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Morgan Spurlock on Revolutionizing the Documentary Film and Searching for Osama Bin Laden

By Allison Kugel
  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

    Morgan Spurlock has carved out his own genre of filmmaking, by not merely documenting the hot button topics that concern all of us, but in actually placing himself, in both mind and body, on the front lines. Spurlock is the guy who subjected himself to famous month long experiments: a diet consisting solely of McDonald’s fast food in his 2004 feature documentary debut Super Size Me; subsisting on a minimum wage income with then fiancée Alexandra Jamieson; and doing time as an inmate in a Virginia county jail. In recalling these experiences, Spurlock muses at his fulfillment in what he considers to be the privilege of stepping into another man’s shoes for a spell, and living an existence that is a clear departure to his own life’s path.

His research is strictly first person, and he feels it keeps him honest and eliminates the possibilities of any hypocrisy or distance between himself and the subject matter he chooses to explore. Though Morgan Spurlock plays down the emotional and spiritual fortitude it requires to be so far out of one’s comfort zone, he does believe he has found his artistic voice in these first hand experiential documentaries.

Morgan Spurlock’s latest project is his second documentary feature film entitled, Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä. His sophomore feature length effort, once again, places Spurlock in some very compromising circumstances. After visiting his physician for an extensive round of vaccinations and preparing for everything from hand grenades to gunfire to the very real possibility of American kidnappings, Spurlock says goodbye to his pregnant wife and heads for the heart of the Middle East on a quest to find Osama Bin Laden. Spurlock’s rationale as he puts it in his film, “If I’ve learned anything from big budget action movies, it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lonely guy.”

PR.com (Allison Kugel): When you were a student at NYU, what were your aspirations or ideas of the kind of films that you thought you’d be makingä And is it in line with what you’re doing right nowä

Morgan Spurlock: I think when I was at film school, like most of the people I was in film school with, I wasn’t really looking to be a doc[umentary] filmmaker. That happened just by happenchance when we made Super Size Me (Spurlock’s 2005 Oscar nominated documentary that takes aim at the fast food industry), that I just fell in love with something that I didn’t know was going to affect me the way it did. When I was in school I wanted to make narrative films. I wrote screenplays and short stories and short plays. Before I ended up making this film, I was writing a lot of plays in New York City. I had a play that went up and won an audience award in Fringe Festival in 1998, and I had a few different one-act [plays] that were put up around the city in little one-act festivals. That was kind of the path I was heading in before I made Super Size Me.

PR.com: How did you come up with the idea for Super Size Me and how did you start in this trend of using yourself as the guinea pig in your filmsä

  Morgan Spurlock, in Super Size Me  

Morgan Spurlock, in Super Size Me

   

Morgan Spurlock: We had a show that was on MTV called I Bet You Will that got cancelled, and we had about fifty grand saved up in the bank and so I basically said, “Let’s take this fifty thousand dollars and make a movie.” I had just finished an adaptation of a play I had written called The Phoenix Two, a screenplay. I started watching a lot of plays that had been made into movies, and they all kind of felt like plays that were made into movies. They didn’t really feel like a stand alone film. I said, “We’ll come up with something else. I’ll think of another idea.” And it was Thanksgiving of that year; it was 2002, when there was a news story about these two girls who were suing McDonald’s. Then the [McDonald’s] spokesperson came on and said, “But our food is healthy, it’s good for you…”

PR.com: Did he really say thatää

Morgan Spurlock: Oh yeah, it was fantastic! Because it basically went from the lawsuit about these two girls where they’re like, “We’re suing McDonald’s for being unhealthy.” And I was like, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. So they’re going to sue a company that sells them food that they buy, and that they eat and then blame them for itä! And then the spokesperson for McDonald’s comes on and says, “You can’t link our food to these girls being sick. You can’t link our food to these girls being obese. Our food is healthy. It’s nutritious. It’s good for you.” Then the light went off and I was like, well if it’s that good for me, then shouldn’t I be able to eat it for 30 days straight with no side effectsä When we first got the idea for Super Size Me, the original thought was that I’ll get somebody else to be that person. I’ll shoot the film and we’ll have somebody else be the person who eats the food for the 30 days. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t trust that somebody was not gonna, when the cameras weren’t rolling, sneak a piece of broccoli (laughs)…

PR.com: (Laughs) Or a vitamin, yeah…

Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, exactly, like, taking vitamins on the sly (laughs). That was the biggest reason that I did it myself.

