About Me

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The Art of Hospitality

This summer got me thinking seriously about restaurant hospitality.

I spent a grueling four months as the wine director, sommelier and special events guru at the Hamptons outpost of a New York City restaurant that has been around for three decades and I noticed that the time-honoured tradition of hospitality isn’t quite… ‘hospitable’ … but then again, it’s like most everything else these days: a watered-down version of what it really is supposed to be.

Hospitality has become a business and restaurants are now ruled by accountants and their spread sheets rather than the convivial hosts who made you feel like the king or queen of the world.

A quarter of a decade ago, there used to be a small restaurant on the upper east side called Café Trevi. Charming and brick-walled, it sat no more than 40 people. It wasn’t particularly chic or posh or even sexy, tucked away as it was on First Avenue…not Madison, nor even on a tree-lined street between Park and Lexington…no, it was on the Avenue with a nondescript entrance.

I stumbled upon the restaurant completely by accident. It was late September and the skies suddenly opened and a monsoon-like downpour began. With no umbrella, not a cab in sight and several very long blocks from the subway, I took refuge under a yellow awning. Minutes ticked by and I was slowly getting drenched, my Jimmy Choos destroyed. I turned around and realized I was standing by a restaurant and looked curiously at the menu. A drink? I thought…and at the very least, a chance to dry off.

I walked in and was taking off my raincoat when,

“Signora!” a male voice with a lilting Italian accent said behind me.

I turned and saw a very dapper man in his late 50s, dressed in a grey suit with a blush-pink shirt and a purple tie and matching silk pocket square peeking out of his breast pocket, smiling at me as though I were his long-lost daughter.

I grinned.

“Allow me please,” he said helping me with my wet bag, my raincoat, handing it to the bored coat-check girl with too much makeup.

“Now…” he said, rubbing his hands together, “how about a nice plate of pasta and a glass of wine?”

And despite the fact that I was on my way to meet my husband for dinner, his suggestion sounded so perfect that I found myself nodding, thinking that I ought to just call Duncan and have him meet me here instead of the overpriced French bistro where we had reservations.

And that was my introduction to Primo Laurenti, the owner and maître d’ of Café Trevi where I ended up about three times a week until it closed.

I went to the restaurant not for the ambiance or the “scene,” because admittedly, there wasn’t much. I went, because Primo looked after me from the moment I walked in: he honestly made me feel like I was, in that moment, the most important person in the world to him…his words and gestures warm and comforting, never cloying or overbearing. He knew when to speak and when to melt away. And every single time, he seemed to know exactly what I wanted, when it came to food and wine, always suggesting delicious dishes that he would have the cook whip up.

I watched him with his other clients. He glided through the room, danced elegantly around tables, courting them, talking about food, wine or anything else. When the meat arrived, he would be there to debone it, or the fish, to filet it, or the sauce that he spooned.

I took everyone there. At the time, I was working for CBS News and one by one, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Mike Wallace, Bob Simon and Ed Bradley…all went to Café Trevi.

Primo had a gift…a very special one…he was the consummate host. It was a gift that cannot be bought or taught. You either have it or you don’t.

A few years ago, after leaving CBS News, I decided to study wine and became a wine writer and sommelier. Now, in the hospitality game myself, I often think about Primo and how he made me feel and I try to do the same when I talk to people about wine: warm and humble without an ounce of pretension. I don’t want to scare people about wine, I want them to enjoy it as much as I do. My greatest satisfaction comes from the enjoyment people get from trying a wine I have suggested.

Good hospitality creates memories and at the of the day, isn’t that what makes us all richer?

 

 

 

 

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The Quality of Life

Of late, I’ve been quite preoccupied with the idea of quality of life and what it really means to me.

I’ve always been a hard worker, whether it was in school or later when I started working…somehow, I was happy to put in long hours, trying to go the extra mile, keeping ahead of the 8 ball.

All through my 20s, 30s and 40s, I was convinced that if I could do better, my quality of life would improve, and so I worked feverishly, constantly striving, achieving, getting ahead, climbing the ladder, call what you will, but I felt that I needed to be the best I could be at whatever I turned my mind to.

For example, I took up flamenco dancing, first as a hobby and became so obsessed with it that I decided to move to Sevilla, the mecca of the artform. And not just that, I took it all the way to the top, dancing professionally, touring Europe and the like.

