By Sandra Zunino
Sometimes while pursuing one dream, we find a new dream. Such was the case for Jon Mason, Executive Director of the St. Michaels Food & Wine Festival.
Jon came to St. Michaels from Washington D.C. in 1995 to work as the food and beverage director of St. Michaels Harbor Inn Marina. After living for years in metropolitan environments, Jon sought the change of pace this tranquil Eastern Shore town had to offer.
“The first time I drove into town, came around the corner and saw the church steeple I was awestruck,” he says.
Jon soon recognized that many talented chefs work in St. Michaels and he was inspired to give them more exposure. “I spent a number of years in Colorado,” he explains. “The most famous food and wine festival in the country is held in Aspen, so I took that as a model, assembled local business professionals and pitched my ideas.”
That was eight years ago. Growing exponentially, the St. Michaels Food & Wine Festival now benefits many aspects of the town.
“We specifically picked the last weekend in April because many of our lodging partners, shop owners and restaurateurs said that historically the end of April is a pretty light period,” says Jon. “We also timed the event so our attendees could find value instead of paying higher summer rates.”
Not only has the festival showcased local culinary talent and brought commerce to St. Michaels, local charities benefit as well. “Last year we gave almost $38,000 to six local charities,” says Jon.
Slated for April 24 through 26, this year’s St. Michaels Food & Wine Festival promises cooking demonstrations and wine tastings from both local and world-renowned chefs and vintners as well as live entertainment. Over the years, participation grew to include restaurants and businesses in Oxford, Easton and Tilghman Island. Originally from England, Jon’s European connections have helped the festival evolve to include international talents and flavors.
As a first generation immigrant, (at 7 years old, he literally waved at the Statue of Liberty from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth II) Jon says he has to chuckle at the irony of finding himself in St. Michaels – the town famed for fooling the British.
More ironic was Jon’s decision to pursue a career in the food and beverage industry. He admits he avoided green salad until he was 23 and didn’t try Chinese food until he was in his mid-twenties.
In fact, Jon originally pursued a career in photography. After working in hotels and restaurants, he returned to school to study hospitality. “Starting out, no one would have pegged me to be a restaurateur,” he laughs. “Now I love trying new dishes and find cooking at home to be a relaxing pastime.”
Today Jon’s passion for hospitality is evident in his dedication to the industry. Not only does he serve on the St. Michaels Tourism Board and teach in the hospitality/tourism department at Chesapeake College, for years his many hours of work as chairman on the festival committee was strictly voluntary. Last November, Jon took on the full-time role as executive director for the festival, as the event’s workload dictated the need to create the job.
Jon credits a dedicated group of business owners who form the volunteer board and meet weekly with him to help organize the festival. He also credits volunteer and close friend, Katie Wyatt for devoting many hours to the endeavor. “I couldn’t make it without Katie,” he says.