In October 2002, I bought a distressed restaurant in Charleston, in a marginal neighborhood across the street from a broken-down gas station on Magnolia Road in West Ashley.
I painted every chair in the place — twice — and every other surface in the building. I built a little tile bar on top of which I put a pair of funky lamps that I bought at a tiny vintage shop down the road. I hung a chalkboard I built, put a little neon sign in the window, and posted pictures of the people that I had met while working in Italy. It took me until January to get the place ready, though given all that time it really wasn't much to look at. I stocked the place, loading up on goods from Limehouse Produce on the back of my old Lambretta motorscooter, a source of great delight for Jack Limehouse. I hired James Trez as my first sous chef, though there was only the two of us. Later I found out his father was encouraging him to have a backup plan. Four servers manned the floor and small bar. There was no host person, no dishwasher, no advertising, and no operating capital, when we unceremoniously opened the door and never looked back.
In October 2007, I sold the restaurant to someone I knew would honor its tradition, Mark Kohn, one of my most trusted employees. The name of the restaurant, Al di La, can be translated as "beyond" in Italian. Those five years have provided and continue to provide me with a life beyond my wildest expectations.
I have since bought a farm in North Carolina, where I hope to make a greater impact and leave a smaller footprint. One day, with any luck at all, my guests will enjoy food I have grown on my property and drink wine from vineyards I have planted, in a building built from the trees I have cleared from my land.
On a farm there is time to reflect. When I make a slow pass on the tractor with the tiller down on a long row. While walking through my newly-cleared pasture with a heavy burlap bag in tow, hand-sowing winter rye in preparation for the vines next fall. Lying on a massive river rock just off the bank of the river apiece, the smooth stone warm from the summer sun, pants legs rolled up, feet dangling in the cool water, looking up at nothing but the sky. During moments like these, I'm prone to remembering the people, places, and things I have been blessed with in my life, and the memories of the people in Charleston and Al di La come to me often.
To me, as the owner and chef of a restaurant, it is of the greatest importance to take the time to get to know and treat with care those who come through the door. Perhaps the need to care for people is intrinsic in those who work in the hospitality industry, but for me, by taking the time to get to know and care about my employees, my suppliers, my neighbors, and my guests, my life has been enriched. I sincerely believe that a restaurant has its best chance to succeed and flourish if you demonstrate to those who work for you a sincere desire to treat others well, and then do it. Certainly the staff at Al di La flourished in that environment, and it became a part of their nature.
Indeed my only charge each evening before service was to "make people happy," and the question I asked the front of the house staff most frequently was, "Do we have happy campers?"
So during those moments on the farm when my mind finds time to wander, I wonder how all of the people that I came to know in Charleston are doing and if everybody is happy. I think back with pride about all of the people who worked alongside me, and wonder if they know I still think about them. I wonder if all the customers appreciate how privileged I feel for the opportunity of getting to know them.
I wonder if James Trez at Amuse and Michael Scognamiglio at Bacco, the two sous chefs who worked for me and went on to open their own places, are repeating to their cooks things I told them and if they are still telling stories about their time at Al di La.
Little things cross my mind too. Is Bill Davis still coming up on Saturday nights to try out his stand-up routines while the kitchen is putting out its last dinners? Is someone taking care of Mrs. Vera, cooking her food with olive oil only? The most difficult thing about moving is that there are a million little stories in progress that I may never know the ending to.
I am often asked, "How did you leave Charleston and a successful restaurant?" I hope I have left Charleston and Al di La in the same way I left Palladio, the beautiful restaurant I helped create at Barboursville Vineyards, and in the same way I intend to leave this world — in good hands and better off for my having been there.
If you are interested in finding out more about John Marshall's farm-to-table restaurant project, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.