Saturday, November 27, 2010

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Photograph by DJ Warren
The Velvet Melvin Pub. The name alone is cause for curiosity. The pub was originally called the Velvet Elvis. But, the well-intentioned folks who represent the real Mr. Presley took issue with the pub's name. As a result of the dispute, the Houston Velvet Elvis was forced to close its doors. When the pub was finally able to shake off the name controversy, it resurfaced as Woody's Place. However, someone in management couldn't quite shake the draw of the original name and the Velvet Melvin emerged. The current name is a name that works, partly because it is a name that continues to raise a few curious eyebrows. For the tried and true bar patrons it simply means fun and funky.

Whatever labels one might try to pin on this place, I think I can add that it is definitely not a yuppie hangout. I'd say there's a good mix of locals and tourists like myself. There is more of a hip, electric vibe flowing throughout. The Velvet Melvin is a great place simply unwind and relax. The best seat in the house is a bench on the patio (if you can grab one). Pizza, nachos, and a Melvin Melt are on the menu as well as a hearty meatball sub. If you like a nice cold beer, just order what's on tap. The Velvet Melvin also offers a "Drink the Tank" challenge - a 64 ounce drink in a fishbowl. This, by no means implies that I think people should go out and drink like a fish, but if you ever have the urge to imbibe from a fish - check out the Velvet Melvin.


Monday, November 22, 2010

SKI JOHNSON

Photographs by McArthur Newell
One of my first introductions to bebop jazz came through the means of a fellow chef - Jason Stitt. Jason was on the the cooks I brought on to the kitchen staff at the White House. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his father is jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt. If you enjoy classic jazz, there is nothing like the feel good rendition of Sonny Stitt's, "Everything Happens to Me."

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting another celebrated saxophonist at the Hay Adams in Washington, D.C. Ski Johnson is known for the way he combines elements of jazz, soul, r & b, funk, and hip-hop. He skillfully takes sounds from across time and space and weaves them into compositions that are familiar and unique. My conversation with Ski led both of us to draw parallels between jazz and contemporary cuisine: Both are free-form, yet structured. Each absorb a large variety of influences and techniques - yet they somehow still maintain a distinctive American identity.

I recently learned that Ski is currently working on a project that hits close to home. He lost both his parents to cancer. I lost my mother the same way. At the beginning of this year, Ski set up a unique venue called The Jazz for Life Foundation. Just as the name implies, it is a place where people can give donations to fight this dreaded disease. Please join Ski and many others on Saturday, February 19, 2011 in Seattle for an incredible Black Tie Gala Fundraiser. Proceeds will benefit the Jazz for Life Foundation and the American Cancer Society. The cameras should be rolling so you might just end up appearing on his new TV show called, "Living It Up With Ski Johnson."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

PONTE VEDRA, FLORIDA

Imagine purchasing 415 acres of prime Floridian property, situated inland, along the state's Northeastern coast for only $1. The Professional Golf Association received such an offer over 30 years ago. They knew a good deal when they saw it made Ponte Vedra their national headquarters. The Stadium Course (home of The Players Championship), in addition to the PGA offices, are now located on the once $1 - now multi-billion dollar property. While selling the land for such a price may seem crazy, it really was an effective way to utilize the geography and encourage development of a high-end hospitality industry within the area.

Recently I had the pleasure of presenting two sold-out Presidential dinners at the Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The Sawgrass Country Club kitchen is run by Executive Chef Perry Kenny. He orchestrates an impressive operation with a hard working, creative staff. The staff was extremely cooperative and helpful during my stay there.

Additional photos of the sold-out dinners can be found here on Chef Kenny's blog. If you venture past the first page of his blog you will see some amazing ice carvings that Chef Kenny and his brigade have produced. I truly had a wonderful time working with the staff, and visiting with the guests.

Friday, November 5, 2010

NAPLES, FLORIDA

Photograph by Claudia Katz
Within the past six months I've visited Naples, Italy and Naples, Florida - two coastal areas known for their landscape and culture. Being in Naples, Fl., makes me crave the "tug of the line". There are abundant opportunities to go fishing both inland, and off the vibrant shores of the Paradise Coast (Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades). The origin of the name Naples (in Florida) is thought to have come from an imaginative land broker who described the area as, "...surpassing the bay of Naples (Italy) in grandeur of view and health-giving properties."

Photograph by Lori Shaffer

Naples, Fl. and the Paradise Coast, seems to offer plenty of venues for you to explore. Art lovers can "Celebrate the Arts" while visiting any of the 134 galleries in town. Nature enthusiasts can enjoy kayaking through the Everglades, take a primate expedition cruise, or walk through a botanical garden. If you prefer something unusual, swamp buggy racing might be your entertainment of choice. You can even buy a ticket with an option to go dancing after the race. Fitness buffs can choose a yoga work-out on the beach or train for the annual triathalon. There's even a cycle shop in town that takes body scans to determine a perfect fit when you shop for a new bike. The Naples Community encourages outdoor sports at a very young age. In addition to the usual sports options, sailing camps have been designed to teach kids how to sail.

Photograph by Gordon Fischmann
While I was in town, I had the pleasure of visiting the Ritz-Carlton which is celebrating its Silver Anniversary through April 2011. It is no surprise that the Ritz-Carlton Naples has received top ratings from the likes of Forbes, AAA, and Travel + Leisure. The year the resort made the Conde Nast Traveler's 2010 Gold list.

Photograph by Johnny Starman • Sandcastle by Victor Leong
I like how the Ritz-Carlton divides their hospitality postitions into two categories: "Front of the House" and "Heart of the House" - the behind the scenes positions that are often called the 'heart' of the operation. The Ritz has a "service recovery" policy which empowers their employees to take ownership of their job. Employees are pre-authorized to spend up to $2000 when resolving a customer concern. The philosophy, and quality, of the Ritz-Carlton program was in full evidence during my visit.

The hospitality staff at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fl, including the interns, is worthy of mention. The interns were both knowledgeable and inquisitive. General Manager, Lawrence McFadden, is exceptional. It's rare to find a manager as competent as he - even more rare that he is one of the few to have eared true Certified Master Chef (CMC) status. An interesting read, for anyone interested in the rigorous CMC journey, is Michael Rulman's 'Soul of a Chef'. However, if you are just interested in experiencing top notch hospitality - consider a stay in Naples (Florida).