Features Lifestyle

SoCal Couple Start Homestead in North Idaho to Grow Own Food, Raise 10 Kids in Traditional Lifestyle

It was mainly for the well-being of their 10 children that Carolyn and Josh Thomas struck out to start their own family homestead 1,000 miles from their home.

Their life in Southern California had been all about chasing a check, climbing the ladder, and getting ahead. They were used to following the crowd.

It was when their first son was born and it came time for his first round of vaccines that the parents became concerned about their lifestyle.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

“The doctor had told me that the nurse was going to come in and give the baby two shots,” Carolyn told The Epoch Times. “Well, when the nurse came in, she gave the baby three shots. And both Josh and I have this very clear memory of these three different shots.”

They didn’t think much of it at the time; they were just so used to deferring to what the authorities said.

“When we went home that night, he had a reaction to the vaccines,” Carolyn added. “It made us really wake up and start paying attention and decide that we needed to be in the driver’s seat of our life, and we needed to be making active decisions.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

So the family grew … and grew, and grew. In 2007, Josh and Carolyn made up their mind to purchase a tiny plot of land where they grew their own food; and they awakened to the wonders of what the earth can provide their family. It wasn’t much, but the learning process was essential for what came next.

“We started really learning about the skills of cooking from scratch, making our own bread at home, canning, dehydrating, and different types of preserving,” the mom said. “We wanted to give our children the gift of health and very robust, healthy bodies, and also have the skills of producing our own food and growing our own food. Because at that point, it just started to be way too expensive to buy the amount of food that we needed at the quality we wanted.”

In order to feed their family well, they eventually scaled up to a 20-acre property in Tennessee where they raised their own beef.

They finally bought their 40-acre plot in northern Idaho in 2018.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

“The reality is, if you go right to a lot of acres, you won’t have the skills you need in order to actually use them properly or well,” Carolyn said. “You’ll probably get overwhelmed by the experience.”

Yet tough times were right around the corner. In their local area in 2014, employment was scarce, and Josh found himself without the income they needed to sustain their expanding family. Little did they realize that their sustenance lay right beneath their feet.

“We still wanted to eat high quality, nutrient dense, and organic food, but there was just no money to buy groceries at all,” Carolyn said. “And so we really took it to the next level and started growing a huge amount of our own produce, and all of our own meat and dairy, and the fruit for preserving it.

“It really was an important moment for us, as we learned how to do this on a scale that could actually take care of our family and feed ourselves and be self-sufficient if we needed to.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

By now, they knew what to do with the land and how to make the best use of it: The family established one large, main garden for growing their staple crops—such as potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and garlic, as well as big rows of broccoli and cauliflower. Then there were the perennials—grapes and raspberries.

Adjacent to the house, there is the “cottage garden,” as Carolyn calls it, which is right outside the kitchen. Here, she grows her herbs for seasoning, lettuce and cherry tomatoes for a quick salad, and a few flowers.

Then there is an area out front they call “the forest garden” where they have their fruit trees and some wild edibles tucked here and there.

But beyond mere sustenance, life on the homestead has helped the children bloom—not just in terms of developing good health and natural immunity, but also in their character and confidence.

“It allows each member of our family to know that they’re valued and a valuable part of the family,” Carolyn said. “We all have what we call ‘morning chores’ and ‘evening chores,’ and everybody knows what they need to do in order to get all the basics done.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

Some will be out feeding the animals or rotating the livestock; others will milk the cows, bring in firewood in the winter, or work around the house.

“We find that the kids, when they’re very young, they want to help,” the mom said. “They want to be involved and they ask to be involved. So when we start giving them chores, when they’re two and three years old, they really want to do it because everyone around them is doing it too.”

There’s nothing more natural for a family than life on a homestead. It’s how people have been living for thousands of years.

It may seem novel to some city folk, but the Thomases are just getting reacquainted with what comes naturally. Far from being hooked up to their devices 24/7, or becoming lazy teenagers, all these young ones are early risers. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas have to tell their kids to stay in bed until 6 a.m. They homeschool their kids, and they are happy.

Getting off the grid (they’re not totally there yet; commodities like coffee, etc. are store-bought) was mainly a family lifestyle choice for the Thomases. But in the chaos of the world today—with inflation, looming food shortages, and other uncertainties—the family believes it’s the responsible thing to do. By learning how to be self-sufficient, Carolyn says, we become less dependent on the government and thus more free.

Homesteading might be a check against government overreach.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

Besides chores, Josh and Carolyn are now sharing their journey and skills with others. Having started their own YouTube channel and family brand called Homesteading Family, they teach their skills by posting multiple videos per week.

In these, Carolyn has gotten into old-fashioned, traditional cooking. Having dusted off a classic 1700s recipe book, she has unearthed some hearty, wholesome treats like a wonderfully robust pumpkin pie as well as deliciously simple bread pudding, and much more.

Yet she knows not everyone has access to a 40-acre farm. Many of her viewers live in the big city, but there are still things they can do to be more self-sufficient.

“Learn how to cook from scratch, learn how to make better buying decisions, learn how to bulk buy food and store it, even if storing it means you’re putting it under a bed or in a closet somewhere,” she said. “A lot of people think of living a lifestyle that is prepared and more self-sufficient as something they should do in case the world falls apart, some big event, or something major that happens on a large scale.”

The reality is that our great grandmothers and grandfathers always lived a more prepared lifestyle.

“Historically, it’s the normal, wise thing to do, like the parable of the Ant and the Grasshopper,” she added. “Work when it’s work season and put up your food, and have what you need for the off seasons.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

From February Issue, Volume 3

Features Lifestyle

Mountain Scout Survival School: Be Prepared to Handle Everything from Wilderness Survival to Urban Emergencies

When disaster strikes, Shane Hobel is the guy you want by your side—or better yet, the guy you want to have taught you how to deal with it.

A former stuntman, bouncer, and motorcycle instructor, Hobel has carved out an interesting route to running Mountain Scout Survival School in upstate New York. Two influences have shaped him since an early age: nature and martial arts. His reverence for nature was instilled by his family and Native American heritage, as well as many elders along the way. He also holds a fifth-degree black belt in traditional Okinawan karate.

He is one of five elite trackers in a nonprofit national tracking team founded by Tom Brown Jr. to find missing persons, including lost children, disoriented hunters, and fugitives. (Once, he tracked down a black panther on the loose in the Palisades, New York.) With no hesitation to crawl and wade through any environment, he’s also the man people hire to look for breaches in their home security; he has also been called on to consult for the U.S. military.

Hobel started teaching survival skills to children in after-school programs, then expanded to adults. Successive waves of interest came from “macho” types, outdoor enthusiasts, survivalists, and families. But the largest growing demographic over the last four or five years has been women.

Hobel considers it his duty to preserve, protect, and pass on the skills he teaches to the next generation. (Samira Bouaou)

Driven by a mama bear instinct, women have grown unsettled by a world that seems anything but predictable, Hobel says, and are taking the initiative on behalf of friends and family. “One woman said, ‘Can you take my husband for 30 days?’” he remembers.

“There’s a quiet desperation of people wanting these skills. They don’t want to be labeled as doomsday preppers or conspiracy theorists—they just know there’s a simple phrase: ‘Being prepared is being responsible.’ Somewhere deep down, there’s a feeling that ‘you can’t expect anybody to come and save you. You just have to take it upon yourself to do these skills,’” he said.

Don’t Panic

It can be easy to feel panic-stricken at the thought of emergency preparedness. But as Hobel points out, those who have adopted a proactive approach toward preparation are already on the way to a healthier mindset.

“If something goes wrong, it’s not going to be a surprise, it’s an anticipated change. … With people who have skills, it becomes just a nice vacation, something that is not so terrifying. It doesn’t have to be extreme survival,” Hobel said.

When it comes to children, it’s especially important that “if something happens, this is not a crisis. This is an exciting adventure.” Be upbeat and positive, and you’ll see that your child is able to keep up with you. “But the moment the child realizes it’s a disaster, they’re not going to give you that energy.”

If you suspect a disaster is about to take place, “Jump in the car, go to Jersey, go to some Airbnb, go have some strawberry shortcake. If nothing happened, you took a day off, good for you. But if something did happen, you’re at an Airbnb with strawberry shortcake and you’re watching the world burn from a distance, but at least you’re smart enough to get out on the first wave.

“So your approach and how you go about it will be the attitude of success. If I start off as a victim, so I will become.”

Hobel shows how to make cordage using a double reverse wrap from found materials. (Samira Bouaou)

Survival Skills Are Ancestral Skills

Under a fall canopy of beeches and maples, Hobel muses about the current state of the world. His reference points: raccoons and squirrels.

In an era of distraction and modern conveniences, it’s easy to become passive, going about life immersed in technology but not necessarily connected to other people. Like raccoons, we are distracted by the newest and shiniest toys and gadgets.

Squirrels, however, think about the future. In the fall, “they’re making provisions now for something that is about to happen. Quite more often than not, they dig up somebody else’s nuts. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but their medicine is thinking forward. And making these provisions is why people are coming here,” he said.

Hobel is hopeful that people are bringing along friends and family. “It’s great support because you can’t do this by yourself.” Going alone would require a very high-level set of skills, he explained.

Mountain Scout Survival School covers typical survival school topics such as shelter, water, fire, and food, but it also teaches tracking, awareness, and movement. (There are legendary tales of men and women who could survive in the wild and move about undetected.)

The outdoor camp at the school shows some of the students’ work: strong lashings to make fishing spears, and tongs (“fancy chopsticks”) to move coals onto short stumps to form drinking cups. As they burn, they create a hollow that can be polished with a river stone. Scale it up and you can imagine how to make a canoe.

“Nature is the great equalizer—fire, cold, hunger, bears—none of those things [care] what your religious status is, your political status, your job title,” Hobel said.

The skills that Hobel feels are his duty to preserve, protect, and pass on are actually not survival skills at their core, but ancestral skills.

Shane Hobel runs Mountain Scout Survival School in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. (Samira Bouaou)

These skills were “extremely sophisticated,” though coming from “what we deem a very primitive time. We are living in a very sophisticated time but we are in fact quite primitive,” Hobel said.

Some Native American prophecies mention a time of upheaval on Earth, marked by food and water shortages, diseases, natural and man-made disasters, and war. After a period of chaos, humanity will find itself in a primitive place again, left to rely on these ancestral skills.

“I do this because I want people to be closer to the earth and live a beautiful, harmonious life. I don’t do this to prepare them for the Armageddon. But they’re empowered just in the event of.”

At his school, people have “a physical space by which they can come, be around the medicine fires, learn these empowering skills.”

 Traditional Knowledge

Ultimately, Hobel wants to pass on the knowledge of these ancestral skills to children, explaining, “I want to put this back in the elementary schools and junior high schools, where it belongs.”

Hobel, who works seven days a week, has no shortage of ideas and projects—though not enough help and funding to make it all happen. He also has a nonprofit, Arrows of Honor, for veterans and first responders, that aims to address PTSD. He envisions them coming around the fire, becoming instructors, and then going back to their hometowns to teach children and adults these skills—and be looked up to.

