Christmas Day dining

Georgia Trend Magazine. December 2021.

The holidays are a time to come together with family, create new memories and be grateful for the years past. But it’s easy to get stressed by the thought of planning the perfect meal that meets every dietary need. We leaf through cookbooks and magazines that show beautiful dinner spreads and try to emulate them, before realizing holiday magic is not going to turn us into Martha Stewart.

So give yourself a gift: Check shopping, cooking and cleaning off your list and leave it to the professionals, who can bring joy to your table. Many hotels, resorts and restaurants are offering special Christmas-day menus, buffets and to-go meal kits. Here are a few to consider.

Lunch at Callaway Gardens

Settle down with your loved ones at the Piedmont Dining Room inside The Lodge and Spa at Pine Mountain, for a scrumptious lunch buffet that will satisfy all ages. The menu includes gourmet salads, imported cheeses, chilled seafood bar, carving station, hot entrees and a selection of holiday desserts. There’s even a children’s (free for age 5 and under) table with their own helpings of chicken fingers, tater tots, and macaroni and cheese.

Afterwards, drive through the seven-mile-long Fantasy in Lights Enchanted Forest and take a stroll through the new Callaway Christmas Village. And if you don’t feel like driving home after all the food and fun, you can stay overnight and make it a Christmas getaway.

Buffet in Savannah

If you want to savor the flavors of the Lowcountry, head over to the 700 Drayton restaurant located inside the Mansion on Forsyth Park. The special buffet features a “Savannah Experience” showcasing a southern take on classic Christmas dishes. Chef Daniel Herget prepares fresh food using locally sourced ingredients. Also included are bottomless mimosas and live music. Before dinner, explore the historic Victorian Romanesque mansion, Hidden Carriage Wine Cellar and the extensive art gallery on site.

Bake it at Sea Island

Sea Island, the Golden Isles’ favorite resort, offers several options to dine-in or take home a special Christmas dinner. The Market’s Take-‘n’-Bake menu features customizable family-style a la carte options to bake at home. Pick up seasoned and ready to cook cider-brined whole turkey and herb roasted prime rib, along with all the fixings, such as traditional Sea Island Southern collard greens, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes and Southern mini bacon corn muffins. Don’t forget dessert – gingerbread cheesecake or a chocolate chess pie to enjoy by the fireplace.

Or have the chefs at Sea Island’s Dining and Catering Services do it for you – you can place an order for an artfully prepared Christmas dinner and pick it up between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Christmas Day. Choose from three featured menus, with a minimum order for four guests.

Brunch at The Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta

The opulent Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta has an annual Christmas day brunch featuring individually prepared delicacies as part of live-action cooking presentations. Twelve curated serving stations offer everything from caviar and lobster ravioli to smoked roasted duck with sour cherry glaze and salt-brined prime rib with port wine sauce.

The star attraction is the vast dessert spread hand-crafted by executive pastry Chef Erica Lee. You can get a preview of her tempting yule logs, Christmas tree cupcakes and candy cane cake pops by following her Instagram page.

Happy holiday dining!

~ Written for and published by Georgia Trend Magazine. All rights reserved.

Spooky sips and bites

Georgia Trend. October 2021.

Tis’ the season! With pumpkins, turkeys and candy on our minds, the last quarter of the year is all about celebrations over food. Restaurants and bars across the state are getting creative with food and drink items to get customers into the celebratory spirit. Whether you’re tickled by edible ghost candies, mummified meatballs or eyeballs in your drinks (don’t worry, these are made with green olives), trick or treat yourself with these Halloween-themed specials.

Continue reading on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website…

Treat Yourself: Georgia’s delicious ice cream shops

Georgia Trend Magazine. July 2021.

Though the past year has unfolded as a rocky road for most food businesses, frozen desserts have continued to be a low-churn industry. Think about it – no one is in a bad mood after eating a cup of banana pudding ice cream!

“Making gelato makes me happy,” says Atlanta-native Meridith Ford who had a knockout opening of Cremalosa, just before the shutdown. “I get a big kick out of doing this!”

Ford pivoted to selling pints to-go and half-off bottles of wine for picnickers who wished to enjoy her outdoor patio. Now that you can walk into a chilled ice cream parlor again, here are some of the best places around the state to treat yourself.

Continue reading on Georgia Trend.

Have a Georgia-grown backyard BBQ

Georgia Trend. April 2021.

On these warm sunny days, some of us are inspired to venture out into the backyard more often. Perhaps you are dusting off the lawn chairs, planting a vegetable garden or firing up the grill. It is a promising time to reap seasonal produce and refresh weeknight menus with lighter recipes and locally sourced ingredients.

Georgia has received justified recognition for its peaches, pecans and poultry, but other homegrown offerings can easily stock your pantry with essentials and more. From grass-fed meat and artisanal cheese, to quality honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, BBQ sauces, spice blends and marinades – there’s a long list of Georgia products you can use to create a bright and flavorful backyard BBQ. Continue reading on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website…

Power Lunch at Home

Georgia Trend Magazine. February 2021.

Lunch hour is no longer a brief escape from the office that we once looked forward to. Instead of catching up with colleagues at a delectable restaurant, now we juggle between video calls, checking in on the kids, taking the dog out and grabbing a quick nibble. But a power lunch is doable without having to go out to a restaurant or gulping down a “power” smoothie. Here are some ways you can fuel your weekday work meals safely to stay productive and alert during a pandemic – and beyond.