PR.com: Well, even in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä, what made you decide to continue doing first person, point of view pieces, rather than just interviewing “so called” experts and other peopleä

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

Morgan Spurlock: I thought Super Size Me resonated with people in a way that was very different than the way people related to other docs that I’d seen. I felt there was something about this whole experiential journey for me that I found to be really exciting and different. So from there we did 30 Days for FX and our third season just finished [shooting]. So, in between Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä, we did two seasons of that show. In season one Alex and I (Spurlock’s wife) lived on minimum wage. In season two I went to prison for 30 days. Just out of both of those experiences I said, “There’s something really exciting here.” It affected me on a personal level and on an emotional level. There’s something I really enjoy about taking you on a journey with me. So long as I can be honest with you, and honest with myself about how I’m feeling and how things are affecting me, I can relay all of this to you in real time. Then hopefully this vicarious journey you’re going on, it’s almost like you’re there. I learn something, you learn something. I feel something, you feel something.

PR.com: Do you feel that these experiences have made you a more compassionate person, and that you really didn’t understand what something was until you walked in those shoesä

Morgan Spurlock: I think you would have to have a heart made out of stone if you could go through these things and not become more compassionate and not have them affect you. You meet people and you go into situations or areas that you normally would never be in. It’s so out of your typical comfort zone. It really challenges you to look at the things you believe, and I think it challenges you to have to understand what other people are going through and what they’re facing. It’s not the same as when you read something in a book. It’s not the same as when you see it on the news and you can change the channel afterwards. You’re there and you’re there for however long you’re going to be there. You can’t turn it off.

PR.com: Both in Super Size Me, and then even more so in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä, you put yourself at risk. In Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä, you went into territories where American troops get killed everyday. Were you ever afraidä Did you ever have the thought of, “Is this worth itä”

Morgan Spurlock: Once you’re there and you’re kind of embedded with guys, and you’re in situations where potentially everyday something could go horribly wrong and bad things can happen, you can’t help but think about that. For myself and Daniel [Marracino] (cinematographer for “Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä”) it was one of those things we didn’t talk about. You just kind of did your job, plan for the worst and hope for the best. So that when things do go crazy and hit the fan, you’re at least somewhat slightly mentally prepared for things. We’re with the troops when we’re riding along in the convoy and the governor’s convoy was attacked by the Taliban. There was an ambush. So, you see us ride up and the Afghan national army and their troops take out that Taliban guy, [a guy] who basically slit his own brother’s throat to gain advancement in the Taliban. When you’re in the middle of a situation like that, you can’t help but have your heart in your throat.

  Morgan Spurlock & Wife Alexandra Jamieson  

Morgan Spurlock & Wife Alexandra Jamieson

   

PR.com: What did your wife thinkä While she was pregnant you were not only thousands and thousands of miles away, but you were putting yourself at risk on a daily basis. What were her thoughts on thatä

Morgan Spurlock: Alex is an incredibly patient wife (laughs), and a very understanding person. She’s really supportive of me. We were about two months into pre-production on Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä when we found out she was pregnant. For me that’s when the film really took a big personal shift, because then it wasn’t just about, “Where is heä Why haven’t we caught himä” But, what kind of world am I about to bring a kid intoä The more she and I talked about it, the more she encouraged me to make the film; I think to examine that issue that every parent wonders. You know, what kind of a world is thisä She embraced this. And when I was overseas I didn’t tell her ninety percent of the stuff we were doing, or ninety percent of the things we were into, because I didn’t want to stress her out. She was already stressed enough with just me being gone, and knowing that I’m in Afghanistan; whatever broad stroke that means.