“They have to be returned to ceremony, back to fire, back to being a warrior again … to realize that all of that trauma is not theirs—it was theirs to experience but it’s not theirs to keep or hold on to.”

In the end, it’s a journey of self-discovery.

People come to Hobel’s school thinking they’ll just learn about shelter, water, and food. “But what they realize is, ‘this is a journey to myself’—because it’s you that has to make that fire and shelter. You have to get out of your own way to be successful.”

A backpack can either be conventional (pictured here) or tactical, though the latter might attract more attention. Another alternative is to wear a photographer-style vest with many mesh pockets for your items and wear a coat over it. (Samira Bouaou)

Getting Out of Dodge

Unusual for a survival school, Mountain Scout Survival School, in Hopewell Junction, New York, two hours from Manhattan, teaches both wilderness survival and urban emergency preparedness—a hot topic, given 70 percent of people currently live in urban areas.

“The subject matter is overwhelming,” admits Hobel, who consults for private groups as well. In quaint gatherings in brownstone apartments, small groups come together around food and wine, focused on developing a solid plan to get out safely should a disaster happen.

The skill set required in the city is different from being out in the wilderness. The bottom line is, there is no sustainability in the city; it is wholly dependent on supplies coming in. In case of danger, Hobel advises city dwellers to get out with the first wave of exodus. Though you can stay for a little while, “eventually you’re going to have to go. My suggestion would be to go with the waves and don’t go alone; if you’re a solo operator, you’re just a target. Remember that the most scary individual in the world is a hungry person.”

The topics include communication options and protocols, plans detailing meeting points and how to get there, resources along the way, safety, and the big subject of go-bags—emergency backpacks to take when you leave home.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Hobel saw many companies sell generic, sub-par go-bags. He still urges consumers to be wary and do their research, since these kits aren’t adapted for your personal circumstances.

Go-bags can range from a 24-hour bag designed to get you by with the bare minimum, to the 36- to 72-hour bag (the most common), to what Hobel calls a “sustainability bag,” which can sustain you indefinitely—as long as you have the skills.

You also need to consider the time of year, and know your plan: where you’re going, who’s going with you, how fast or slow you need to go to accommodate the slowest member of your party, and whether you can replenish items along the way. Make sure to have a couple of exit routes in mind, and know how you’re getting to your destination.

Every member of your group of family or friends should have a go-bag, “packed and identical.” Crucially, get out and practice with it.

And learn the skills: If you lose your go-bag, “your skills don’t go in the bag and they stay with you; for example, first aid and CPR—start with that. You can help yourself and then you can help others,” Hobel said.

From January Issue, Volume 3

Features Lifestyle

This Family-Owned Seed Company Is Telling—and Saving—the Stories of Heirloom Seeds

The Persian melon, a honey-sweet, orange-fleshed variety dating back to its namesake empire and the progenitor of all American cantaloupes, was a standard in American gardens for two centuries, but it is now virtually unseen and in need of rescue. Montana lavender clay corn, with its striking, deep purple kernels, was blended by a Montanan corn breeder who used a Mandan tribe variety that once passed through the hands of Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson. The buena mulata pepper, a chameleon variety that fruits violet and pink, then ripens through orange and brown to a final red, was extremely rare but rescued from obscurity in the 1940s by Horace Pippen, a black veteran and folk artist who traded his seed collection for therapeutic bee stings.

All of them heirlooms; all of them now safely kept and made available to gardeners around the country to grow for a few dollars. This is the world of Jere Gettle.

Heirlooms: The word itself has an emotive effect, something meaningful, something passed down, something belonging to the family. And indeed, many of these are generational family treasures, fruits and vegetables that have been around and passed down for years. For Gettle, they appeal to his “passion of always finding something new and unique, and telling the story about a family, a region, or country where [it] came from,” he said. In 1998, when he was 17 years old, he founded Baker Creek Seed Company as a tiny, one-man purveyor dedicated to finding and sustaining these myriad varieties. Today, with his wife, Emilee, and a staff of more than 100, Gettle manages the largest catalog of heirloom seeds in North America.

The seed company, named for a creek not 1,000 feet off the back door of its public store, occupies 17 acres 5 miles north of Mansfield, Missouri, a town of about 1,200. Yet this year, Baker Creek is mailing out 1.5 million full-color seed catalogs filled with more than 1,000 heirloom plants.

(Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

Humble Roots

Gettle grew up in the Boise Valley, but on the Oregon side of the border—an area of great soil, he pointed out. “Everyone pretty much farmed or gardened at least on some scale,” he said. His paternal grandmother, born in Mexico, lived on the same property, growing the crops she remembered from her childhood; his other grandmother lived 15 miles down the road and raised many varieties of squash. His parents grew and preserved much of their own food. They’d visit cousins “and everyone was basically talking about what they were growing, what was ripe.”

His earliest memories are of the garden, of spending time there with his grandmother, and of sitting nearby as she cooked tamales and other homegrown foods over an old wood stove, while he, curiously, paged through seed catalogs—the way other kids might flip through comics or story books. “It’s kind of how I almost learned to read,” he said.

“I got interested really early in all the different colorful vegetables, flowers,” he said. “Everybody was always planting something, so it got me started.” Even as a child, Gettle grew unusual items, such as scallop squash and banana melon, a yellow-rind melon with salmon-colored flesh and a hint of its namesake’s flavor. By the age of 9, he was sending off for his own catalogs, and his dream to work with a seed company took root.

(Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

The family moved to Montana when he was 5, and then to Missouri when he was 13, settling on a 176-acre property—becoming only the third family to have occupied it since it had been parceled out in land grants in the 1830s and ’40s. As a teenager, Gettle started saving and trading seeds. When he was 17, he made a 12-page price list of all his seeds and distributed it to family and friends, and he placed a classified ad in the rural newspaper. He ended up making photocopies for 550 people who responded requesting the list. That was 1998, and thus Baker Creek Seed Company was born.

Branching Out

Gettle became a lifetime member of Seed Savers Exchange, and the internet opened up a lot of connections, pushed him forward, and piqued his interest in the diversity that was out there. One of the first varieties he received, and his company introduced in the United States, was the Ali Baba watermelon. “It was sent to me by a gentleman in Iraq in 1998 or ’99,” Gettle recalled. “He said that due to the war going on in Iraq, he was afraid it was going to disappear, and he wanted to keep it going. And when we tried it, it was the best-tasting watermelon we’d ever grown. It had a hard rind, kept well, had great flavor, and it was one of those varieties that had been around in Iraq for a long time.”

He obtained a greater understanding of what was out there in the wider world, and what was disappearing in American catalogs. His passion for the seeds became a love of travel and discovery, and he ventured to the corners of the Earth to track down interesting varieties. Even now, when he has the opportunity, he travels to places like Southeast Asia, Japan, and Guatemala to learn about what people eat and grow.

Walking Stick kale is an old variety grown in Europe for centuries, primarily on the island of Jersey, where it was said to grow up to 20 feet tall. Crops grown from Baker Creek’s seeds average 6 to 12 feet. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

Seeds even brought Gettle and Emilee, his wife, together. Emilee’s father had farmed and her family home gardened, so, naturally, she ended up with a Baker Creek catalog, and the two met at the seed store. They had two kids, adopted two more, and another is on the way. Acorns don’t fall far from the tree: Several of the kids, ages 7 to 17, have traveled with their parents on “seed discovery missions” abroad to collect seeds, eat interesting fruits and vegetables, and meet people with a shared commitment to preserving seeds and growing their own.

Direct Lines

Baker Creek’s seeds are not necessarily all heirloom, which Gettle calls an engineered term meaning traditional or old varieties. An “old” variety is a matter of perspective, relative to a person’s age, he noted. But they are all open-pollinated—plants naturally pollinated by bees, birds, the plant itself, or by hand, rather than selectively cross-pollinated with other varieties, as hybridized seeds are. “It’s either an heirloom or well on its way to becoming an heirloom,” Gettle said.

The key here is consistent preservation: Unlike hybrids, which don’t always produce enough seeds, nor seeds of the same variety, heirlooms breed true from the seed that you saved. This is imperative for those relying on their gardens as an independent and secure food source. That consistency also maintains a direct line to cultural heritage while preserving biodiversity, a crucial aspect that protects us from disturbances in the ecosystem.

Orange Accordion tomatoes boast juicy, meaty flesh and can easily reach 20 ounces each. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

The term also does not always mean rare, Gettle said—“You can get some of them at Ace Hardware and anywhere else”—but the majority of what Baker Creek offers is not readily available. “Those are the varieties I really specialize in.” As an example, he points out the Kuroda carrot, a short, sweet, stocky Japanese heirloom that grows well in strong summer heat. “We have black carrots, red carrots, yellow carrots. We have one of the larger collections of everything put together in one place.”

It makes it hard to choose a favorite. Ask Gettle what he likes best and it’s as if you asked him to rank his children. He doesn’t commit but eventually simply starts naming whatever lovely thing comes to mind, and each comes with a story. The Okinawa white bitter melon, for instance, is unique to their catalog. “We were looking for an old version, but all we found were hybrids. But then we found a few pounds of it in Okinawa, and I picked up my first seed packet in Japan about five years ago. They are bright white, amazing-looking on the vine, and [have] a milder flavor. They can be used for soups and curries—and also make a great pickle!”

Growing Gardeners

In Gettle’s second year in business, the Y2K problem grabbed all the headlines. “There was a big interest in homesteading and gardening,” Gettle recalled. “We went from 550 catalogs to around 7 or 8 thousand.” The 2008 financial crisis showed similar growth. Any time people face financial uncertainty, Gettle sees the rush to grow their own food.

Jere Gettle (R) harvests sweet corn with his grandmother, Bertha Hernandez Gettle, 1983. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

And again, uncertainties over the last couple of years drove people to the garden. “Some were gardening for food, some were gardening for food and relaxation, and some just wanted to do something that got their minds off of everything that was going on,” Gettle said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons people do it—besides, everyone just loves fresh tomatoes.”

Now, in addition to their print catalogs, the Baker Creek website (, which boasts the “largest selections of 19th-century heirloom seeds from Europe and Asia,” attracts 1.2 million users per month. They fill about a million orders per year, with an average order size of 13 packets, and customers now order more often throughout the year, not just in spring. The largest demographic groups are the 24- to 34-year-olds and the pre-retirement group, 55 to 65, but those differences are not large, and even the 18- to 24-year-olds are getting into it.

Baker Creek is for gardeners who want a lot of choices, Gettle said. “If you’re just looking for a radish, you’re probably just as good going into a hardware store. But if you’re looking for the best paste tomato or the best orange paste tomato? We have some options—better flavor; or sweeter, lower acid; larger size; or a different color.” The company grows a variety of crops on its Missouri farm, and it also works with about 200 growers, gardeners, and small seed producers.

(Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./

“People have gotten away from eating the same old varieties,” he added. Think the ubiquitous Red Delicious apples and Cavendish bananas, easy to ship and blemish-free in the produce aisles. These commercial varieties, Gettle explained, are mostly bred for shipping, while heirlooms were originally bred for local consumption—so whether or not it bruised easily or ripened in transit didn’t matter when it only needed to travel across the yard to the dinner table. His customers “miss the flavors from when they were children, or they learn about the different flavors from the farmers market or a restaurant or their neighbors, and it gets them excited once they start growing the different varieties. It’s hard to quit trying different things.”

For Gettle, the joy of working with these heirlooms always comes back to the bigger picture. It’s about learning the stories behind these unique varieties and “being able to pass [them] on, and connecting people with their food cultures and gardening cultures, and connecting it all back together in a way so that they can relive their past—with their grandmother, their ethnic culture or country,” he said. At the same time, it “introduces people to other traditions and foodways and ideas about food—as well as, you know, flowers and gardening.

“It all feels good, it feels like something we should be doing: connecting to my family, and other families, and at the same time building a more sustainable local community where people grow some of their own food.”

From January Issue, Volume 3

Features Entrepreneurs Lifestyle

Etiquette Coach Myka Meier on How True Grace Exudes from a Heart of Kindness

Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette and the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program, knows first-hand that knowledge of the codes of etiquette does not come automatically. “If anyone can learn it, I can!” she laughed. Bright-eyed, lively, and smiling, her exquisite poise is familiar to anyone who has watched her short, fun, and informative YouTube videos. Despite having a natural grace that many might consider unattainable, Meier’s humor and openness gives her warmth and makes her relatable—and makes the rules of etiquette seem easy.

She believes that they are! She offers classes through her New York-based international etiquette school; has a YouTube channel providing tips on how to tie a scarf, how to withdraw from toxic relationships, and how to drink tea properly; and has published two books on etiquette, the first of which sold out in 24 hours. Her business is thriving, and people are hungry for more. So, what is she teaching, and how is she teaching it, that makes something apparently so old-fashioned seem relevant, meaningful, and necessary?

Etiquette is for Everyone

The word “etiquette” can seem intimidating, stuffy, old-fashioned, and overbearing. And yet, in the West, we look to certain figures with pride and perhaps even reverence for their poise, control, and perfect grace. Princess Diana, bending sweetly to take the hand of a child in India; slender Kate Middleton, seated with her legs slanted off to the side. If we love to observe these people, then perhaps we do not find grace, poise, and good manners so stuffy after all. Do we, in fact, wish to be more like them ourselves?

(Courtesy of Myka Meier)

Meier’s approach to etiquette is the opposite of stuffy and overbearing. With her wide smile, she laughed and told anecdotes of social blunders she has made. She referenced pop culture and celebrities to keep her content up-to-date. She gave classes fun names, like “The Duchess Effect.” But more importantly, she has an underlying guiding philosophy that people are keen to hear.

For Meier, at the heart of good manners, poise, and grace is compassion and respect for others. Yes, you might be impressive at your next job interview, but what you’re really signaling with your polish is kindness, care, and consideration for the people around you. She said, “You’re doing what is the most respectful, kind, and considerate thing in that moment—it’s about emotional intelligence.”

It was emotional intelligence that made Meier want to learn more about etiquette. She was living in London, the only American working in a British company, and she realized there was a kind of unspoken code of behavior that was foreign and mysterious to her. In a desire to feel more comfortable and avoid social gaffes that created awkward situations, she took her first etiquette class. “I must have made every mistake in the book,” she laughed.

She was astonished at how much more confident she felt after taking etiquette classes, and she noticed how, once she stopped feeling so shy and anxious in social situations, other people around her seemed more at ease as well. One of her teachers had been Princess Diana’s aide, “and she taught me all the things that she taught Diana, and I thought, wait a second, here I am, just a middle-class American practicing something that I thought you had to be a princess to learn.”

(Courtesy of Myka Meier)

Once she saw that etiquette was something anyone could learn, and that it was fun and transformative, she started holding fun cocktail parties for her girlfriends and teaching them tips. And word spread. “Soon enough,” she recalled, “we would have massive dinner parties where I was teaching everybody over dinner the correct formal etiquette. I thought you had to be born with it. But I realized that etiquette is just about kindness, and showing respect and consideration. Anyone can learn this.”

She started Beaumont Etiquette in London first, and in 2014, she opened an office in New York. In 2016, she partnered with the iconic Plaza Hotel in New York, and the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program was born. “I love doing this,” she said. “I teach confidence through etiquette.”

For etiquette classes to be appealing in America, she said, they have to be relevant, approachable, and relatable. She started her classes by creating a judgment-free zone where people can ask her anything. She told her classes to forget everything they think they know about etiquette: “I want to retrain everyone in here to think about this social skill set in a new way.”

How Etiquette Works

The word “etiquette” comes from the French royal courts of the 17th and 18th centuries. When Louis XIV’s gardener realized that aristocrats were trampling his gardens, he put up signs, “etiquets,” to tell people to keep off the grass. Later, the idea expanded to social events, where the signs told people where they should not stand or what they should not touch. “So,” Meier explained, “historically, it was about showing respect in a social environment. Now, fast forward to today. Really, it’s the same. It’s about showing someone through your actions, and your interactions, and your words, that you are there in a peaceful and friendly spirit, and that you want to do what will make them feel most comfortable.”

Etiquette lessons with Meier’s team are available both in person and online. (Courtesy of Myka Meier)

Meier’s approach teaches people techniques that they can put into practice immediately and use every day. “There’s no point in teaching a skill set that you use once a year,” she said. Her classes offer people real-life tips that can change the way they interact with people and their environment immediately.

For example, she teaches the “WWHC” formula for starting a conversation anywhere with anyone. First, ask a question beginning with “what.” Follow with a question beginning with “why,” and then one starting with “how.” Give the person you are talking to a break from questions by following up with a compliment. This shows how closely you’ve been listening to their answers and how appreciative you are of what they said. By this time, conversation should be flowing nicely, and you’ve put the other person at ease.

Similarly, making an effort to dress nicely when you are meeting someone not only makes you feel good and well put together, but it also shows the other person that you put thought and care into your appearance. Dressing nicely can be as simple as wearing an ironed shirt, tying a bright scarf around your neck, or slipping on high heels.

“Please just relax, have fun,” Meier said. “This is a judgment-free zone, you can ask me anything.” Within the first five minutes of her classes, she takes the intimidation factor out of etiquette lessons by getting people laughing: “I usually crack some kind of joke to make people feel comfortable or give an awkward story or scenario that happened to me, just to make them say, ‘Oh, okay, she’s normal.’” In human interactions, it is normal to want to set others at ease, and following the rules of etiquette is the way to do it.

From January Issue, Volume 3

Features Entrepreneurs Lifestyle

Why a Corporate High-Flyer Left the Big Pharmaceutical World to Become a Holistic Health Coach

For Christine Dunst, co-founder and CEO of Embody Wellness Company, “the word ‘transformation’ always resonated deeply when thinking of how I wanted to serve this world,” she said. It had to begin with her own.

In her mid-20s and -30s, working 70-hour work weeks to climb the corporate ladder in the New York healthcare world—while living on processed veggie burgers, diet coke, and restaurant food—left her diagnosed with several stress-related illnesses. At 33, she had two miscarriages that “shook me to the core,” she said. “I knew I needed to fundamentally change my lifestyle, manage my stress and diet, and look deep inside.” Watching her sister fight and lose a heartbreaking battle with an eating disorder strengthened her resolve.

She became a certified integrative holistic wellness coach, and now draws upon her experience to help others—both individuals and corporate clients, which have included Google and Morgan Stanley.

“This matters on a soul level to me,” Dunst said. “It’s more than a job. Serving others is what makes me feel alive.” She spoke to American Essence about her own wellness practices, her work helping others, and the life-changing power of tiny habits.

(Samira Bouaou)

American Essence: How do you start and end each day?

Christine Dunst: I wake up at 6:30 daily. I do a hand-on-heart, 12-minute, deep-belly breathing gratitude meditation before I even get out of bed. Then I say my mantra and think about how I want to show up to the world today. Mindset is key. I follow all that with hot water and lemon to alkalize my body and stoke my metabolism, and then make matcha and ashwagandha for antioxidants and de-stressing goodness.

My non-negotiable nightly practice is a Dr. Joe Dispenza meditation for 20 minutes in my daughter or son’s bed as they fall asleep. My kids now ask me (and their father, who practices Falun Gong meditation) to meditate with them nightly. It’s special.

My daily rituals help destress my nervous system and tone my vagus nerve. Small habits, like gifting yourself the time for self-care rituals, done with consistency, can have a profound impact on your life.

AE: What do you typically eat in a day?

Mrs. Dunst: I cultivate and trust my intuition, so my body tells me what I need to feel good. I eat real, whole food and limit processed junk, sugar, and gluten. I also believe in eating organic and local and limiting exposure to toxins.

I’ve been plant-based for 20-plus years, but now eat wild-caught fish and grass-fed organic meat on occasion. I often incorporate gut-healing foods like fermented vegetables, celery juice, bone broth, collagen, prebiotics like garlic and onions, as well as digestive enzymes and probiotic supplements. I also load up on antioxidants, anti-inflammatory foods like ginger and turmeric, and healthy fats like nuts and seeds, EVOO, and wild salmon. I can’t forget adaptogens; they have been a lifesaver for me. Stress wreaks havoc on the body and adaptogens help keep me balanced. I add them to my matcha, tea, or smoothies.

I try to practice mindful eating daily, slowing down and actually chewing food—it matters! It improves digestion and helps you absorb nutrients more effectively. I’m really trying to curb my habit of eating while standing up. Never perfect, always growing.

AE: What are the most common issues you see your clients dealing with?

Mrs. Dunst: We see many clients who have gut issues—constipation, bloating, weight gain, and feeling lethargic, irritable, and anxious—and may not relate these symptoms to their gut. Eighty percent of immunity resides in your gut; it truly is like a second brain.

Habits we see include beating themselves up, guilt, self-sabotage, and overall speaking unkindly to themselves. We are constantly working on mindset re-writing. Working with clients to celebrate their successes and challenges is positive psychology, which starts to shift their perception of themselves, and teaches them to celebrate themselves in their thoughts and actions. Changing our thoughts impacts our current and future reality.

AE: What’s your advice for someone who isn’t sure how to start on his or her own self-improvement path?

Mrs. Dunst: Start identifying why you want to improve; then, define what you want to improve. During our first session with a client, we always help them create their exact goals and success metrics. Having this in writing is powerful. We have them print and say their goals every day so that they are their guiding force in all the decisions they make.

Pick one or two micro-habits you can commit to, and start there. Maybe it’s drinking half your body weight in ounces of water a day. Great! Commit to this for 14 or 30 days. Then layer on additional habits.

De-stress your nervous system daily—examples include deep-belly breathing or a gratitude practice—even if you start at 1 to 2 minutes. Move daily, even if it’s a 10-minute walk. Small habits, done with consistency, can have a profound impact.