I turned my hand to cooking and would run home every evening to cook a rather grand meal for my then hubby, who affectionately told me that I probably wouldn’t stop until I ended up on Iron Chef facing off with Alain Ducasse.

I came up with an idea as to how to make the most of a small closet in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City and turned it into a business known as Garde Robe.

I love wine and drink it, copiously…but I turned that into a sommelier certificate.

Over achiever? Yes, probably.

But that was then.

Today, I am more concerned about happiness and being content and I realize that the smallest things bring one the greatest pleasure, if one slows down and stops for just moment to notice them.

I was at a friend’s house in Sag Harbour recently and she had the most beautiful, vibrant watermelon pink peonies on her front table. Something about the flowers got to me and later that evening as I walked on the beach enjoying the sunset, I realized how little it takes to make me happy: the sight of a flower, the feel of sand between my toes, a kind word, a stranger’s smile, a melody of a song that reminds me someone I once loved…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pack up and go off and live La Dolce Vita in a villa in Tuscany…as much as I would love to, I can’t afford it!

I still work hard and I love being busy. But my most precious moments are when I am deep into a manuscript and the words are flowing off my fingers appearing magically on the computer screen, or a walk in Central Park with the dog when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or when I have friends over for dinner and the food and wine and laughter make for indelible memories, or even something as simple as a walk along the River Seine in Paris on a bright, sunny Spring day.

What all this means is that balance is key to a harmonious life.

Work…of course, we all have to. But time for oneself and time for those in our lives will only enrich us even more. And time is honestly the greatest gift one can offer.

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For the Love of a Prince

I had all intentions of watching the royal wedding this past weekend.

But I slept through the alarm, woke up late and had to rush off to work.

Later that Saturday night as I served a delicious 2015 Puligny-Montrachet from Jean Chartron, I was asked by the gentleman who was tasting the wine if I’d seen the wedding on television.

“Alas,” I replied chagrined. “I did not.”

“I woke up at 4:30am,” he said proudly. “It was spectacular.”

As I poured the wine around the table, I was reminded of that day in late July 1981 when Harry’s mother, Diana married Prince Charles.

Barely a teenager, I remember being riveted to the screen of the television, tears pouring down my cheeks as Diana arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, looking every bit the princess that I, and every other young girl dreamed of being.

Sadly, it did not turn out well for Diana, but her sons seem have done rather well.

I was disappointed that I had missed watching the Harry/Meghan wedding because there was something about them that appealed to me, much more so than the wedding of Harry’s brother William to Kate.

It was because Meghan’s is a Grace Kelly-esque story: the beautiful American who marries her prince. And her smile: it was open, warm and so genuine.

As I sat in bed and watched the videos and the images, I was struck by the visible, almost tangible love that one could discern between them: it was so honest, so open, so overwhelmingly charming. Was it because she is an American, I wondered? With none of the British reserve? Perhaps?

But honestly, it was the picture-perfect fairytale wedding: the dress, the church, the castle, the carriage…this was British royalty at its best.

She looked every bit the princess and he the prince.

But even so, it looked simple and uncomplicated…mainly because it was all about their love and how radiant and passionate it was.

Watching them together, I was reminded about how precious and rare love is. And that was before I heard the sermon from Bishop Michael Curry.

Seriously though, love really is what it’s all about…love in all it’s different forms: platonic love, romantic love, filial love…however you choose to define it, love really does win in the end.

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Mecca

On a recent visit to Paris, I went on a pilgrimage to what I think is the mecca for writers…: the Bar Hemingway in the Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendome.

It’s a small bar all the way in the back of the hotel, a bit of a walk through the long, luxurious corridors lined with vitrines filled with the wares of luxury brands catering to the wallets of the rich and famous.

The dark and manly bar, all wood and leather, is small, cozy and filled with Hemingway paraphernalia that includes an old typewriter, which I believe may have been a Royal, but I’m not entirely sure…and a large bottle of Tabasco sauce next to it.

I smiled as I looked at it, running my fingers over the keys. I love typewriters (I had one in college). This one was very similar to the Royal, my old boss, Dan Rather, had in his office and just as in the bar, alongside it, a bottle of Tabasco. Indeed, Rather always traveled with a bottle of Tabasco, telling me that it killed every germ imaginable, and now I wonder if Ernest Hemingway did too?

