BARBERINO VAL D’ELSA, TUSCANY— As a kid, I dreamed of traveling. My parents purchased a set of World Book encyclopedias when I was about 4 years old, and for more than a decade that was my conduit to other parts of the globe. I dreamed of far-off exotic lands and what they must be like: the people, the animals, the food.
In my teen years, my travel ambitions moved closer to home as I was enamored with the Los Angeles rock scene. In my 20s, I narrowed my wanderlust to the South and focused on that region and its food as I began to open restaurants, develop recipes and undertake the hours needed to reach the top of the food chain in the Mississippi food service business (a quest I’m still on).
It wasn’t until my children were born that my childhood dream of traveling returned. Maybe it had something to do with projecting my youth — and those World Book encyclopedias — onto two young minds who had Google at their disposal. The world beyond could now be seen in living color, with video and sound.
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I vowed to expose my children to as many places as possible that I’d dreamed about as a child. We traveled a fair portion of the globe together, and at least one of the kids was infected with my wanderlust and curiosity.
When I dreamed of traveling as a kid, it was mostly about exotic ports of call — jungles, harems, Amazon River cruises and such. With age, my taste and travel goals became less adventurous and I became more interested in history and dining. That is where I am today — an enthusiastic traveler who is passionate about history, other cultures and food.
I write this at 7:42 a.m. in a small apartment in Tuscany. Twenty-three Americans with my same passion for food, history and culture await the adventure this day will bring on the weeklong Italian Palate Road Trip that watercolor artist Wyatt Waters and I are hosting.
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Traveling always involves surprises. I have grown to welcome them and embrace them as new moments of wonder. When I was a kid dreaming with the aid of encyclopedias, I am sure I developed preconceived notions of what travel might be like one day. I was way off: Whatever I might have dreamed, travel is much more fulfilling than I ever imagined.
The greatest surprises have been the friendships. My wife and I have developed lasting relationships with many people in many places over the years. As a kid, I thought I had all the friends I would ever need. I was wrong. In addition to friendships made with people who live in other countries, traveling with others and leading groups overseas has given me one of the greatest gifts — friendships with fellow travelers.
That has been a blessing. There is a certain bond that is forged between friends who travel together. It’s a bunker mentality that develops when several people band together in a new land.
My wife and I have never really considered ourselves group travelers. In the first 10 years of our relationship — before kids — we logged a few air miles across the United States, but we usually traveled as a pair. I don’t spend a lot of time in the company of regrets, and I try not to look back and lament, but I can’t help but think how many friendships we might have missed by being so insular.
On these most recent trips we have made great friendships with travelers we have just met. And it becomes especially sweet when we introduce those new friends to our overseas friends.
I have always valued friendships. I am still close with the core group of friends from my childhood days.
As my hair turns gray — and turns loose — I have grown to place an even greater importance on friendships. I have worked alongside my best friend, Wyatt Waters, for 17 years through book creation, speeches and demonstrations and now this — taking a few weeks a year to introduce new friends to parts of the world we love.
In the end, travel is important as an exposure tool, an enrichment vehicle and a source of fun and entertainment. But it is also a great way to make new friends and solidify long-term relationships.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. Visit him online at robertstjohn.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertstjohn.
I love pesto. It is one of my favorite flavor profiles, not only in Italian cooking but all cuisines. It’s fresh-tasting, clean, light and extremely versatile. I keep pesto portioned into small batches in the freezer. It thaws quickly and is perfect for a quick supper. Just place the pesto in a bowl and add a little extra virgin olive oil. Remove your favorite noodle from boiling water and toss in the pesto. Finish with some grated pecorino and call it dinner.
⅓ cup toasted pine nuts or almonds
2 cups fresh basil leaves (2 ounces by weight)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
A pinch of kosher salt
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine nuts, basil, garlic and salt in a food processor. Slowly add olive oil. Remove mixture from food processor and fold in cheese.