the meeting point in the city center of Florence or Rome. Our ride must be there. Lodging is also crucial. A night’s stay at a bad hotel when someone is already jet lagged will ruin an entire trip. 


When we are in Tuscany, our friend Annagloria and her daughters handle 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 us around town. It truly takes a team.


In 2022 I will spend 14 weeks hosting guests in Italy, on the Amalfi Coast and Rome, and several weeks with several groups in Tuscany, a long trip covering the majority of Spain, and we will be preparing for a new journey next year into Holland and Belgium. I am the host. But to pull off something as complicated as 25 people moving around a strange city or country not knowing the language takes a lot of boots on the ground and a logistical team to help me pull this off. One of those people, who does an excellent job at that 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 boots on the ground tour guides who helped me with all the logistical issues while we are traveling overseas.


Jesse landed at the New Orleans airport last night. He will be here for two weeks. This time he is not the boots on the ground guy. I am. We are here to host him and give him a break from his busy schedule of booking tours all over the world. It's a job I take seriously and it's a job I enjoy. We will spend two days in New Orleans showing him the city, my son will take him out at night to show him the night life, and then we will cross the border into Mississippi and I will proudly show off my home state to my Dutch-Italian friend. The final leg of his tour will be in the Florida Panhandle before he heads to a friend’s weddinng in Miami and then fly home.


When he landed, my son picked him up at the airport and I met them at one of my go-to restaurants, Gris Gris on lower Magazine. As soon as he sat down he said, “I don’t really know what to do. I am not used to this. I am always the one planning the trip. My mother asked me my plans, and I told her that I didn’t have a clue. This is weird.”

My wife kids Jesse that he never works and is always on vacation in some exotic locale. The truth is he’s always working. He just works in vacation spots. “I got this, Jesse.” It’s time for me to host you. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.”



In the trattorias and osterias on the western coast of Sicily the day’s fresh, raw seafood catch is often displayed on ice in the dining room. One picks their specific fish and the server takes to back to the kitchen where it is prepared. There is usually an antipasta display and several vegetable courses served buffet style. Caponata is often among the offerings. Everyone prepares caponata differently. This preparation was inspired by my friend Annagloria, who is a native of Florence, but a lover of all things Sicilian.

1 each              Red bell pepper, large diced
1 each              Yellow bell pepper, large diced
1 each              Large red onion, large diced
1 rib                 Celery, sliced
¼ cup              Green olives, rough chopped
2 TB                Capers
¼ cup              Pine nuts
¼ cup              Raisins
½ cup              Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup              Red wine vinegar
1 TB                Sugar
1 each              28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, with juice
1 tsp                Kosher salt
½ tsp               Fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375.

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Transfer to a large roasting pan and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Serve immediately.


Anonymous said...

Anyone have any idea how much the charge for the trip is, is it an all inclusive cost (travel, food, etc.) and do people just randomly apply? Anyone here ever been on one of them?

Anonymous said...

I backpacked solo all over Europe for two months with an unlimited 1st Class Eurail Pass and $3 a day. What an adventure "back then"! It's easier to have wild, memorable experiences and meet interesting locals if one is not in a "tour".

Anonymous said...

Idea to make this less boring:

Every time he says Tuscany or reminds you that he has rich European friends, you take a drink.

Anonymous said...

Usually the organizer of the group trip gets their trip free or heavily discounted if they get enough people to sign up at full price. Walt Grayson has been doing this for many years.

Anonymous said...

I went to a seminar where Walt was present. I believe he said he does not receive a free trip.

I have asked other hosts as well - no one received a free trip.

I haven't asked Ken Hackman (The Birdman) about his tours.

Anonymous said...

I mean, I would happily book a trip with Walt Grayson or RSJ. Both are probably outstanding hosts with a ton of insight. How does one learn more about either?

Anonymous said...

"Every time he says Tuscany or reminds you that he has rich European friends, you take a drink."

What do you do when he screws up the name of the place he is bragging about or the recipe he includes? These columns of his are getting downright amusing to read. Anyone who is interested in "caponata" but doesn't know what it is might wish to Google it rather than use his recipe. What is posted is an incomplete mishmash of capponata, capunata/"caponata," and agrodulce, offered up by someone who clearly doesn't know what any of these three distinct things are. The amusing thing is "caponata" is the now-trendy anglicized name of an attempt by poor Sicilians to copy an upper-class item, sort of a Welsh rabbit/"rarebit" thing.

Chef Boyardee said...

Since Robert is such a success at culinary and tourism, with a dash of the innate capacity for being very hospitable, we shall dub him "Chef Boy Howdy".

Anonymous said...

I said a free or heavily discounted trip. They aren't gonna tell you that because they don't want people to get angry.

Anonymous said...

Came here expecting a Dutch Baby recipe.


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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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