AE: What has been your biggest life lesson over your years as a wellness coach?

Mrs. Dunst: Letting go. Especially after illnesses, a car accident resulting in a TBI and neck injury 6 years ago, and losing my father and sister within months of each other, I have a deep faith in something bigger than myself guiding us all.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
From January Issue, Volume 3

Features Food Lifestyle

Jacques Pépin Didn’t Mean to Stay in America—But He’s Become the ‘Quintessential American Chef’

If you’re inviting Jacques Pépin to Thanksgiving dinner, you’d better have turkey on the table.

How about something else this year, you might venture—a nice roast chicken, or a glazed ham?

“I don’t want to do something else,” the chef would kindly, but firmly, inform you. “I want to have a turkey for Thanksgiving; I want to do Brussels sprouts and sweet potato and an apple tart.” The bird has been a non-negotiable since Pépin’s first Thanksgiving in 1959, two months after he arrived in America as an eager young chef with experience working in Paris’s most prestigious kitchens. He fell in love with the spirit of the holiday—“There is no political affiliation, no religious affiliation; it’s just people getting together, enjoying food, wine, and company,” he said—and with America itself.

“I only came to stay a year, maybe two years, to learn the language, and go back to France. I loved it and never went back—except for vacation.” Since then, the transplanted Frenchman has taught millions of Americans how to cook.

He’s the author of 32 cookbooks, the most recent being “Art of the Chicken,” published in September 2022, and a longtime host of PBS cooking shows—including one with his dear friend and fellow pioneering TV chef, Julia Child. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he’s continued to offer confidence and comfort to anxious, sheltering-at-home viewers with the award-winning “Jacques Pépin: Cooking at Home” web series, in 280-and-counting 2- to 6-minute videos posted to Instagram and Facebook with the help of his daughter, Claudine.

Pépin with his daughter, Claudine, who often appeared in his cooking shows and now works with him on various projects for the Jacques Pépin Foundation. (Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

At nearly 87, Pépin still chops and sautés ​​with an efficient, effortless fluency honed over decades of experience. His narration is just as easy and precise, deftly doling out instruction as he breaks down a whole chicken or shimmies a perfectly fluffed French omelet onto a plate.

And after all these years, he still cooks with an unmistakable French accent—though he’d argue that it doesn’t extend so much to the food. “Very often, people consider me the quintessential French chef,” Pépin said from his home in Madison, Connecticut, where he’s lived since 1975.

“And then you open one of my books, and there on page 32, you have a black bean soup with banana and cilantro on top.” Pépin’s late wife, Gloria, was half Puerto Rican and half Cuban. “Then you have a Kentucky fried chicken from Howard Johnson. Then you have a lobster roll from Connecticut. So I mean,” he said, smiling, “I’m probably the quintessential American chef now, after all these years.”

Dreaming of America

Born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, a small town northwest of Lyon, Pépin grew up helping out in his parents’ restaurant, Le Pélican. At age 13, he left school to begin a culinary apprenticeship at the Grand Hôtel de L’Europe. By his early 20s, he’d worked his way up Paris’s culinary ladder, and, during his military service, he served as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.

But he set his sights on farther shores.

“America was always kind of the Golden Fleece for me,” Pépin said. “Most people who come to America come here for economic reasons, to have a better life maybe, or political reasons, or religious reasons. I didn’t really have any of that. I had a very good job in Paris. My parents had a restaurant. I was fine. But I wanted to come to America.”

At the age of 23, he made good on his wish. He arrived in New York in September 1959. He didn’t mean to stay for long, but life changed his plans.

Within 48 hours of arrival, he landed a job cooking under Pierre Franey at Le Pavillon, the pinnacle of haute cuisine in America at the time, and he soon befriended the “who’s who” of the burgeoning food world—chef James Beard, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, and, of course, Julia Child.

“People were extremely welcoming,” Pépin recalled, and he saw “the possibility of doing basically anything” in his adopted country.

Pépin teaches a cooking class at the Billings Forge Community Works in Hartford, Conn., in 2019, as part of the Jacques Pépin Foundation’s work with culinary training programs across the country. (Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

Spreading His Wings

Pépin took that possibility and ran with it. After less than a year of cooking at Le Pavillon, he was courted by the Kennedy family—regulars at the restaurant—to become the White House chef. He turned down the offer—he’d already cooked for presidents, after all—to instead take a job in a wholly new world: as director of research and development at Howard Johnson, then the country’s most successful restaurant chain, developing new recipes and pioneering high-quality frozen foods.

“That was a totally American environment, working only with American chefs and American eating habits,” he said. “I learned about marketing, mass production, the chemistry of food, all kinds of things I didn’t really know as a French chef.” When he wasn’t in the kitchen, ever the eager student, he continued his studies at Columbia University—eventually earning a master’s degree in French literature.

It was during his time at Howard Johnson that Pépin started writing down recipes, unwittingly setting a foundation for his future ventures. “At a regular restaurant, you learn by osmosis … and you duplicate what you do,” he said. “That was the way I worked in France for over 10 years; I never wrote a recipe, I didn’t have a cookbook. At Howard Johnson, of course, it had to be organized.”

Developing a chicken pot pie, for instance, started with a recipe using 3 chickens in the test kitchen, then scaled up to 20 chickens. “​​Eventually, we did 3,000 pounds of chicken in a thousand-gallon kettle pot. All of that has to be organized exactly in a recipe.” That experience with high-volume production proved crucial, he said, when he left Howard Johnson in 1970 and opened his own restaurant, La Potagerie, serving soups to the busy Manhattan working crowd, and later managed ​​food operations for the newly opened World Trade Center.

Sharing His Knowledge

In 1974, Pépin suffered a serious car accident. After a long recovery, he left the restaurant kitchen world to turn his focus to writing and teaching. He taught at Boston University, where he and Child founded the culinary arts certificate program, and he later became Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York (since renamed the International Culinary Center).

Pépin further extended his teaching legacy through the Jacques Pépin Foundation (JPF), the nonprofit he launched with his daughter, Claudine, and her husband, Rollie Wesen, in 2016.

As Wesen was assembling Pépin’s lifetime of books, videos, and other materials, Wesen asked, “‘Who do you think we should teach with these things now?’” Pépin recalled. “And I thought, maybe we should teach people who have been a bit disenfranchised by life—people who’ve come out of jail or former drug addicts or homeless people or veterans.”

(Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

Now, the foundation supports culinary training programs for adults with high barriers to employment across the country, through offering books, videos, and grants. In 2021, its grant awards totaled $167,500.

These programs take students who might be 40, 50 years old, Pépin said, “and we want to teach them the basics of cooking.” With that foundation set, “you can join a kitchen, start doing basic work, start going up by yourself, and get to redo your life and be proud of what you do and make a living out of it.”

When JPF’s fundraising decreased during the pandemic, Wesen asked acclaimed chefs from across the country to film cooking videos in their own homes, as Pépin was doing. “He asked like 50 chefs, from Daniel Boulud, to Jose Andrés, to Martha Stewart—no one said no,” Pépin said. “Then he asked 50 more, and then he asked 50 more.” The resulting video recipe series, ​​“Cook With Jacques Pépin and Friends,” is available to JPF donors. “Chefs are very generous,” Pépin said. “It’s part of who we are, to give away.”

Just the Essentials

Despite his age—“I am not a young man anymore,” he said with a laugh—the chef has hardly slowed down. “The secret is to keep busy and do things,” Pépin said. “If I don’t have anything to do, I kind of feel depressed.”

Of course, some things have changed with age. “I certainly don’t cook the way now as I did when I was 25 years old. When you’re younger, you tend to add to the dish, add more, make it fancier. At my age, you kind of take away, take away, take away from the plate, to be left with something more essential, something without too much embellishment.

“If I have a great tomato from the garden, have great olive oil and a bit of salt over the top, I don’t want more embellishment. This is it.”

What else has remained essential? The techniques, Pépin said, the foundational skills behind everything he cooks and teaches—and, certainly, the Thanksgiving turkey. He still insists on it every year, whether he cooks it himself or with his daughter at her Rhode Island home where he often goes for the holiday dinner. And then, more importantly, there are the people—the heart of every meal, the reason for cooking. “Being with your family and your friends together, you remember that more than the food itself,” Pépin said.

As a chef, he said, “What you do is, you feed people. You give pleasure to people by doing what you do. Even if you don’t become famous and all that, it’s a great way of spending your life.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features Lifestyle

James Beard Award-Winning Chef Chris Hastings on the Loving Family That’s Got His Back

Chris Hastings is comfortable in his own skin. Trim with short hair and glasses, he tucks his shirt in and speaks with the authority of someone on a mission—one of providing mouth-watering cuisine to his customers and fans.

Hastings has been around the culinary block a few times. In 2012, he beat Food Network star-chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and in 2013, Hastings received the top culinary prize in America: a James Beard Award. His Hot & Hot Fish Club has dazzled Birmingham’s sophisticated clientele using a modern approach to blend Southern food with French and Californian styles and techniques.

Hastings works with his family. His wife Idie runs the business side of the restaurant, and his son Zeb is a sous-chef. Their daughter-in-law Molly helps Idie with marketing and public relations.

Chef Chris Hastings in the kitchen of the Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)

“We opened the original location of the Hot & Hot Fish Club in 1995. When we opened, everyone thought we were crazy because the location was questionable,” Chris said. Then, with a mischievous smirk, he continued, “We have made it work, though. And now, in this new location at Pepper Place, we are really cooking.”

The new Hot & Hot Fish Club is in the Pepper Place district of Birmingham, filled with artisans, galleries, and other creative ventures. The Hastings family opened the restaurant six weeks before the pandemic hit.

“When we opened here in Pepper Place, everyone was so excited, the staff, our loyal guests. Then, the pandemic hit,” Idie said. “We had no idea how long we would be closed, but it dragged on. We finally opened in October of 2020, and it’s been terrific.”

Chris and Idie have been married for 34 years and have worked together for 27 years. The couple enjoys being with each other despite having different management styles.

Bone marrow with short rib and mushroom risotto. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)
Roasted beet salad with pecan granola, sheep’s milk cheese mousse, arugula, and blood orange gastrique. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)

“The two of us working together is like the yin and yang. I may not agree with everything Chris does, but at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it,” Idie said. Chris laughed, winking at his wife, “Exactly. But believe me, everyone knows who the real boss is.”

Chris studied as a chef at Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Providence, Rhode Island. He then moved to Birmingham and worked for legendary chef Frank Stitt as chef de cuisine of Highlands Bar & Grill. After a stint in California, the Hastings family returned to Birmingham and opened the Hot & Hot Fish Club, followed by Ovenbird, another restaurant in the same district.

The Hastings family loves the farm-to-table process. “We have the best food artisans and purveyors here in Alabama,” Chris said. “I truly love what I do; it’s what wakes me up in the morning. And I adore working with my wife and my family. I can’t do much of anything else, but I love being a chef. I love the tasting and handling of food and the creation of the dishes. To this day, it’s exciting every day. I live for that feeling I get when I know the dish is right.”

