84-Year-Old Port and the Dalai Lama

Written By Nick Hodge

Posted July 6, 2011

I spent the last five days wining and dining in Savannah, Georgia.

To be honest, I didn’t think about energy the entire time…

Instead, moments of enlightenment happened over 84-year-old bottles of port and on white sand beaches. And I’d like to share one of them with you today.

James Beard and the Dalai Lama

The Savannah trip came about because a lifelong friend moved there a few years ago from Maryland, and a thorough visitation was long overdue.

He works as a prep chef in a small restaurant a few blocks south of Forsyth Park, which sounds unimpressive — until you soak in some of the details.

The restaurant, Elizabeth on 37th, is one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Top 25 Restaurants in America.” Founding Chef Elizabeth Terry was the first female chef to cook at the James Beard House back in the mid-1980s. She won the James Beard award for Best American Chef in 1995, the culinary equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar.

The restaurant is now run by brothers Greg and Gary Butch, who started out as waiters in the restaurant’s early days and became partners in 1988.

Before my dining experience I’d been told by my friend the brothers were into Buddhism and were incredibly laid back and giving… so laid back, in fact, that they still wait tables every night.

We had the pleasure of Gary’s gastronomy and sommelier skills all evening. He tells you every ingredient when describing a dish, exactly how it was prepared, and usually where it came from. He describes the climate the grapes were grown in when discussing wines. And he had a personal relationship with most of the winemakers, many of whom have visited and stayed in the mansion restaurant.

Upon arrival, my date and I were given a table for three and informed my pal had been given the night off to dine with us. One of the best meals of my life ensued — and it wasn’t just because of the food and drink.

We didn’t order… We were guided through the entire menu.

Champagne toast to start, accompanied by figs grown on the restaurant grounds and topped with pumpkin seed oil.

Next, an espresso shot’s worth of mildly spicy gazpacho comprised of local tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.

Then came a bottle of German white — a rich, fruity wine made by a friend of the restaurant. We were assured it paired perfectly with a seared scallop topped with tuna and avocado tartar. And it did.

Housemade pickled okra. A Prince Edward Island mussel filled with tomato aioli. A small puff pastry made with housemade pimento cheese dough. We’re halfway through appetizers at this point…

Grilled local romaine served with housemade mozzarella wrapped around Virginia cured ham. This one, Gary assured us, would be amazing with a Northern Italian red with notes of tobacco and cherry. Again, he was correct.

Georgia clams simmered in a light broth with Vidalia onions, more country ham and truffle oil.

Several sets of silverware, more champagne and wine top-offs later, we paused for intermission.

It was at this point Gary — who looks like Benjamin Franklin with a shoulder-length mop and round specs — starts talking about the monks.

Seemingly cheery by nature, Gary’s face was aglow the entire night. His voice is soothing, and I felt as though I could climb on his knee for story time while he described dishes and wines with decadently delicious adjectives.

But his face really lit up when he started telling us about his relationship with Buddhist Monks.

This guy doesn’t just dabble in Buddhism; he has pictures with the Dalai Lama. And if his ethos isn’t already strong enough, those same pictures included Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu and Nobel physicists currently working on the Hadron Collider.

Imagine that dinner party conversation for a second…Buddhist Mandala

Anyway, the restaurant is frequented by monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, one of the “Great Three” monasteries of Tibet.

When they visit, they spend a week making a mandala, a sand painting created from individual grains. The process is accompanied by an opening ceremony, chants, and meditation.

Tedious does not describe it. These guys are making geometrically-intricate designs with dyed grains of sand.

And then, after a week of creation, the mandala is promptly destroyed to show the transient nature of everything on Earth. At Elizabeth, the work is dumped into a local river after a final ceremony.

More mandalas have been in the restaurant than in any other building in the Western Hemisphere — New York museums included.

Releasing Dopamine

Let’s talk about the house salad for a second. It alone earned its own write-up in Esquire Magazine.

The entire thing is grown in the gardens surrounding the restaurant — arugula, basil, cilantro, mint, fennel, marigold — and hit lightly with a house dressing and crumbled feta.

It was during this preface to the main course that the dinner started to develop its full meaning. Discussion of the monks, it turns out, is Gary’s drug of choice. I’m not much on that kind of stuff, but you can feel his energy when it talks about it.

He showed me the pictures I mentioned above and began telling me about a multi-million dollar water treatment project he’s spearheading for the Tibetan monks.

I learned Robert Duffy, the business mind behind the $5 billion Marc Jacobs empire, is a friend of the restaurant and frequently has them cater parties at his Savannah mansion, which I also visited. Robert has culled about $2 million for the project.

I also learned Gary is no academic slouch. He homeschools his 14-year-old daughter, and they’re currently covering quantum mechanics. (He can get some pointers from his physicist friends, I’m sure.)

Throughout the night, you could sense Gary’s humility. We’d say thank you and he’d respond, “No, thank you.”

He would say he didn’t know much about wine or food, that he was only repeating what he’d heard in the kitchen. He said he had little to do with the success of the restaurant or his relationships with globally-recognized intellectuals, and alluded that what was going on was bigger than him.

But it wasn’t until after the main course when the takeaway moment came: He served up more entrées than diners at the table.

Potato-crusted red snapper with butter bean hash… Pan-seared flounder with Georgia shrimp under a julienned cucumber and ricotta salata salad… Butterflied pan-roasted quail with rosemary potatoes… A 24-hour brined pork chop with five cheese macaroni and apple-cabbage slaw.

As we paused to stretch and digest a bit before dessert, I had to inquire further about the water treatment plant, as I’ve written once or twice about that kind of stuff.

When I asked if he’s put out requests for a proposal, the answer should’ve been surprising, but wasn’t. Gary is also friends with the family that owns J.C. Bamford (JCB) — the world’s third-largest manufacturer of construction equipment with over $3 billion in annual sales.

“They’re gonna cover it,” Gary said, again insisting he had nothing to do with it.

“They would’ve done some corporate giving anyway,” was the exact line he used to dismiss his contribution. Then he brought over a bottle of 1927 port to help us get ready for dessert.

As we ate the triple chocolate cake made twice weekly by a local pastry chef, I was able to glean Gary’s infatuation with Buddhism.

True Happiness?

It’s been known for some time that certain quantum mechanics theories share similarities with Buddhist beliefs. There’s a reason Niels Bohr put the yin-yang symbol on his gravestone. He and others you may recognize, like Albert Einstein, were the fathers of quantum theory.

My limited knowledge can’t do it justice, but the point here is these fathers of quantum theory came to the conclusion that the primary nature of the process of reality was mind or consciousness. This jives with the centuries-old Buddhist belief that “Nothing, such as atoms and so on, exist externally as anything other than cognition.”

Basically, both conclude that reality is what we make of it.

Buddhists believe life as we know it always leads to suffering or unhappiness that is caused by craving. And this unhappiness can only end when craving ends. This is the idea that you can’t really get something until you stop wanting it.

And I think it’s perfectly apt for the materialistic, my-life-is-better-than-yours-because-I-have-more-things-than-you-and-post-pictures-of-them-on-the-Internet culture that we’ve evolved to.

By all means, do what makes you happy.

But do it for your sake, no one else’s.

As the meal came to a close, Gary slipped the bill onto my corner of the table. After a few more sips of 84-year-old port, I opened the leather binder to see how much this lesson was going to cost me.

Exactly $0.00.

The long-haired, four-eyed waiter is truly happy.

Call it like you see it,

Nick Hodge

Nick Hodge
Editor, Energy and Capital


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