A man on a mission has no time to retire

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday July 22, 2012

He was Indiana state swimming champ in the 100 yard butterfly. He graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics. He is now a cook in Annapolis.

I’m talking about Craig Sewell, the owner-operator of A Cook’s Cafe – and a cook on a mission that does not include retirement. Though he passed his 60th birthday a year or so ago, he’s a runner who has completed four marathons – including the Marine Corps Marathon and the New York City Marathon.

He also swims 1-2 miles a day, participating in Masters competitive swimming, a national program with more than 50,000 members to promote health and fitness in adults.   He is clearly a man whose life is disciplined by focus, resolve and patience – virtues I have long admired.

I first learned of Craig Sewell, the married father of three daughters, last March, in a story about A Cook’s Cafe in the Capital’s restaurant review section.  It sounded interesting, so, about a month ago, Mary Sue and I decided to go to Cook’s for lunch.  We found a “fusion” business that combines café-style eating of fresh, healthy, locally-produced food; catering for weddings and other special events; cooking instructions for the interested ; and farm-to-table distributing of local foods through its Market Basket and community-supported agriculture work. It was a delightful experience.

The joy of eating at Cook’s begins with the adventure of finding it.  The web site says it is located at 911 Commerce Road – across from the Annapolis Mall.  But be careful.  You actually get there by going down Bestgate and turning east on Research Drive.  Then you come face-to-face with a glaring, green Enterprise rental car sign and – voilà! – on the backside of the Enterprise establishment you will find A Cook’s Cafe .

Cook’s is a modest eatery with a large, modern kitchen and six four-top tables, run by a modest man whose humility belies his many passions.  In addition to a passion for fitness, Craig also has a passion for Annapolis – and especially for vitalizing the Annapolis harbor area; a passion for fresh, healthy food; a passion for local farmers and locally-grown food; and a passion to give Annapolitans an opportunity to eat healthy.

Shortly after ordering our food, Craig came over to our table.  I asked him where he was from.  “Indianapolis,” he said.   “It’s a small world,” I replied.  “I was born and raised just up the road – in Lafayette.  Where did you go to high school?”

“Lawrence Central,” he said.  “Really!” I replied.  “My uncle was the principal there.”.  Craig said, “You don’t mean Louis Darst?”  “Yes, exactly,” I said.  “That’s my uncle.”

That’s when I found out about his trek across America after graduating from Harvard in 1973.  Ending up in Seattle, he spent seven years working alongside a Czech chef who was a Jewish refugee in America.  That’s when he learned how to cook and fell in love with the whole idea of fresh foods, locally grown and the idea of local enterprises buying from other local enterprises.

Craig says, “I have devoted my life to people and service.  Everyone allocates a part of each day to eating. I love the process of growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, arranging and serving food.  It is a great process, valued by most, with a lot of social engagement.  Whenever you prepare food – for a wedding celebration, anniversary dinner or a retirement luncheon – you are always close to special places in the lives of those you serve.  It’s not a job.  It’s a mission.”

Craig says, “I’m not a nutritionist or an ideologue about what people should eat.  I have my own preferences, but if a patron wants to eat beef, I just want to make sure the cow it came from is local, grass-fed, healthy and happy.  Happy cows make better beef,” he says.  The little smile on his face is early warning that you are about to hear about the importance of the humane treatment of all animals, including those we eat.  That is followed by an informed discourse on our duty to protect our local environment.  Annapolitans take care of Annapolis.  Bostonians take care of Boston.  Craig Sewell combines the best of personal responsibility with the best of communitarianism.

When I figured out that he is now in his bonus years, I asked him what he is going to do when he retires.  Craig said, “I will never retire.  I like what I am doing.  I like cooking.  I like being involved in making Annapolis a better place.  There is too much to do to retire.”

I later discovered that Craig was a founder of the Annapolis Sustainable Business Alliance and wants to see Annapolis prosper in the context of downtown destinations that attract Annapolitans as well as tourists.  “People go where people go.  Research shows that an urban center needs about 10 compelling attractions that appeal to different kinds of people with different kinds of needs.  We’ve had enough studies, hearings and reports.  What we need is a vision for the waterfront and the leadership to make it happen.”

Craig Sewell is an outstanding example of a man who sees work to do – feeding people healthy food, paying a living wage (his employees earn a minimum $12 hourly wage), promoting community development, caring for the environment, including animals, and so much more – work he will carry into his bonus years.  I could have talked with him all day.

Some of his views about things are different from mine, but I enjoyed so much listening to his stories and feeling his passion for life, that I didn’t challenge him.  I actually liked him personally and loved his passion, despite our differences on some issues.  However, as he explained how our culture and personal health are being short-changed by what he calls “industrial food,” I did not have the courage to tell him that, at least three times a week, I drive through McDonald’s to pick up a senior coffee with two creams and a “dollar double cheeseburger”  – all for $1.81.  However, on at least one of the other days, I go to A Cook’s Cafe.  The food is great and the conversation even greater.

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