Hastings’s son Zeb, who is also the sous chef at the restaurant. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)
Prime New York strip with roasted potatoes and grilled rapin. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)

Chris has had his share of high-profile accomplishments. He has appeared on the Martha Stewart Show and the Today Show. He has impacted the culinary scene in Birmingham and the South at large. His two restaurants, Hot & Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird, continue to receive rave reviews. But one honor rises to the top.

“Beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef was just … sweet!” Chris said. “We practiced for two months. Then we competed and created five dishes around sausage. When they announced that we won, it was surreal. That moment will probably live forever.”

Idie peered at her husband, nodding. “When they said, ‘And the Iron Chef winner by one point is—’ there was this silence for what seemed like forever. Then they said Chris’s name. I let out a scream so loud you could hear it on television. I was going crazy. I couldn’t believe it, and then, I could believe it. I definitely could believe it. Chris is extremely talented.”

Chef Hastings takes orders on a busy day at the restaurant. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)
The Hastings family (L to R): Zeb and his wife, Molly, with baby Fraser, Chris, young Hubbell, and Idie. (Karim Shamsi-Basha for American Essence)

Zeb and Molly joined in the conversation while carrying their two little ones, Fraser and Hubbell. “We loved it that my dad won. Working together can be challenging, but for the most part, it works. Sometimes we have really tense moments; other times it’s a lot of fun,” Zeb added. “We cover a wide range of emotions, believe me.”

Molly nodded at her husband while squeezing little Fraser in her arms. “I love the fact all of us work here, and even though it’s not that easy sometimes, we know we’re very fortunate.”

Summing up the Hastings family’s journey to success, Idie took a long breath, then peered at her husband, her children, and the two little ones. “When I look at my family, the restaurant, and all that we have accomplished, I am seriously blown away. … I never set out to accomplish all of this. Our journey has evolved,” she said. Her dream was to be happily married, work with her husband, and raise a family—and it came true, in a way she didn’t expect. “I am very grateful and proud.” Idie was silent for a few seconds. She closed her eyes and made a tiny and content grin, one of assurance that all was good in the world. “I couldn’t ask for anything more in my entire life.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

The Great Outdoors Lifestyle National Parks Recipes

Hiking, Star-Gazing, Canoeing: Visit Buffalo National River in Arkansas for an Action-Packed Outdoor Adventure

Winding down the mountain and through the rugged landscape of dense forest scattered with enormous rock formations, the road flattens out at the tiny, outdoor town of Ponca, Arkansas. With a population of fewer than 120 people, a post office, and a couple of wilderness outfitting stores, Ponca is the middle of nature-nowhere for the Midwest. With stunningly beautiful rustic surroundings and a full array of outdoor adventure opportunities, this northern Arkansas area is perhaps one of America’s best-kept secrets.

Ponca rests on the Buffalo River, the first river in America to be designated a National River. Commencing deep in the highest elevations of the Boston Mountains, the river’s over 150 miles of winding water carve a path eastward through the wilds and wonders of northern Arkansas. Its uppermost section boasts such steep terrain, sharp ridges, crags, and crevices that roughly the first 16 miles are further designated as wild, and the upstream gem is officially known as the Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River.

Show up at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge on any spring weekend morning, and you’re likely to see groups of people wearing orange life vests, paddles in hand, shoving off from shore in canoes bearing outfitters’ logos. Across the bridge lies a short trail to a historic cabin built in 1882, as well as a trailhead leading to a scenic, full-day, 12-mile hike upstream to Boxley—a small community in times past but now a river put-in and trailhead itself. Beneath this hiking stretch, the valley extending up to the ridgetops is a favorite location for Arkansas’s only herd of wild elk. Catching sight of them grazing before a backdrop of sloping terrain near the river’s emerald green waters resembles a scene from somewhere out West.


The Buffalo National River was established in 1972; its founding was the result of a long, contentious battle that began in 1960 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams that would have destroyed the river and buried its beauties. Under the leadership of Dr. Neil Compton, area residents and outdoor enthusiasts united to fight the proposal, forming a coalition known as the Ozark Society. Their decade of unwavering commitment to the river’s preservation ultimately saved the Buffalo and the treasured wilderness surrounding it.

The Roark Bluff at dawn, one of the most stunning sites at Buffalo National River. (Tim Ernst)

The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo as a nationally protected area.

One of the few remaining free-flowing rivers left in the lower half of the country, the Buffalo River itself is a sculpted work of art, with water carving around rock and winding through untouched stretches of Arkansas wilderness. Its towering, seemingly painted bluffs are striking, and the clear emerald water that runs beneath them, vibrant and pristine. The waterway is a mecca for canoeists, kayakers, fly-fishers, and riverside campers. Perhaps an even greater set of wilderness wonders, however, exists within the surrounding crags, cliffs, and creeks beyond its banks—discoveries found after setting out with a pair of hiking boots, a map, and a backpack.

Area hiking expert Tim Ernst has spent almost a lifetime unveiling some of those discoveries, carving out trails, and documenting many of the Buffalo Wilderness Area’s wonders. His journaled publications are vital to hikers and backpackers alike, as they record miles of hiking trails ranging from the frequently traveled to the obscure, the relaxing stroll to the arduous climb, and the tiny trail to the week-long expedition.

Buffalo Wilderness Area

The nearly 95,000 acres encompassing the Buffalo National River hold a network of trails and treasures that extends even farther as it connects with the surrounding 1.2 million acres of rugged Ozark National Forest. With levels of exploration ranging from novice to hard-core hiking, and opportunities for mountain biking and equestrianism as well, the undeveloped remote areas are full of treasures waiting to be discovered by outdoor enthusiasts of all levels and ages.

Hiking the Buffalo Wilderness Area is also year-round. “You can’t hike in the Rockies, the Appalachians, or the Pacific Crest in the middle of winter,” said Ernst, “but you can hike in northern Arkansas—and the Buffalo’s emerald-colored water contrasted with scenic views of grays and browns is striking.”

Just this past January, Ernst completed an end-to-end winter bushwhacking journey starting at the river’s Cave Mountain headwaters and traveling 151 miles down to the mouth at the White River. A spinal issue prevents him from carrying a pack, so he completed the two-week excursion tentless and stoveless, sleeping under bluff overhangs and traveling ultra-light. “It was one of the most fun and spectacular trips I’ve ever taken,” he said.

Day Hiking Discoveries

You don’t need to sleep under a rock in winter to see some of the best of what the Buffalo River’s wilderness areas have to offer. Although there are plenty of single-track trails for backpackers and serious trekkers, easier trails with amazing sights and abundant waterfalls are not far from the pavement (or gravel, in this case).

The Milky Way is visible over the historic Villines Homestead in Boxley Valley within the Buffalo National River area. (Tim Ernst)

Lost Valley is one of those signature trails, with everything from vertical walls of rock reaching upward from the valley floor, to Cob Cave—named after the many cobs of corn discovered there in 1931 when it was found to be rich in preserved native artifacts. Following Clark Creek, Lost Valley’s beauty is on display throughout the entire hike, winding through a lush forest full of waterfalls, cascades, and amazing rock formations. Packed with outdoor works of art and springtime wildflowers, the short, two-mile round trip is a scenic journey from start to finish and a small taste of the entire Buffalo River area.

Another offering among the renowned trails and signature sights is Hemmed-in Hollow, a towering waterfall and impressive rock formation that spills out varied amounts of water or displays icicles, depending on the season. A more arduous trail with a 1,400-foot elevation change, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Those up for the challenge will not be disappointed, though, as the famed, 209-foot vertical rock face is the tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians, and hiking to its base is like discovering a secret hideaway at the end of a canyon.

Nearby lies another geological wonder that, when first encountered, might feel like a sacred discovery as well. Big Bluff, accessible via the appropriately named Goat Trail, is an impressive, oversized rock face, leaning out over the river with breathtaking views. Wrapping around the mountain and morphing into a mammoth wall of sandstone, the somewhat precarious trail narrows to curve around the bluff, revealing a 550-foot drop and an expansive view of the river and backcountry below.

Backcountry and Dark Skies

Lost Valley, Hemmed-in Hollow, and Big Bluff are just a few of the amazing trails and seemingly endless sights for day hikers to explore. On the other hand, hikers preferring to gear up with backpacks and tents for a weekend or two, venturing off the beaten path in the woods, can find what they’re after on the Buffalo River Trail. Winding back and forth across the river, as well as up and down in elevation, the “BRT,” as it’s known, totals almost 80 miles in length and can take you downstream via foot rather than canoe. Eventually connecting with the almost 200-mile network of the rugged and remote Ozark Highlands Trail, the Buffalo backcountry feels endless—ideal for trekking each day and sleeping under the stars each night.

Speaking of stars, the Buffalo National River was recognized in 2019 as an International Dark Sky Park. With the darkest nighttime skies in all of Arkansas, the park is a great place to go to escape suburbia and do some stargazing, learn the constellations, or see the Milky Way. With park regulations aimed at eliminating light pollution, the natural twinkling lights of nighttime skies are now as protected as the wilderness they blanket.

Sunrise over Boxley Valley within the Buffalo National River area. (Tim Ernst)

Preservation Through Growth

Many historical cabins and preserved homesteads are scattered throughout the Buffalo area as well. Granny Henderson’s cabin, the Parker-Hickman Farmstead in nearby Erbie, and the Villines family cabins in Ponca all commemorate a past era when pioneers worked tirelessly to survive in the wilds of a rugged landscape while carving out hard livings.

Although times have greatly changed since those days, the raw, rustic, and simplistic form of much of the area is still preserved. In the past 50 years in particular, since the national park and national river were established, the town of Ponca and the Boxley River Valley have remained virtually unchanged. Nestled in the valley between mountainside and river, the old-school mountain town atmosphere is difficult to miss.

The Buffalo Outdoor Center outfitters and Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging rentals still reside as the only two businesses of tiny Ponca, and most of the cabins viewed from the road are rentals. There are no motels. Although certainly adding to the area’s charm, the simplicity also poses some issues during crowded times, especially as the area grows in popularity.

“Elk, waterfalls, and hiking trails have increased traffic to the Buffalo River immensely,” said Ernst. “Particularly when the big bulls are out there bugling.”

The once-unknown, tiny area’s increased popularity hints at the need for new infrastructure to handle it—apparently, grants are in place to do just that. In the meantime, though, this area is still “in its infancy,” as Ernst said, citing that there aren’t too many places left in the United States where you can still chart new territory as a hiker or backpack a 47-mile section of backcountry without any established campsites.

Labeled the “Natural State” for a reason, Arkansas has plenty of raw, rare, hidden beauty, and although it’s rapidly growing, the Buffalo River remains a somewhat unrecognized outdoor mecca. “I doubt that the personal experience of discovery will ever be completed here,” Ernst challenged. So next time you’re in search of adventure, find Arkansas Highway 43 on a map, head south, and wind down into Newton County, stopping off in Ponca. A bit like venturing off the grid, the disconnection from your everyday world may end up connecting you with exactly what you’ve been looking for.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

Features Lifestyle

Acclaimed Chef Steve McHugh on Overcoming Life’s Challenges to Find the True Spirit of Cooking

Five-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist Steve McHugh is nothing short of an acclaimed chef. The owner of the highly respected, game-changing restaurant Cured and the restaurant Landrace, which opened last year, says he really “stumbled right into” becoming a chef.

