Someone said “you don’t know what you don’t know until you know something.” Oh my, did this ever ring true this past week. I’m mainly talking about my recent shows with Fernando Varela and our dining experience at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. This celebrity artist with whom I had the pleasure of touring treated the entire band to this delectable, decadent experience expressing his gratitude to us as musicians.
Having come from a very humble (read “dirt poor”) childhood, it was rare that we had any type of what I now consider decent meals. Most meals consisted of Southern staples (cornbread, biscuits, pork, beans, cooked vegetables) because they were cheap and could be kept several days. McDonald’s or other fast food was expensive, so we did not have that often, either. Steak was a treat only on the most special days, and even then, it was usually a place similar to Golden Corral or Ponderosa. When my mother played gigs regularly at a finer steak house, she would sometimes bring home leftovers to share. I would wait up for her so I could be the first to enjoy the delicious fare.
Just because we didn’t have the finest cuisine did not mean that we were ill-mannered. My sister and I were still taught proper table manners, and disciplined if we did not adhere to them. We were taught everything a Southern lady should know from how to walk properly in high heels to appropriate topics of social conversation. My grandmother said: “You should always act and look like a lady. Others will treat you as one if you are one. Regardless of where you live, don’t act like an uneducated hick.” And she was correct. We learned how to speak with a slight Southern accent instead of a country accent. She believed that people from other parts of the country thought being Southern was equated to low IQ and stupidity. She was correct about those misperceptions, too.
As I got older, I was hired to play for weddings and other special occasions. Part of the treat was being fed delicious meals on the gig. Many times, I would actually play for my supper just to have the opportunity to try interesting dishes. In college, I had the privilege of working for a private five-star resort (there is a textile company that has its own on-property resort where it hosts clients and buyers in a very exclusive, private setting). They never posted job openings; everything was through private referrals – the true Southern way of business. I was trained in every part of the job from the kitchen to serving to bartending to management, even a full weeklong course in napkin folding. Every night, each of us went home with a plate full of the exact meal that was served to the guests that evening. I was able to experience buffalo and ostrich, oysters and lobster, curry and coriander – these things were completely foreign to me. I learned how to cook things other than the Southern staples. My eyes were opened to an entirely different life and lifestyle!
After college, I moved to Orlando and began work in food and beverage (yes, I was still a freelance musician, but it takes a while to establish a reputation with contractors.) One would think that I could now cook my own meals and eat whatever I wanted. Sure, I would cook whatever I wanted when I was alone, but meal variety was completely lost on my husband. He eats the plainest, most boring food. Of course, I love him to the moon and back, but I don’t like to cook for him as I usually end up making two meals every time. So we end up eating out A LOT. I could choose whatever I wanted and he could choose whatever he wanted. This also works well since our schedules are so erratic and I honestly don’t have time to plan meals nor cook since I am on the road so much. Unfortunately, our budgets over the various years have limited the locations and types of meals. We would frequent Perkins and Steak and Shake and other such establishments so often we had our own servers. Anything “fancier” was lost on my husband, as he did not enjoy it. My palate became accustomed to these simpler tastes.
And then there was Bern’s last week. I had forgotten how delicious a meal could be with a proper pairing of wine and food. I had forgotten how a steak should taste. I had forgotten how rich foods could be healthy in certain quantities and preparation. All those years of training and serving at that resort in college came back to me as I experienced real five-star treatment and food. Every person who worked at Bern’s did this as his/her chosen profession, not as an “in-between” job to make a little money. Each person had pride in their work, including those in the kitchen washing lettuce and greens for salads. We were invited to tour the kitchen and wine cellar after our dinner. It was explained that every waiter/waitress had to train for 18 months in the kitchen before beginning their table service training. The sommeliers on staff were trained for many years before ever coming to this restaurant. Even the seating hosts/hostesses were trained in other areas before being placed in their positions. The attention to every detail was so exceptionally executed; one could not help but be amazed.
After our dessert in our private dessert room, we all gathered again at the hotel and continued to discuss this terrific experience. It was not just the food. It was everything from the personal service to the atmosphere that fostered amiable table conversation amongst friends and colleagues. We were able to discuss business and personal stories without interruption from the waiter or other staff. We never had to ask for a refill on water, and the busman was so efficient, I hardly even noticed that he was there. The waiter did not “auction off” our meals, as he knew exactly what went where and placed it quickly without even interrupting the conversation. He was around if there was a question or concern, but he did not hover. Although we were in a completely different room for dessert, our waitress created a similar experience. She was exceptionally bright as we quickly involved her in some of our banter. It was clearly obvious that she and every one there loved their work and their profession. They were passionate about service/food/wine/coffee/fill in the blank. And that passion was not lost on this group of diners.
I came home this past weekend completely inspired to be more passionate in life. My fellow musicians on this tour inspired me to be a better musician and player. I want to learn more about how to be a better violinist and overall musician and leader. The featured celebrity artist inspired me how to better treat my fellow musicians and aspire to higher levels of shows and work. The music director inspired me how to be a better leader and interpreter of music.
Maybe it was the fact that this was the polar opposite from my recent culinary experiences in China. Maybe it was the fact that I was feeling nostalgic and yearning for something in my past. In any event, the entire tour and meal experience inspired me that every day is a new day to try something different. Even though I am still travelling quite a bit, I am hungry again for new experiences. There is so much more to learn in this lifetime, and I am open and ready for it. Thank you, Fernando Varela, for reaffirming and rekindling this positive outlook and passion for music and life!