Gear Up: Unexpected Pleasures

Culinary adventures on Part 135 overnights.

Gear Up Unexpected Pleasures

Gear Up Unexpected Pleasures

** Shooting the breeze with a local hunting
guide while waiting for passengers in
Camilla, Georgia.**

All pilots must eat. Learjet pilots on an overnight have to eat. Due to unusual circumstances, I’ve participated in a variety of eating experiences while flying trips as a backup first officer in a Lear 31A for Elite Air of St. Petersburg, Florida. I say unusual because I am not your usual first officer. My captain, Jason Hepner, is 33 years old. I am more than twice his age (slightly!). Because I have enjoyed a long, happy, well-paying career as a cancer surgeon before I got the chance to fly for Elite Air, I can afford to spring for dinner (and sometimes a rental car) when Jason and I are on the road. This is just what dough is for.

It seems to me that paying for dinner is the least I can do as small compensation for having a patient, full-time, real-time, Lear flight instructor for free. Not only that, but I also obviously like the guy.

The third party in these culinary capers is my wife, Cathy. An avid restaurant sampler and an adept TripAdvisor, Yelp and Zagat navigator, she has manned the computer back home and set us up in some fine establishments. On our own, we’ve found some questionable joints.

An early February spate of flying found us in Addison, Texas (KADS). After a long day that started in St. Pete and left us sitting in Oklahoma City for eight hours, we finally ended up at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport. We staggered across the parking lot to Duke’s Original Roadhouse in blue jeans. When I ordered a martini, Jason acknowledged he’d never had one. There are many forgettable firsts in a pilot’s life, but your first martini is bound to be remembered. The event was so remarkable that Duke’s has since closed. No way they could top that night.

The next weekend had us back in Texas, this time at David Wayne Hooks (KDWH) near Houston. I rented a car so Jason could race me over to Houston International Airport to catch a United flight to San Antonio. From there, I drove to Kerrville to stay with friends and experienced for the first time the wonders of Dale’s Seasoning, a steak marinade. Try it. Left to his own recognizance, Jason reported he had tried “that martini thing” in my absence. No ill effects were reported.

A few days later, we blasted off for Philadelphia (KPHL) from our home base before the sun was up. Once at Atlantic Aviation before 8 a.m., we got in a crew car in search of a barbershop and a Philly cheese steak. At the former, I got a haircut at the hands of a woman who held a lighted cigarette in the same hand as the comb while she scissored away. This was even more ridiculous given that I have very little hair. The charge was $8 — fair enough, since there wasn’t much to cut; the secondhand smoke was free. We next found a local dive, the name of which I thankfully can’t remember, for that cheese steak. Seated next to a massive refrigerated case that chugged away continuously in an effort to keep the contents cold, we could hardly hear each other. The cheese steak was good — even at 9 a.m. We were to remember it throughout the day.

Still in February, we flew a client to St. Louis and back for the evening. Since I once lived in St. Louis, I called a friend who met us at a restaurant called Paul Manno’s Cafe. While our famous client did his work at a dinner downtown, we had the most exquisite pasta and iced tea. At 9 p.m. local, we met back up at KSTL for the flight home. We had our leftovers in a plastic box and so did the client, giving the Lear a nice home-cooked aroma all the way home.

Ironically, I was to dine at this same establishment three months later in the capacity of visiting surgeon. In this case, I was the guest of honor and everybody treated me like a king. Not everybody was fooled. The proprietor did pull me aside to say, “I saw you in here a few months ago wearing three bars and drinking iced tea; now they’re pouring the best wines!”

Just a week later, while flying a talented performer around the state, we “sat” at Orlando Executive (KORL) while our passenger did a show. While parked at Showalter Flying Service, I saw an office door marked “Bob Showalter.” As I inched inside, the friendly Bob greeted me like a long-lost friend. When I told him Cathy had lined us up at Linda’s La Cantina close by, he gave important counsel. “Get the butt,” he said. “It isn’t on the menu, and they will know you are a local.” I have got to admit, it was good. We got back to the airplane in plenty of time to review the catering for the midnight flight to Naples, Florida. Not only was the ice cream flavor (butter pecan) carefully checked but so was the brand (Haagen-Dazs).

It wasn’t until May that I got another trip, but the wait was worth it from a gustatory standpoint. We fetched up, you see, in New Orleans. I could not restrain myself from heading to Galatoire’s, the famous, timeless and peerless Bourbon Street watering hole. “Get the brabant potatoes,” I said to Jason. Bushed, I had to abandon him with the young crowd at the Roosevelt Hotel bar. You lose a step over time.

Two trips to the Northeast in the summer got us close to my summer stomping grounds in New Hampshire. On one night, we ate on a friend’s boat while floating down the Connecticut River. On the other occasion, we ate at Stone Soup in Strafford, Vermont, where the floor planks are an ancient 10 inches wide and the food is memorable.

In the fall, the destinations shifted back to Texas. During one long daytime sit, we rented a car in Georgetown and drove 70 miles to Llano for a barbecue lunch at Cooper’s. Remember, in Texas, driving 70 miles to lunch is not thought of as unusual. The barbecue, about which I have waxed ecstatic previously, is just plain remarkable. It would have been worth a 100-mile drive, easily.

I missed out on a few really great trips to California and New York but did manage to get an Austin gig. We ate at Perry’s, a high-end restaurant known for its steaks and chops. The food was great, and the entire experience was augmented by the careful handling we received thanks to those Kerrville friends. You see, their son is a manager at Perry’s. OK, then.

I had never heard of Tunica, Mississippi, until we had a trip there. Cathy reported casino-only dining but did note that Memphis was less than 50 miles to the north. Remembering John Hiatt’s song “Memphis in the Meantime,” we headed right for the Rendezvous. The hour wait flew by as we were regaled by other pilgrims, most of whom had traveled long distances by car to eat at this famous place. Barbecue is served with industrial precision, and the fans loved it. Don’t plan to loiter over dinner; the place is hopping.

Back in Austin, we ate at Twin Peaks. These “peaks” don’t refer to mountain peaks but to obvious endowments of the waitresses, who have clearly been selected for certain anatomical gifts. When I ordered a glass of chardonnay, a perky young woman with Chinese characters tattooed on her flank delivered a glass of red wine. When I protested that chardonnay was a white wine, she said, “Not according to the bar girl.” Chardonnay, cabernet, what’s the difference, really?

A winter’s eve in Asheville, North Carolina, got Cathy deep into reviews. She picked a tapas place rated the number-one restaurant in the city. Asheville is a high-end place to begin with, and Curate was a great choice. Half the tapas entrees I had never heard of; it was that innovative and invigorating. We sat close to a young couple on what appeared to be a first or second date. It was clear what the gentleman had in mind, but the lady was being careful. Jason and I had a bet on the outcome, but we never did find out how it went. It was fun to watch the thrust and parry.

Not all our stops have been for dinner. After one midnight return to St. Petersburg, we covered our uniforms with jackets and headed for the only bar we could find open at that hour. We would have stayed all night except we each got a text message almost simultaneously. Two wives, adept at tracking flights on as well as finding restaurants on TripAdvisor, had sent inquiries to their flyboy husbands: “Where the hell are you?” they both read. Thus busted, we headed home.

The chance to eat in a variety of places with a plethora of styles has been an unexpected pleasure. Flying for Elite Air has been rewarding on many levels, not the least of which has been the chance to have a martini with Jason after a long day of flying. All done according to FAA regulations and with a good measure of common sense thrown in, of course.