Though McHugh’s introduction to food may have been a happy accident, over the course of his studies and career as a chef, his curiosity and sense of excellence have produced inspiring results. In a way, his story has been about coming full circle and getting at the root of food and sustenance—and American cuisine.

“I’m not the star of this show,” said McHugh.

‘If You Want to Go Learn About Food’

New Orleans is where McHugh first made a name for himself. Right out of culinary school, a friend had told him, “If you want to go learn about food, you need to go where the true indigenous food of the U.S. is.”

“And that’s New Orleans,” said McHugh. There, he worked in the kitchens of the Brennan Family Restaurants, the Creole chefs Stanley Jackson and Chris Brown, and the John Besh Restaurant Group. Besh, a celebrity chef and philanthropist well known for his efforts in preserving New Orleans heritage cuisine, became a mentor of McHugh’s. In those kitchens, McHugh learned that it wasn’t just about Cajun and Creole—the city was truly a melting pot of cultures and cuisines influencing each other, coming together to make up the flavor of New Orleans.

A dish of mussels made with beer and Tasso ham.(Inti St. Clair)

And then Hurricane Katrina hit.

“Up until that moment, we had run from storms and we dealt with floods—but that one, that was scary,” McHugh said. He remembers watching the satellite images, seeing a storm the width of the Gulf of Mexico approaching his city. He and his wife had evacuated and were sitting in a crummy motel in Tennessee, just waiting. When it became evident that they couldn’t go back right away, McHugh went to his parents’ home in Wisconsin.

McHugh grew up with six brothers, three adopted, on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. His dad was a schoolteacher. His mom was a nurse, then an OB-GYN.

“They just had a lot of love to give, my parents. They’re just amazing, amazing people with so much love to give. My mom especially was one of those people who just gave, and gave, and gave of herself,” said McHugh. “My dad was the same way—it was all about taking care of people.”

Living in their small Wisconsin town of some 1,200 people, McHugh never thought he would become a chef. In high school, he got a job washing dishes and fell in love with the energy of the kitchen. That fondness led to many other kitchen jobs, but he didn’t think of them as part of a career path.

“When I was growing up in kitchens, what we call the chef was just some tattooed-up guy who rode his motorcycle in, and he was in charge,” McHugh said. He actually went to school majoring in music, with a saxophone scholarship, but then ended up back at home.

“It was my dad who finally sat me down and said, ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school?’” McHugh said. The conversation was eye-opening. “I’m still thankful for that sit-down with my dad, every single day, because it’s truly a blessing to continue to be in kitchens and restaurants and working with great people.” His dad also had a slightly selfish motivation for the talk, however: “I was back living at home,” McHugh quipped, “so part of it was, ‘How long do you think you’re gonna live here at home with your parents?’”

At McHugh’s restaurant, every part of the animal is used for the charcuterie- focused menu. (Inti St. Clair)

“I think he really wanted me to find my way.” And McHugh soon did, delving into The New York Times’ Wednesday food inserts and doing his own research. “I was just looking at recipes and interviews, and reading about different chefs throughout New York City, and was just blown away by what was really possible.”

Although he was back at home again after the storm, when McHugh got the call from Besh asking him to come back to New Orleans less than a month later, he was ready. “New Orleans had become my home, and you hate to see your home take a one-two punch like that,” said McHugh. “You want to be a part of helping her get up off the ground and get going again.”


Besh was reopening Restaurant August, and McHugh’s response was, “Yeah, let’s go.”

It would be under entirely different circumstances—here was a restaurant that was known for using prized ingredients, and now there wasn’t an abalone or truffle in sight.

As McHugh tells it, “John said, ‘Let’s just cook what we have. let’s just cook what we can get our hands on, and we’ll make up the menu.’” As a young chef, McHugh relished opportunities to work with some of the finest ingredients. “Now, you’re so excited when a farmer brings by 12 chickens, or you get your hands on some red beans and you’re able to cook a pot of beans,” he said. “These were things we never cooked in that restaurant before; and now, all of a sudden they’re the most important things we’ve ever cooked in our lives because our customers needed it.”

Yet McHugh felt it was sustainable in myriad ways: “It’s sustaining your soul, and cooking for people who needed a lift up. We used to cook for the city’s elite, now we’re just cooking for our own survival and for the people we were cooking for.”

At the same time, they were “putting in 17, 18, 19-hour days like it was nothing. We weren’t tired. I would get up in the morning and go to work and I wouldn’t get home till the wee hours of the next day—and do it again. It never felt like work. It stopped feeling like work during that process,” he said.

“It really changed my whole perspective on food and cooking, on being a chef, and what it’s really all about,” said McHugh. “It’s such an eye-opening experience to really put so much love into a pot of beans, or a pasta, or a really good bread pudding.”

It brought to mind his mother, who was always taking care of people, helping any and all who showed up—whether or not they could give anything in return. “I never understood that until I became that person who was just taking care of folks,” he said. That labor of love became an indelible lesson for McHugh.

“Now, I cook what I can get my hands on. I want to work with local providers, local producers, and also be right with the earth and not cook species of fish that are overfished—and not working with producers who are destroying the land,” he said. “It’s important to me to continue to take the lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina forward and continue that path.”

The next chapter of his life would be in San Antonio, Texas, where McHugh moved in 2010 to open Besh’s first restaurant outside Louisiana, Lüke. But it wouldn’t begin without a challenge.


Not long before McHugh’s move, he woke up with a swollen face. “It almost looked like I was in a prize fight the night before,” said McHugh. He’d been tired, lethargic, and couldn’t understand why he was feeling that way. His doctor thought it was a cold, and other doctors and specialists he saw were baffled. Finally, someone told McHugh he looked like he had allergies, and he went to see an allergist.

McHugh remembered, “The allergist looked at me and said, ‘Whoever sent you here is crazy.’” Allergies didn’t happen overnight or cause reactions like McHugh was experiencing. After a CT scan, the cause of McHugh’s ailments became obvious.

“There it was: I had a tumor in my chest about the size of a baseball,” he said. He had blood cancer, B-cell lymphoma—but the swelling was fortunate because, otherwise, he might not have found the cancer until he got much sicker.

In New Orleans, McHugh began his chemotherapy treatments. After two sessions, he confided in his doctor: “Hey, I’m supposed to be moving in a month. Should I not? Should I stay here?”

“And I remember him saying, ‘Nobody’s told you to stop living your life,’” said McHugh. The takeaway was powerful. He felt then that he could beat the cancer—and he did.

“I just went at it like ‘this isn’t going to slow me down.’ I moved to San Antonio, my wife and I came here, I opened a restaurant while going through treatment,” he said. “The power of positive thinking and believing, and understanding that you’ve got more to accomplish in life, really pushes you through.”

In the aftermath, having already opened several restaurants for others, McHugh opened his own restaurant, Cured, in 2013. While the name in part signifies his triumph over cancer, Cured is also one of the most popular charcuterie restaurants in the country, famed for its whole-animal approach in cooking. Every part of each butchered animal is used, so the menu is ever-changing based on what’s in stock.

Cured is located within an old administrative building in San Antonio built in 1904. (Inti St. Clair)

“Ten, eleven years ago when I got sick, I didn’t think that food could play such a huge role in health, and the more I study and the more I learn about food and food systems, it makes me want to continue to be a better chef and provide better ingredients and better products,” he said.

“I don’t want to consume, and I don’t want my customers to consume, any animal that’s been penned up its whole life, that’s been shot full of hormones, or sustained solely on one thing,” he said. McHugh visits the places where the animals are raised and the produce is grown. “Being around farmers my whole life—you know what to look for.”

For instance, he said that the steak at Cured is great not just because of the way it’s prepared, but also because of where it comes from: “[Peeler’s] ranching practices are amazing. They do great field rotation, so the cattle aren’t just stuck in one field all the time. They also will rotate sheep and goats through the fields as well, and the importance of that is that goats are great at really cleaning up just about anything unhealthy; they have stomachs that are amazing and they can get in there and eat a lot of the grasses that are harmful to the cattle.” This also clears out parasites, making for healthier fields and cows.

When visiting a hog ranch, he found 1,000 acres where pigs were running freely. McHugh said of the farmer: “He refuses to ring their noses, because pigs want to root.” Many farmers put rings in pigs’ noses so they won’t tear up the earth, but the pigs on this farm: “They go in there eating bugs, they’re eating mesquite beans, they’re rooting for those tender shoots under the ground that they love to chew on and snack on. He lets them give birth out in the fields where they want to be—and the babies are healthier, the mamas aren’t rolling over on them. There are a lot of species of hog in our country that we have bred the mothering nature out of—because the [sows] don’t know how to be mothers anymore.”

“For me, it’s important to see that they’re healthy, they’re happy,” said McHugh.

“If we’re constantly eating unhealthy animals, we are going to become unhealthy, right? I want to be able to offer really good meat—and as somebody who butchers and has been a butcher a lot of his career, I tell people: eat less meat, eat better meat,” he said. “Let’s eat less, but let’s eat better.”

Seeing the ranchers and farmers in their craft grew McHugh’s knowledge, as well as his interest in using local sources. At a James Beard Foundation dinner with chef Kevin Nashan, McHugh heard him use the word “landrace,” and he quickly made a note of it on his phone.

Pig cheeks poutine with pickled cauliflower. (Inti St. Clair)

“Landrace is the idea that something is better because of place, and is growing within its natural surroundings,” said McHugh. “It isn’t just something that is native to the area, but it can also be something that has thrived in the area.” Case in point: Texas cattle.

After that, he developed an idea for a restaurant that focused on native ingredients and celebrated the Texas terroir. In 2021, McHugh opened Landrace. “Thanks, Kevin Nashan.”

Determined that the new restaurant wouldn’t be Cured 2.0, McHugh went back to the three pillars of what he believes makes a successful restaurant: good food, good service, and great ambiance.

“I kept thinking: What are we going to do here? What’s going to be the star of the show here? And, we brought in this big, beautiful wood-burning grill that is completely fueled by Texas post oak and mesquite,” he said. “It’s really about taking cooking back to its most elemental, right? Cooking started with fire.”

“It was stepping outside of my comfort zone and working with solid fuel like wood. And it really challenged me to think of food on that level. Can I grill a salad? Can I grill these carrots—not just turn them into smoke bombs—being gentle with something that can be very in-your-face like wood and smoke?” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

At this point in his career, it’s not uncommon to be asked about the next big thing. Young chefs are certainly thinking that way, too, and McHugh has some advice for them: “Don’t try to come up too fast. Travel, learn—and when I say travel, I’m not saying go to Paris, I’m saying we’re an hour from Austin—there’s no reason to not go and have a nice meal and come home.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features Lifestyle

A Photographer Captures America’s Posh and Affluent Through His Exclusive Lens

He is the great-grandson of a famed Alabama governor. He grew up in the rich districts of Washington, D.C., before becoming a quintessential snowbird: part-time New Englander and part-time Floridian.

