“Even when we scribble down wish lists, to-dos and checklists, we can’t predict how events will unfold,” writes AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras. In June, Figueras shifted from restaurant critic to reporter while dining at Lickety Split in East Point. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An Atlanta food editor’s year of unpredictable food experiences

It was about this time last year that I was sitting around a fireplace with my husband and our longtime friends, Marty and Troy.

Troy is a disciple of self-help guru Tim Ferriss, and has learned how to be successful, yet efficient, at work to enjoy the most from life.

That day, Troy was bemoaning that, as we age, we seem to fall into a rhythm of predictability and routine. We stop experiencing new things.

I disagreed. I’d taken up boxing, I told him. I also had goals for 2019, I said. For starters, I wanted to ride a horse. (My Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague Holly made that happen last month!)

Oh, but even when we scribble down wish lists, to-dos and checklists, we can’t predict how events will unfold.

This June, I shifted from restaurant critic to reporter while dining alfresco at newly opened Lickety Split in Hapeville. It was particularly surreal, because my dining partner was a former classmate at the Air Force Academy. Tim is now retired from the military, and works as a commercial airline pilot. He didn’t blink an eye during this Atlanta layover, which saw a round of gunshots from a parking lot across the street, people running for cover, and me taking photos of cop cars, yellow tape and an ambulance, and sending them to the newsroom. A half-hour later, we were back to catching up on old times between bites of hoecakes, collards and smoked turkey.

When I agreed to participate in Chow Chow, a culinary festival held in Asheville, North Carolina, in September, I had no idea that I’d end up chatting on a bench for 90 uninterrupted minutes with chef José Andrés. Just hours earlier, he’d been in the hurricane-devastated Virgin Islands as part of his humanitarian work with World Central Kitchen.

AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras reaches for a plate of paella from chef José Andrés at a food festival in Asheville, North Carolina. CONTRIBUTED BY LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The next day, I spotted José on the festival grounds as he entertained a line of fans eager to shake his hand and take selfies. He saw me, and mouthed the question of whether I wanted some paella. I nodded. I also passed my phone to the woman next to me and asked her to snap a photo when he gave me the Spanish rice dish. The beauty of that photo is that she never took a photo of José and me. It’s just me and José’s hand holding out a plate of rice.

You’d think that gunshots during a restaurant review and multiple José encounters would be enough for one year. Nope. The craziest day of 2019 was the day I stepped onto a chartered bus bound for a food symposium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I was so excited to go; I’d never been to Charlotte. I still haven’t been to Charlotte. The bus broke down in Buford.

Imagine: a comfy charter bus parked on the side of I-85, its hazard lights flashing, with exactly six passengers inside, plus a driver working his first day on the job.

The bus was so comfy, even in its broken-down state, that someone pulled out a cooler of beer — and a cocktail kit.

We waited and waited for assistance. AAA was coming, the driver said. An hour later, that hadn’t happened.

More cans of craft beer were cracked open. Someone pulled out a deck of cards and began to play solitaire. Soon, the bus was filled with conversation about American gin and other topics of import only to food and drink writers.

We might just be out of gas, the driver said. Help is on the way.

I didn’t have much confidence when “help” meandered across two lanes of interstate traffic lugging 5-gallon red gas cans in each hand. He then boarded the bus and announced himself as the director of operations and apologized for the inconvenience.

“We have an office in Charlotte. I don’t know how to make it up to you, but we will.”

He kneaded his gas-soaked hands together.

“Thanks for the apologies, but you smell like gas and we don’t want to die today,” said a fellow food symposium participant. “Please get off the bus.”

This year, AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras was supposed to attend a food symposium in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the chartered bus broke down. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The air in the bus suddenly felt stuffy. It began to rain.

No matter how hard or how many times the driver tried to crank the engine, it would not start.

My bus friends were content, confident that this whole ordeal would resolve itself.

Me? Not so much.

“I’m calling a Lyft,” I told them.

I never thought I’d have to send a Lyft driver instructions to pick me up from a bus on the side of the highway — and the extra detail to pull up in front of the bus, not from behind (safety first!).

It was 5:30 p.m. when I pulled into my driveway. I texted my food bus friends. The bus still was stuck on the side of the highway, but they were in a Lyft bound for the Brookhaven MARTA station, where we’d all parked our cars nearly six hours earlier.

The workday was shot on a broken-down bus. At least, the toilet was serviceable the whole time.

When I see my friend Troy this holiday season, I’ll tell him these stories. I’ll tell him that, as I get older, I do find myself wishing to fall into a rhythm of predictability and routine, but not so much that I miss out on a mini food symposium on the shoulder of I-85 in Buford. Next time, I might even partake in the happy hour.

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