I grew up in North Carolina. After moving to New Mexico in 2003, I discovered that there are certain things I’ll always miss about the south: southern cooking (like biscuits, which never really get quite as fluffy and crumbly up here at 7,000ft), the feeling of grass between my toes, rivers and lakes and streams and creeks everywhere. One thing about the south that I look for everywhere I go (and that is more often than not hard to find) is good old-fashioned southern hospitality.
When I grew up, I was taught that the guest gets the best. This wasn’t an inconvenience or something to gripe about; it’s just the way things are done. Even if you don’t have lots of money, your guest should get the best of what you’ve got: the best linen, the most comfortable chair and the first piece of the pie. Being treated like royalty really does something for a person—you start to feel cared for and appreciated and at home. When I go back to North Carolina to visit, I know my mom will have the bathroom ready with fresh towels and washcloths and a brand new bar of soap. She’ll say, “I put fresh sheets on the bed and gave you the nice down comforter, in case you get cold.” She’ll offer to cook whatever I want, suggesting favorites from childhood like black eyed peas and collard greens. I couldn’t possibly feel more at home. All the money and glamour in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t make a person feel comfortable and welcome.
I have a very good friend in the restaurant industry who told me once that there’s a big difference between service and hospitality. Service is making sure the guests have everything they need: water in their glasses, napkins on their laps, food delivered on time. Great service is like a nice new machine—all of the parts run smoothly and it does what it’s supposed to do. But great service can never be complete without hospitality. Hospitality is how a place makes you feel. My favorite breakfast spot in Santa Fe is The Pantry Restaurant. Simple food and a diner setting with chunky white coffee cups and no-fuss silverware on paper napkins. But when I walk through the door the servers smile. They know me by name. They know what I’m going to order and what I want to drink. They smile and wave and ask me about myself. I feel welcomed and appreciated and I’ll go back every week instead of choosing someplace new, just for this experience.
Hospitality is just as rewarding on the other side of the counter as well. I love to cook—there’s something relaxing and therapeutic about cruising through a cookbook and deciding on a recipe, then pulling what I need out of the fridge and organizing the operation: onions here, sweet potatoes there, green beans and garlic in the small pan and chicken in the oven. I get lost in thought while I chop vegetables or get absorbed in BBC radio programs while I sort lentils. But for me, the best part about cooking is the pleasure it brings to others. I can spend all day on a recipe and think, geez, this was too complicated, all I want to do now is clean up and finish with this. But when I serve that bowl of Bouillabaisse to my boyfriend and he says, “Wow! This is so awesome!” while gobbling down three bowls, I feel very warm and fuzzy on the inside.
This is why, for me, a restaurant isn’t just a place to eat. A server isn’t just someone who refills your wine glass and a cook is more than the preparer of food. Hospitality has the power to transform a meal into something greater, whether you’re at the table or the stove. The greatest host is the one who welcomes you in, like you’re a neighbor from two doors up the road.