All photography provided by Andrew Joiner
I was raised to keep my eyes open. To see the joy in the world for what it was. To appreciate all the diverse cultures. To celebrate its people. To understand its food. And to do the same for myself. Appreciate myself for who I am and to honor that to the core. Those are my roots. I was always told I could do anything I dreamed of. There were no limits. There still aren’t.
My grandparents were entrepreneurs. All of them. Gas stations. Bread trucks. Dance Halls. They were veterans of wars and served our country well. They flew airplanes and captained ships. Family, was always the most important. The center of everything. The reason. The foundation. They circumnavigated the globe, crossing every meridian of longitude in the same direction many times. Then these stories would be retold around the family table. Celebrating the moments and the memories. Celebrating the cultures visited by recreating their food. And their love of life. And there was always laughter. And tears. And the comfort of home. And I was the one tugging at the apron strings wanting to know what was being created in our tiny kitchen and the life decisions made only around the dinner table. We served each other without reservation. We were taught to respect the land. And always be generous. To be generous of our time and our gifts. Most important of all, we were taught that all of life was precious and to be celebrated. Good and bad. We could become the sum of all our failures, or we could be a sum of all our victories. It was our freedom to choose which.
By the age of thirteen, I had seen North America. Side to side and top to bottom. From San Fran to Los Angeles. Grand Canyon to Grand Rapids. Canada to Cape Canaveral. I had been to almost ten countries in Europe. I had slept on mountainsides in Africa and danced with the natives. I was taught to be a wanderer, a pirate, a lover of knowledge, and a searcher. I had my first job shortly after. I started my first business when I was seventeen. In my twenties I backpacked through Europe, revisiting places of my youth and finding new ones. Learning about the savoir-faire and the dignity of the natives and the nuances of their cuisine. I was insatiable. I wanted to know it all. What was talked about around their family table? A feeling of authenticity and balance between land and people. Nature and nurture. Pride and humility. Humanity and hospitality. It was a pivotal point in my journey. This single moment would spark a revolution.
And with Hemingway-esque flare travelling from Brindisi to Corfu, I would have that moment. I spent the evening in the galley discussing all things art and culinary. A band of brothers united in a common language. We would talk into the early morning hours of freshly crafted masterpieces and the comforts of our home kitchen. We shared a bond of food, of culture, of love, and of people. This was hospitality.
The next couple years would see culinary school in an old cigar factory in Charleston. Low-country charm at its finest. Fresh seafood. Gullah ways. Back-alley restaurants and all-night speakeasies would give way to sunrises on the beach. All the magic was created off the beaten path. Dinners were invitation only, black tie and secret. Clubs were membership only. There was new school Charleston and there was underground Charleston, where all the magic happened.
Working in the kitchen of a five-star hotel in one of the hottest cities, I cooked for celebrities, Superbowl athletes and Olympians. I was hungry. I was eager to learn. Early morning runs for the freshest and most unusual of ingredients and requests became usual. I learned discretion and confidentiality and service and respect beyond expectations.
From there, I studied with a master in rural France. A revolutionary chef known not only for the best in table but also the best in hospitality. Fresh and finest only. Crisp and clean. All the ingredients taken from the local land, painstakingly crafted and cooked and served with elegance and refinement. The best of the best of the best was served to world leaders and heads of countries by request. Living in a farmhouse with the dearest of friends, I was able to be home away from home. And loved and served as if I was family. There would be long walks in the countryside to select only the finest of cheeses from neighboring farms, fresh bread from barter and meat from the butcher. A meal was not a destination but only part of the journey. Slow and sacred was time in the country.
Upon returning stateside, I took on the Miami culture. Learning its rich and eclectic heritage. The influence of Cuban and Haitian culture. A diverse mix of roots and history and pride. The influence of people fighting for their lives and struggling for just a small piece of freedom. Freedom to love and create. Freedom to have balance in life and to celebrate its uniqueness. We would dance the Afro-Cuban rumba and salsa into the early morning hours. The magic of Miami comes alive while the rest of the world sleeps. Meetings took place in penthouses and private cars and whispers in back alleys. We cooked directly from the ocean. Lobster tails as big as fists and midnight excursions for crab. The best places hidden from tourists and catering to only a select few.
During the next couple years, I bought my first restaurant. We served hospitality. We bridged the gap between local and tourist. The gap between new money and old money. We built a home that served our guests the freshest and finest. We embraced the community and learned and respected its history. A pride of the people and of true Southern Hospitality. My new family growing in size both inside and outside the restaurant. My young sons were being raised by a community. The traditions and charms of our heritage, deep roots of the land and of absolute authenticity for each other. Decisions made in barns and around whiskey barrels was tradition.
The next couple years saw the rise of one of the hottest nightclubs and bars in my home city. A tribute to the south, and steeped in local color, our love and support of hometown talent would allow us to serve country stars before they were stars and a-list celebrities until the sun came up. We celebrated victories and defeats with hockey giants and football titans. We became a destination for people all across the globe. And a secret haven for those that wanted to remain anonymous. We were pirates. A surreal experience. We built the best with the best people. Those that would go forth into the world and continue to do amazing things. We were a launching point for dreams. An atmosphere and philosophy of hospitality. A place where food and service meet to create something magical. A place where time stood still and you could be who you are without judgement. A golden age we would turn away hundreds a night that wanted our brand of special. Our mojo. Our voodoo.
I’ve seen restaurants rise and fall in my city. I’ve seen moguls come and go. I’ve seen those who forget to give back to the community be dismissed by the community. I’ve seen piles of money become piles of nothing simply from lack of authenticity. I’ve seen failure when there shouldn’t have been any; when failure becomes a choice. A choice of rebirth or rebranding. A choice to have character or to have none. A choice to be a phoenix or to be a victim. A choice for hospitality.
Earlier this year, I made a choice to travel from the top of the country to the bottom. From the North to the South. I’ve driven over ten thousand miles and talked to over ten thousand people. I’ve heard ten thousand stories. I’ve found hospitality and I know what it looks like. I’ve braved the icy cold of lake Superior and felt the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve cooked lobster on an isolated island and eaten scallops while diving. I found old friends and new friends. I’ve seen the most beautiful of sunrises and the most brilliant of sunsets. I’ve swam with eight-hundred pound giants and slept underneath eight-hundred thousand stars. I’ve been to mountaintops and the depths of bluest sea. And I’ve been home.
Today. I get to be a dad. I get to be a son. I get to be a friend and confidant. I get to raise my children with a community of love and support. I get to be a part of a huge family. I get to sit around the table with my sons and discuss the hurts. To celebrate ourselves. To laugh and cry together. To look each other in the eye across a freshly cooked meal. Just to be for each other. They do an amazing job of raising me. I get to be involved in the love and lives of those around me. I get to be better and to give back. I get to go forward. I get to fail. And to succeed. I’ve traveled all over the world and known the comforts of home. And this is hospitality.