Continue reading on Georgia Trend Magazine

Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

Hospitalioty_2_Nov2020.jpg

At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

Hospitalioty_3_Nov2020.jpg

Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

Traveling Close to Home – Discovering Hidden Gems in Georgia

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2020.

Georgia is the largest state in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Though most people think of Atlanta when they plan a trip to Georgia, the state also offers a variety of historic landmarks, remote hiking trails, evergreen golf grounds, pristine lakes and independent wineries. To explore the entire state, you may need to plan several weekend getaways to different parts. Here are a few notable spots that will allow you to social distance and still feel like you are on vacation.

Rock City Gardens 

Leisurely walk through fourteen acres of trails, caves, waterfalls, and plant life at Rock City Gardens. Here you can see 200-million-year-old rock formations, as well as the surrounding seven states. There are lots of photo opportunities along the way, one of the most famous ones being from Lover’s Leap on Lookout Mountain. Kids and those young at heart will love the artistic recreation of famous fairytales in an underground Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village located inside the garden.

Rock City in Georgia
Pictured: Rock City | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are a few charming inns to spend the night at nearby, but if you want to experience something unique, book a stay at the luxurious treehouses at Treetop Hideaways. These unique cabins are located in a secluded area but offer modern amenities including heated floors, air conditioning and kitchens.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Less than 90 minutes from the city of Atlanta, the city of Blue Ridge is home to the Appalachian Mountains, scenic national forests, hundreds of waterfalls, and freshwater lakes. This is a good place if you like to hike, bike, fish, horseback ride, or whitewater raft. Make sure to walk up Amicalola Falls, the tallest cascading waterfall in the South and check out the ancient wall at Fort Mountain State Park inside Chattahoochee National Forest.

For a quieter pace, take a scenic drive, relax by the fireplace at one of the cabins or shop for handmade jewelry and crafts at Momentum on Main in downtown Blue Ridge. Stay at The Overlook Inn, a cozy family-run inn perched on top of the mountain with stunning views of the valley. Here you can be spoiled with spacious rooms with in-suite Jacuzzis and hearty Southern-style breakfasts.

Currahee Vineyard & Winery
Pictured: Currahee Vineyard & Winery | Photo credit: Ralph Daniel

The Peach State also produces some good quality wines. There are over 40 wineries in North Georgia that offer tours as tastings, as well as live music events on the weekends. Sip on sweet muscadine and blackberry wines or full-bodied malbec and cabernet franc while relaxing on the porch, overlooking a sunset.

Savannah

Several small towns make up Georgia’s rustic coastline, offering a combination of secluded beaches, fresh seafood, boutique shopping and Southern history. Cobblestone streets covered with Spanish moss make Savannah a dreamy city that you would only find in the movies. Over 20 city squares make up the Historic District of Savannah, the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States. Simply walk through the streets and discover old churches, Georgian mansions and fine arts. The River Street area has a number of restaurants overlooking the Savannah River where you can taste Southern specialties such as fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, fried chicken and biscuits and peach Bellini.

While in the area, if you want to spend more time at the beach, head to Tybee Island nearby.

Around Atlanta

If you have only passed through Atlanta for a convention or airport connection, now is the time to learn about some of the historical and cultural sites around the city.

Home to one of the largest movie studios in the country, the sprawling 33-acre Tyler Perry Studios has historic buildings, 12 sound stages and 18 sets that include a baseball field, a jail and a replica of the White House. The studio had plans to begin public tours in 2020, but Atlanta Movie Tours can take you to Tyler Perry’s Madea house, as well as behind the scenes of hits such as “Black Panther,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hidden Figures” and “Selma.”

Center For Civil and Human Right
Pictured: Center For Civil and Human Right | Photo credit: Albert Vecerka

Some of the sights where you can learn about African-American history and culture include The King Center – a living memorial dedicated to legendary civil rights leader and Atlanta native, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Center for Civil and Human Rights showcases moments from the American Civil Rights Movement and Global Human Rights Movements throughout history. The African-American Panoramic Experience (APEX) tells the story of people of the African diaspora.

Be sure to check location websites for COVID-19 updates while planning. Request a 2020 Travel Guide to explore these Georgia destinations and more by visiting https://www.exploregeorgia.org/.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

From Le Cordon Bleu to the Cafeteria: Mihoko Obunai Is Changing School Lunch for the Better

Chowhound. May 2020.

In Japan, school lunches are part of an overall education. Students are involved in serving wholesome menus to one another, eating together in classrooms, and cleaning up after themselves. There are no big kitchens or cafeterias with different menu choices. Everyone at school eats the same meal, like one family. This is the same vision Tokyo-born Chef Mihoko Obunai has for children in the U.S.

Continue reading on Chowhound

Atlanta Airport Guide: How to Make the Most of Your Time at the World’s Busiest Airport

For Travel+Leisure. Feb 2019.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport aka ATL is the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic and number of flights, accommodating an estimated 104 million passengers a year, traveling on almost 1 million flights. Most passengers connect through ATL, making it an entry point into the United States and a global gateway to Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and South and Central America.

Here’s a list of ATL maps, transportation, parking, food options, and more. Continue reading on Travel+Leisure’s website….