3 Months, Turned into 6 Months, Turned into Forever
MB: We moved to St.John in 1995 from upstate New York. I had 11 restaurants with 550 employees and 2 other partners. My wife Barbie, was teaching college at that time but we both didn’t like the long winters and we wanted to do something different. Confucius say “Don’t test the water with both feet”, so Barbie took a sabbatical from teaching and I sold my shares to my partners and they hired me back as a consultant in a marketing position. I took that job with me to St.John and we decided to try it out for 3 months.
Baptism by Hurricane
That turned into 6 months and then we had Hurricane Marilyn in September of ’95. It was a real game changer. For a kid who grew up in Long Island where you can get everything you wanted anytime, when I saw someone with ice after the hurricane, they became my new best friend! But the interesting thing that happened was that in separating my needs from my wants, I grew a lot as a person and discovered how great the St.John community really was. No one had anything and we all worked together sharing what we had and the support and compassion made life tolerable.
“That’s when Barbie and I fell in love with the place. Not for the usual things people recognize about St.John – the beautiful beaches – but the beautiful community.”
Growing a Son and a School
Jen: You and your wife Barbie have been involved in the Gifft Hill School since its conception and you both had a hand in shaping what is has become today. I know you were very motivated because of your son Jackson and you wanted him and his peers to have more educational opportunities. I personally had the good fortune to see you in action after you invited me to join you on the Gifft Hill School Board in 2009. The school has grown a great deal since then with remarkably, kids now coming from St.Thomas to attend! Why do you think Gifft Hill School is the very best educational opportunity in the VI?
MB: Let me say that our academic program continues to improve and evolve and that’s important, but when I look at the graduates of the Gifft Hill School, I see such emotional maturity because of the environment they are in and because it’s hands on and they are taught to be critical thinkers. There is a lot of experiential learning that goes on here. Lots of community events and access to stateside opportunities too. A really special thing is that there is this huge relationship with Iowa State University. One of their programs is the EARTH program which is really special. We are growing food and doing Farm To Table. This combination of learning about growing and the culinary arts are all part of what makes Gifft Hill pretty unique.
One of the Hottest Spots for Food & Cocktails, Virgin Fire
Jen: You own 2 of St.John’s most popular restaurants Sun Dog Cafe and Virgin Fire? Where did the name Virgin Fire come from?
MB: I first heard the name in the ‘80s. There was a gentleman in Fish Bay growing hot peppers and making hot sauce that he called Virgin Fire. I always really liked the name and thought it was elementary. Virgin – Virgin Islands, Fire – Grill.
Jen: Mmmmm. I really appreciate that a lot of your cocktails at Virgin Fire have some sort of musical association and your bartenders seem like chemists! My favorite Virgin Fire drink just happens to be the “Jimi Hendrix”. Is that your secret? Infusing music into your drinks?
MB: That’s a good one. We have some pretty inspired cocktails.
Jen: Do you have a favorite cocktail recipe from Virgin Fire that you want to share?
MB: Let me think on it. (pauses) I know, it’s the “Fresh Pineapple Fusion”.
Jen: Would you share the recipe with us?
MB: Sure, we take Stoli vodka and infuse it with fresh pineapple for about 18 days and then serve it with lemonade and club soda.
Recipe for the Perfect Day: Blue Water, Blue Skies, Blues Music
Jen: You’re a lover of the Blues. You play guitar, your wife Barbie plays harmonica. You’ve been involved in the St.John Blues Festivals for years, gone on the Blues Cruises. What are your top 3 desert island albums?
MB: Albums Jen? That sounds kinda antiquated Seriously, I have many but off the top of my head I would bring some Louis Armstrong, Etta James and some John Cleary.
Jen: What’s your idea of the perfect St.John day? Starting with waking up.
MB: Well, I really like to get up early before the sun gets too high. Especially if it has rained a bit the night before and all the plants look like they’ve been freshly watered and there is a light breeze. You just need to get out into nature and go for a hike, get on a boat or go to a beach.
Jen: Which is your favorite?
MB: I go to beaches by time of day. Super early or super late. Trunk Bay between 8-10 in the morning or 4-6 in the afternoon. It’s uninhabited for the most part. It’s just the best beach in the world. There are others too, I like Oppenheimer in the afternoon, it’s quiet. Getting on a boat and doing the BVIs or staying in the USVIs its just so beautiful to be on the water. Go for a swim and see all the sea life.
Jen: Mmmmmm. So continuing with the perfect day, what would be next?
MB: Is it happy hour? I would say go on over to Geko Gazebo for 1/2 price cocktails from 4-6, followed by dinner at Virgin Fire. I’d start with the the Cajun Crab Cake with the shrimp pan sauce. It’s sooooo good. For the main, my current favorite has got to be either the Shrimp and Grits or the Jambalaya.
Jen: I’m currently in the grits capital of the world here in Asheville where i’ve experienced some of the best grits ever. How do yours compare?
MB: I think these are AS good. We do a saffron grits with chorizo sausage and gulf shrimps. There is a high concentration of paprika in the sausage which helps to bleed out the flavor into the dish and we use the same shrimp pan sauce used in the cajun crab starter.
Jen: Mmmmm, my mouth is watering. Kinda sounds like a piaya with the sausage and seafood?
Jen: So, what are we doing next after dinner on this perfect day?
MB: Well I would be definitely looking for Live music! In season, Virgin Fire has music 4 nights a week. But there is music happening at a lot of different places. A good spot is the Beach Bar.
Jen: What makes you laugh Michael Barry?
MB: Lots of things. It’s a joyful place. Even the little things. Probably the wonderment of watching tourists discover this place. Even this morning I stopped and watched some tourists taking pictures of chickens scratching around in the bushes.
Jen: (laughs) Ah, the elusive St.John Chicken
MB: (laughs) They’re not that elusive! It could even be the donkeys or goats. Or I remember this one time being at Trunk Bay and a Spotted Eagle Ray jumped out of the water in front of us. There were some visitors near by and everyone gasped. Then I said in a loud voice to my son Jackson, “I bet you $100 it jumps again!” Sure enough it did. As you know living here for as long as you and I have, that they usually jump 2x because they’re getting rid of parasites, that’s their behavior right. But the tourists standing near us didn’t know this and said “How did he know that?!!” The moment was just magical and made me laugh.
Jen: (laughs) Those moments do tickle me too. Its seeing the island through fresh eyes.
MB: I enjoy hosting tourists and pointing them in the right direction. How to best go about enjoying St.John.
Advice on Paradise
Jen: What advice would you give someone who is visiting St.John or even thinking of moving here?
MB: On the visiting side, I would tell them to rent a villa or house. There are 700 villas here, with gourmet kitchens, hot tubs. Learn to drive on the left for a week. It’s fun. It’s a very efficient way to economically enjoy the island. And you get to have your own time table and be able to go to the beach or rent a boat when you want.
If someone wanted to live here, I would tell them paradise isn’t perfect and it’s not for everybody. Never say to your friends “I’m moving away forever!” Stick with what Confucius say “Don’t test the water with both feet”.
Jen: Yeah but it’s so much more fun to put both feet in at Trunk Bay don’t you think?
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