I sat next to the typewriter and ordered a glass of champagne. I thought about ordering a sidecar or a martini, which I believe was Hemingway’s drink of choice, or certainly the drink he ordered when on August 26th, 1945, the day Paris was liberated, he stormed the bar with a group of fighters from the French Resistance, picking up a tab for 51 martinis…but champagne is more my thing.

As I sat, sipping my bubbles and munching on olives and cashews, I somehow felt transported in time. One glass turned into two or perhaps more and on my umpteenth drink, I strangely felt as though I was part of that very elite crowd that frequented the bar…Marcel Proust, Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald…at a time when they were not part of history, when they were, like me, literary or creative figures trying to make ends meet…and the Bar Hemingway was their local.

As I sat looking around at the letters, photographs, animal skull, boxing gloves…oh and the shotgun above the bar, I was so reminded that Hemingway was first a tough, unapologetic son of a bitch, a hardened journalist and a man who broke the mold. I was reminded then just how much he had in common with Dan Rather.

I remembered the four words Rather told me the day I started working for him: “Tell Me A Story.”

And I never forgot.

 

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The Name Game…Kim Akhtar vs. Maha Akhtar

Despite having lived in New York since 1982, my career as an author was launched in Spain a decade ago.

It was 2008 and I remember clearly sitting in a marketing meeting with my publisher who suggested that I use Maha Akhtar as my nom de plume. ‘It’s so much more exotic,’ she said,‘and it will play well here in Spain. People will be able to relate to it.’

‘Maja’ in Spanish means attractive, and then of course there is ‘La Maja,’ the famous Goya painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

I agreed because I had previously used the name Maha Akhtar when I had danced flamenco professionally in Seville and had developed quite a following. So why not? It would only help book sales.

But now, as I navigate the choppy waters of New York City’s publishing world, I find myself in a ‘name’ conundrum. Everyone in New York knows me as Kim Akhtar…after all Kim Akhtar has lived and worked in New York since 1982…that’s a long time.

So when I went to create a website, I spent some time thinking about which name would reign supreme.

In the spirit of democracy, it was decided that the website would be Kimberly Maha Akhtar. It has all the names. Kim, which is really short for Kimberly and Maha…so if one of my Spanish readers wants to find me, they can, and if my agent wants to tout and sell my oeuvre, potential publishers can find Kim!

Which brings me to this blog post.

As a writer, I have long resisted joining the world of blogging only because I thought that writing books was enough. Not so, said my agent. You have to blog. You need a platform. Publishers no longer look at the quality of the writing, the plot or the characters…today they look at how many followers you have on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook…sadly, social media determines what books get published.

Over fifteen years ago, when I was still working at CBS News as Dan Rather’s right hand, I remember Dan telling me that he wanted to start a blog. A blog, I said. Why? Why would you want to reach a few hundred people online when you are the anchorman of the CBS Evening News and 13 million viewers watch you and listen to you faithfully every night, five nights a week. Because, he replied, blogging is where it’s at.

Boy, was he right.

Today…everyone with a voice and an opinion or an idea can share it online…on their blog.

The rise of social media has forced everyone out in the open, breaking down doors, urging everyone to share, share, share…everything.

Private life…what’s that?

Secrets…really?

Anonymity…nah…or perhaps if you live in the middle of the Amazon or the Sahara. Even so, the internet is open 24/7, 365 days a year.

Ahhhh…the power of the media. Yes, there was a time when journalists like Dan Rather and Peter Jennings wielded real power… heads of state trembled before interviews, prepping, studying, rehearsing before they faced these men.

Today, that power has passed to blogs, tweets and posts.

So, here I am, with…a blog, another shameless self-promoter that joins the ranks. I’ve written five books, all five published in Spain and throughout Latin America and am finishing up my sixth, hoping to finally find a publisher in the US.

I also write for others, ghostwriter, speechwriter and I edit other people’s work.

I don’t have an agenda, so what I intend to share are interesting anecdotes about places I’ve been to, foods I’ve tried, wines I’ve tasted…more of an old-school travelogue…or a modern-day Herodotus. Not that I could ever aspire to be as grand as the old master…but you never know who might read me 2500 years into the future.

Welcome to my blog: “Stories about life, food and wine.”