Nick Mele knows he grew up privileged, with the ocean-opulent milieu of Newport, Rhode Island, serving as his childhood playground in the summer and the aristocratic venues of Palm Beach during the winter.

He has rubbed elbows with the most elite of the elites, who have thought nothing of allowing Mele to hang out and photograph them in their “ordinary” lives. He compiled the highlights of his summer adventures into the book “Newport Summer,” a mesmerizing pictorial that mingles—as Nick dubbed them—“the last bastions of old school American high society” with his own family, including his wife and their two young sons. With his sweet sense of humor, Mele calls them his “kid monsters.”

The would-be envy of any photographer, the 39-year-old modestly regards those days as more of a hobby among friends. As far as wedding shoots go—the proverbial bread and butter of most pros—“I’d rather never do one again,” he breezily proclaimed.

Of all things, for the silver-spooned Andover (prep school) graduate, the thing Mele craves the most is being hired to do marketing shoots: to put his brand of photography on a brand, he explained, that teases the imagination with an entire story line.

Molly and Archer play around at the 2021 Kips Bay Show House in West Palm Beach. (Courtesy of Nick Mele)

“For me, it’s less about how pretty a picture is,” he said, “and more about telling a story; it’s more of a personality thing, and that means trusting me to set the scene from my camera’s point of view.”

Among his lengthy list of clients who trust him are Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Town & Country. One of his favorite shoots was for shoe giant Sam Edelman, in which Mele himself appeared. The image, which depicts the tall, debonair Mele opposite a beautiful French model playing a newcomer to lavish living, appeared on billboards all over Los Angeles.

Sarah Wetenhall is the owner of The Colony Hotel, an iconic respite cradled by ocean vistas and Palm Beach’s paradisaical luxury fashion stores. She trusted Mele enough to allow him to tie her up to a chair with Christmas lights and stick a corn cob in her mouth.

Named one of the top hoteliers in the world by Hotels Magazine, Wetenhall hired Mele to do a holiday campaign for the iconic hotel known affectionately among its A-list of clientele as the “Pink Paradise.”

For the shoot, Mele also dressed Wetenhall’s three young children in monkey suits and instructed them to climb trees next to their “restrained” well-dressed CEO mother. He did a similar shoot during the pandemic that captured the potentially zany reality of what life might be like quarantining in an empty, fancy hotel with three children under the age of 10—complete with Wetenhall’s kids riding their bicycles through the hotel lobby, kayaking in the hotel’s swimming pool, and having a tea party atop an elegant baby grand piano.

“Nick has such an appreciation for the charming and the irreverent that, when combined with his brilliant eye—magic happens,” reflected Wetenhall, adding that life would not be the same at The Colony if Mele hadn’t been the one to “tell its story.”

Nick Mele with his wife, Molly; their sons, Johnny and Archer; and the family dog Lola in front of their home in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Courtesy of Nick Mele)

Mele indeed underscores humor as a key ingredient to his success. There are also the little things that count, like never showing up to a shoot “looking like a photographer.”

“I try to go to these things and be the best dressed person there and really fit in,” said Mele. “I find a big part of taking people’s pictures in places like that is making them feel comfortable, and I like them to see me as another guest who happens to have a camera.”

He is unabashed about drawing ideas from some of the world’s most influential photographers, or whom he calls the “the greats.” Slim Aaron, Douglas Friedman, Tina Barney, and Patrick McMullan are his foremost idols. But he turns to them not to copy their styles, Mele emphasized, but to study how they broke the rules, such as “using an overly harsh flash” and actually “having it work.”

“The most successful photographers and the ones I really love,” Mele shared, “are the ones that have a really strong brand and a very strong vision and you could look at them and be like—‘That’s their signature.’”

Nick also sometimes breaks the rules when it comes to drawing inspiration. His grandmother Marion “Oatsie” Charles, who died at the age of 99 in 2018, did not approve of him taking up such a poor man’s trade as photography. Mele said he was actually “a little afraid of her” when he was a little boy because she was so commanding.

She would end up being his greatest influence.

Nick Mele’s son Johnny and dog Bodhi take a peek at what’s on the table at the family home in Newport, R.I. (Courtesy of Nick Mele)

The granddaughter of Alabama Governor William Oates, known for fighting in the Civil War with only one arm, Oatsie—as everyone called her—was as uncontrolled as she was connected. She was friends with the Kennedys and someone whom Nancy Reagan was introduced to as part of her unofficial inauguration into the White House’s high society—and not the other way around.

When Ronald Reagan died, Oatsie was, of course, invited to the president’s funeral, and she recruited her college-age grandson Mele to take her. When a low-flying plane was suspected of attempting to attack the Capitol building, U.S. Secret Service burst into the Rotunda and ordered everyone to evacuate.

After Mele anxiously navigated his wheelchair-bound grandmother through the throng of frenzied funeral-goers fleeing for safety, instead of thanking him, she chastised him for not going back after her beloved tigerwood cane that she had dropped in the chaos of their hurried escape.

“She never entered a room that wasn’t absolutely thrilled to see her,” Mele both mused and reflected.

It sounds like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, or perhaps in Nick’s case, palm trees.

As Wetenhall summed it up: “You can’t live in Palm Beach and not know Nick Mele.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features Entrepreneurs Lifestyle

How a Girl Suffering From Eczema Became a Skincare Industry Pioneer

If you’ve seen Kate Somerville Cosmetics ads or have seen Kate in magazines or on TV, you would think that she’s always been beautiful and that her life is perfect and always has been. Kate says, “People usually expect me to be ‘silver spoon stuck up.’” But that is the furthest thing from the truth.

Kate grew up on a farm in Fresno, California, with a dad who was a high school football coach who wasn’t in touch with his emotions and a mother who suffered from mental illness and addiction. Actually, it was probably Kate who suffered most.

Kate’s dad was known to all as a great guy. He was beloved by the boys at the mostly black high school where he coached. He mentored those boys and helped them see that there was a good future for their lives. The single moms of the boys he coached were grateful because he helped them keep their sons in line. But at home, he was full of rage, so much so that Kate remembers that no doors were left standing in their house. Her dad was completely unable to cope with his wife’s erratic behaviors or to be there for her.

Kate describes her mother as an “eccentric hippy.” She would go out drinking and partying and then fall into deep depression. When Kate was 9 years old, her mother left her with her dad. But occasionally her mother would call to tell Kate that she was going to commit suicide. It was an emotional roller coaster. For the next year, it was just Kate and her dad living in the barn on their land. She describes it as, “incredibly eclectic and artistic with a beautiful garden, a trailer for a kitchen and an outhouse for a bathroom. I was the only person I knew who lived this way and I’m convinced it was the source of my creativity.”

Kate’s dad moved on, remarried, and started a new family, a family where Kate didn’t fit in. She loved her dad and knew he was a good guy (because everyone said he was), but she felt completely abandoned.

She spent her high school years “couch surfing” with friends and living with a relative, and then in her senior year of high school, she moved in with her boyfriend. All throughout her high school years, her mother would come in and out of her life, and every time she showed up, she brought chaos and pain with her. Fortunately for Kate, her boyfriend’s mother became a strong mentor in her life, providing a sense of stability.

Another important person in Kate’s life was her high school counselor, Mr. Talley. He knew that things were rough for her. He saw her struggling and not fitting in at school. He knew when Kate’s mother was in her life because Kate would get hives and have a painful flare-up of eczema from head to toes, complete with dried, cracked, and oozing skin. Mr. Talley knew that Kate was working, trying to deal with her mother, and suffering through the humiliation of the skin problems she experienced, so she wasn’t able to have a normal senior year. She couldn’t go to the prom or to games or do any of the other things that other kids seemed to be enjoying.

Mr. Talley, with whom she is still in touch today, made a deal with Kate—he would let her leave high school early (she had enough credits to graduate) if she would go to city college, which she did. Kate worked three jobs to support herself while attending college. Her mentor, Barbara Wells, her boyfriend’s mother, taught her the value of unconditional support and believing in yourself. Because she had grown up with horrible eczema, she knew what it felt like to be uncomfortable in her own skin. She had always looked for different remedies to solve her own skin issues, which sparked her passion for helping others do the same. So when a friend who was a dermatologist suggested she get a degree in esthetics, she enrolled in esthetician school and focused all her attention on helping others who suffered with skin problems.

Comfortable in Your Skin

As a result of the suffering Kate experienced with her own skin condition, she wanted desperately to learn what she could do for herself and others who suffered with skin problems. Kate knew intimately the impact of an ugly skin condition on one’s self esteem and confidence level. She had experienced the helpless feeling of her body’s obvious public outcry of eczema. Kate knew better than most that the trauma we experience in our lives takes a toll on our body, mind, and spirit.

While in school, Kate had an idea to work side by side with doctors to complement their services. This was unusual at the time, as most estheticians worked in spas giving facials. Kate created and presented a business plan to a cosmetic surgeon, and shortly after graduation, she opened her first clinic inside one of the country’s top cosmetic surgery offices. Celebrity clients quickly fell in love with Kate’s post-procedure care and began booking esthetics appointments with her.

In 2004, Kate opened her first Skin Health Experts Clinic in the heart of Hollywood. She built a team to help create custom skin care protocols for people of every age, ethnicity, and skin type. They found solutions for those who couldn’t find solutions anywhere else. Word quickly spread through the entertainment industry. Soon, the world’s most famous and photographed faces were coming to Kate for her expertise.

In that first year, one of Kate’s celebrity clients asked her to bottle her clinic super facial so she could take it on location while filming under harsh lights. Kate’s signature product, ExfoliKate Intensive, was born. This was huge because at the time, the skin care industry was dominated with products that were developed by physicians who were predominantly male.

Kate has seen over and over again the true personality of a person emerge as a result of her healing products, like in the case of a young, black teen who came into her clinic one day and couldn’t make eye contact. He had a ball cap pulled way down low over his face, and he kept his face down as he told the receptionist that he was hoping to see if Kate would help him. Kate took one look at him and knew that this was the worst case of acne she had ever seen. The kid told her that he had no money to pay her, but her tenacity kicked in, and Kate was on a mission to heal this young man.

Kate took that teenager into a room and began a healing process that involved him returning twice a week until he was totally transformed. He became part of the family. Everyone in the clinic cheered him on as they watched this young man transform from the kid who couldn’t lift his head to make eye contact into a handsome model and an R&B singer!

(Courtesy of Kate Somerville)

Kate Arrives

As Kate’s business grew, her national reputation as an esthetician and healer grew with it. At just 23 years old, Kate was featured in the front window of Henry Bendel’s on Fifth Avenue in New York. She said, “It was this insane window that said ‘Kate Somerville has landed.’ They had beautiful mannequins who looked like flight attendants.” She arrived in New York late on the day of the launch, and as this farm girl from Fresno pulled up in the taxi and saw the huge display that was her name and her products, she thought she would feel excited. Instead, she felt a huge pressure. She had arrived, but now she had to live up to the hype and maintain this national status.

“My team and I had created this hype before we were actually a big business. I was treating a lot of famous people. I had a vision of the brand early on when I was 20 or 21. So here I am, a young girl with big aspirations, never been to business school. I was an esthetician and a healer. I felt like I was on Mount Everest with fake nails and flip flops,” she said.

At the same time that Kate’s business was starting to take off, her mother was declining. She was living on the streets, was sick, and had lost all her teeth as a consequence of drug use. Kate remembers vividly the night that her products were going to be in the swag bags for attendees at the Oscars. This was huge for her! She was on top of the world. Her products were finally being recognized. But at the same time, she was processing the wild emotions of her mother being in her last days. While preparing to attend the Oscars, she went to a hospice to say goodbye to her mother. By that time, Kate had heard from some of her mother’s friends from high school about what her mother had gone through as a young girl at the hands of her step-father. Kate finally understood that her mother’s addictions were her attempt to medicate her pain in the only way she knew how. Her mother died on Valentine’s Day. Kate was able to forgive her mother and make peace with her before she passed.

By this time, Kate was married and had a son. And although she had a great life, Kate still harbored a lot of anger toward her dad. She would write letters to him and then burn them in order to get the anger up out of her. It was Kate’s marriage to her wonderful husband and their raising a son that led to Kate letting go of the anger toward her father before he passed away. She realized that her mother and father probably did the best they could with what they had.

Kate says that in hindsight, three good things came out of her childhood. First, Kate was exposed to diversity from her earliest memories. Her mother brought home friends who were gay and bi-racial, and her dad often invited the black football players he coached over to the house, so she has always been totally comfortable with people who are different from her. Second, she learned to work hard. She knew that if she was going to be successful, it would be because she worked hard and earned it. She never expected success to fall into her lap.

When asked how she healed from the chaos and loss of her childhood, Kate said, “Emotionally I’ve worked really hard, going to Al-Anon, reading self-help books, and seeing a counselor on my journey to be better and trusting.” Third, Kate has a fierce tenacity. She doesn’t give up. That tenacity served her well when she began her mission of trying to find the right combination of ingredients that would help her, and thousands of others, heal from serious skin conditions. Kate has been on a mission to do that ever since. And heal she has! Her skin is beautiful and radiant, and she has surpassed her goal of helping thousands of others. In fact, she has helped tens of thousands of other people to look and feel like the beautiful people they are.

Kate has continued to grow her business through helping and healing one person at a time. Her products are in all the high-end retailers and are available all over the world. She still maintains her clinic in Los Angeles. She wrote a book called “Complexion Perfection,” and she’s working now on curricula for training and certification for paramedical estheticians who will practice alongside dermatologists.

Kate says that a very small percentage of women get funded for business at this level. She’s grateful for the success she has achieved, and for the people who have helped her get there, but her greatest reward is the people who come up to her crying and saying, “You changed my life when you transformed my skin.”


What advice do you give to others about their appearance?

Enjoy youthfulness because no one can have it forever. Your looks right now in your youth, enjoy it. It’s a commodity. It will be gone. Right now you can walk in a room and turn heads. At my age, you don’t turn heads as much anymore. And you know what? If you’re okay inside, it doesn’t matter. What matters most in life is doing whatever makes you feel fulfilled and doing it as much as possible.

What do you think is the most significant way someone can help a young person?

Mentorship is everything—especially for women! The greatest mentor in my life was a woman named Barbara Wells. She was my boyfriend’s mother, and she took me in young. She had unconditional love, but tough love. When I was 20, Barbara told me, “You have a choice of what you want your life to be. You can either dwell on your childhood and the past, or you can make your life what you want it to be.

Having grown up in a chaotic environment as a kid, I didn’t know what choices were available to me. Life felt out of control. Barbara let me know I had a choice and changed my life personally and professionally from that moment on.

What would you say to a young person starting out in business?

People told me my dreams were impossible. I didn’t take it personally. I found a way to defy impossible. Find a way to defy what seems impossible for you.

From a business perspective, it’s not to lose sight of what you’re trying to do. A business will take you over—the sales, the cash flow, etc. If you lose sight of why you’re doing it, it’s not fun anymore. For me, it’s important to connect with clients and stay close to what motivated me to start this—to heal people. Keeping your focus on the mission of what you’re doing!

Also, no matter what industry you’re interested in, have the courage to take the path. When there is a “no” or a slammed door, go the other way, don’t give up. Keep going. There are so many incredibly successful people who failed before they made it.

What would you say to women in business?

Delegation is key! Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and hire the people you need to. I am an esthetician first and business woman second, so it’s important to have the right team in place.

Also, take time for yourself! I love being a wife and a mother and a business woman, but with so much going on it’s important to take time for yourself in order to be able to be your best. Small luxuries like relaxing in a beautiful bath with candles lit allows me to recharge so I can continue to give to my family and my business.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features Lifestyle Uncategorized

American Polo Star Nic Roldan on Harnessing the Power of the Mind

A polo player must have great control not only of his body, but also over his horse. The two must be able to turn together on a dime. In the ancient game of polo—one of the oldest-known team sports, originally crafted as a mock battle for training cavalry—the speed is fast, the strategy is sharp, and the maneuvers are precise.

With horse power driving the action, the players’ lives are at stake. “People don’t understand … that we literally put our lives on the line every time we step out on the polo field,” said Nic Roldan, current captain of the U.S. national polo team.

He balked at discussing further the dangers or injuries he’s witnessed. “I never like to talk about it or even think about it,” he said. He compared polo players to NASCAR drivers; neither can afford to be paralyzed by fear. “The moment you start thinking about those things and having that fear, it’s probably the moment you need to quit,” he said.

Roldan keeps a tight rein on his thoughts. He directs them toward positivity, gratitude, and achieving his goals. At the age of 15, he became the youngest player to win the U.S. Polo Open. Now, at 39, he not only continues with polo, but also models, has his own apparel line, and founded a property development company. He spoke of the perseverance that’s key to his success.

“There have been challenging moments in my career—where either I’ve lost a job, or I didn’t get hired one year, or I wasn’t on a really good team—and you get really frustrated. You just go through it. I’ve always dug deep and had faith and a strong belief that I could do it. The mind is a very powerful muscle.”

An Early Start

Roldan starts his busy days with meditation and prayer. He takes an hour and a half of peaceful time to himself, and it’s his favorite part of the day. But going to the “office” is pretty good, too.

“Coming to my barn every day and knowing that this is sort of like my office and being able to hang out with these incredible animals, … I’m obviously incredibly blessed,” he said.

Roldan at a meet-and-greet with the champion racehorse California Chrome. (Courtesy of Nic Roldan)

As a fourth-generation professional polo player, Roldan has been around horses for as far back as he can remember. His father, Raul Roldan, played polo for the Sultan of Brunei. His father is Argentinian and Roldan was born in Argentina, though he has lived most of his life in Wellington, Florida.

“What I learned the most [from my father] was his dedication, his passion for the sport,” Roldan said. “He was always extremely humble. I think that was a really great quality of his. He was always very kind. I think at the end of the day, those are the most important things.”

Roldan’s account of what led to his success shows humility as well: “It’s a little bit of luck; it’s having the right team, the right organization, and the right horses under you.”

He says that the relationship with horses is one of the most important parts of playing polo. “What defines an elite polo player is being at-one with your horse, … flowing with each horse in sort of an artistic way, like a ballerina.” It’s not easy to learn that level of synchronization, Roldan said. It’s partly innate, and it also develops naturally by spending a lifetime with horses.

The Horses

A game of polo typically lasts more than an hour, and players switch horses every several minutes. A player must thoroughly understand each horse’s unique characteristics, Roldan said.

For example, some are light in the mouth, so the player must be mindful of how hard he pulls to have the horse respond as he needs. Some horses have more stamina than others. He must be aware of how the horse is feeling that day. “You could have your best horse, but that day he doesn’t feel that great,” Roldan said.

He describes what it’s like taking all this into consideration in the moment: “It’s the relationship with the horse you have to have, the speed and the intensity, the understanding of each horse and the control of each horse⁠—all while you’re trying to hit a ball 25 to 30 miles an hour, [and] you’ve got four other guys trying to chase you. It’s incredible.”

Roldan added: “We don’t just get out onto the polo field and run around like a bunch of chickens without heads. Every play is thought out. … It is really like a chess game.”

Holistic Life

Polo works the mind and the whole body. “The most important thing for polo is having strong legs, strong core, and strong shoulders and upper body,” Roldan said, laughing as he admitted that he listed pretty much every part of the body. “It’s the whole body. … If you look at most polo players, we’re not bulky. You need to be lean, flexible.”

Roldan also exercises his creative side. His mother, Dee Roldan, is an interior designer, and Roldan began working with her on flipping houses as a side project during his 20s.

“My mom has always had an artistic palette. She’s always been very unique and very distinctive in the way she’s dressed and in her designs,” Roldan said.

He set his mind to excelling in this pursuit and started building from the ground up. He founded a development company, Roldan Homes, and recently became a realtor for Equestrian Sotheby’s International Realty.

The polo player is committed to keeping his mind and body in peak condition at all times. (Courtesy of Nic Roldan)

His equestrian experience melds with his real estate ventures. His hometown of Wellington is a large equestrian community, with many housing developments centered on equestrian facilities. One of his projects was a horse barn in the Grand Prix Village that sold for $8.8 million. The stalls are a clean, crisp white, contrasting with black wrought iron. Neat cobblestones pave the passageway through the barn. The staff accommodations are modern and roomy, and the owner’s lounge is centered around a large fireplace.

“As an athlete, your career ends at some point. Thankfully, in polo, you can play until your late 40s at a competitive level. As my career starts to wind down, I have to have other things to do,” Roldan said. “I love to stay busy. I love to work hard.”


He also loves to give back. Roldan has dedicated himself to philanthropy, including working regularly with the Boys and Girls Club in Wellington and Kids With Cancer.

“First and foremost, my motivation is what life has given to me. I feel deep down in my heart that, because of what I was given, that I should give back,” he said. “For me, anything to do with kids is really important.”

At the Boys and Girls Club, he spends time with children who are less fortunate, who need extra support as their parents struggle to provide for them. “We throw pizza parties there. I love going over there and seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces and playing ball with them. We do karaoke. It’s a lot of fun,” Roldan said.

Through Kids With Cancer, he spends time with children who are either going through treatment or in remission. He recalled a boy named Johnny who was in remission. “He was an entertaining little boy to be around. He was always smiling and having fun.”

Roldan keeps his mind on gratitude. “I’m obviously incredibly blessed to be where I am today, to have had such a great career. I get to travel the world, and I get to do something I love, I get to meet incredible people,” he said. It has taken hard work to excel to the level he has in polo, and “there’s the gray times and struggles,” but in the end, “it’s built me to who I am today.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.