PR.com: What did you hope to get out of this, personallyä

Morgan Spurlock: I think the biggest thing for me is, whenever you go into a new situation and a place that’s kind of the unknown, you hope you gain some sort of insight and understanding. I think I walked out of this with a much larger appreciation and understanding of the people who live in those areas; now seeing how they live and what they have to go through and what their hopes and fears are. It makes it real. These aren’t just faces on the news anymore. These aren’t just the people who I see screaming and yelling and burning flags and burning people in effigy. That’s not the majority of the people who live there. Over the last six, seven, eight years those are the faces that have dominated our vision of the Middle East, and I think it’s completely inaccurate.

PR.com: After speaking with civilians in Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian territories and all of these different places, what percentage of what we see through American media would you say is propaganda driven, and what percentage actually holds water in your opinionä

Morgan Spurlock: I think that what you see is accurate. Those people exist. But, I think that we let them dominate the conversation. So, I think that what we end up seeing is just a very small minority of people that don’t represent the vast majority. As you see in the movie, 98% to 99% of the people over there don’t want to blow up America. They think about their families. They think about their own jobs. They want food on the table. They want to provide for their kids. They want their kids to get an education. And they want them to be healthy. This is a conversation that I could be having with my neighbor in Brooklyn. And God forbid we should ever see them that way. We just don’t get that imagery. Whyä That’s an even larger conversation.

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

PR.com: What I found interesting in the film were some civilians who spoke to you in street interviews, who, when you asked, “Why do you think some of these young men are being lured into Al-Qaeda,” a lot of them said what I have thought for a very long time. They said that it’s a combination of extreme poverty and lack of education that enables these young men to be recruited.

Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, and then you add in there the component of people who are manipulating religious teachings for their own political gains. If you look at a lot of the hijackers from 9-11, these guys didn’t grow up in the ghetto. Some of them came from very wealthy families. At that point it’s about religious teachings and how it’s co-opted to really serve somebody’s twisted vision. I think that what the film does is, it paints a great broad picture of all of those pieces. It’s not just one thing. You can’t say, “This is the reason terrorism is a problem. This is the reason people come after us.” There are multiple reasons, from the ones you said to the supported regimes that oppress and torture their own people that are backed by the United States. Those all add up to a very troublesome stew.

PR.com: When you were in Saudi Arabia (Osama Bin Laden’s homeland) you said you wanted to see how Osama Bin Laden became who he became, by seeing where and how he was brought up. Did you gain any concrete insight into how he became who he isä

Morgan Spurlock: It’s a country where the religion drives everything. It is a country where there is no separation of church and state. It is a nation that is built on that marriage. When Saudi Arabia was formed the religious practitioners said, “Listen, we’re going to leave the government alone, and you leave us alone.” It was the deal that was struck between the Wahhabs and The House of Sauds. That’s continued on for years. There’s no control or crackdown on what is s
id within some of these mosques or schools. The teachings just go on however they see fit, and that’s the hard part.

PR.com: And when you were in Israel you encountered quite a bit of hostility.

Morgan Spurlock: Well, that was just in that one town, in Mea Shearim (an ultra- Orthodox community in Jerusalem). I think you can’t sum up Israel in that one scene.

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

PR.com: It was strange to me. I’ve never personally been to Israel, but from people I know that have been there, they say that everyone is so warm and welcoming. And when you were met with such hostility in that one area, I couldn’t understand it. In the film, I didn’t get why that was happening. Was there something that provoked themä

Morgan Spurlock: I think that the Orthodox community is incredibly closed off and protective, for one. And our local producer who took us there said, “It’s fine. We’ll go and shoot there. I go there and talk to people all the time. Don’t worry about it.” And the reaction was shocking, yeah. [Our producer] wasn’t even prepared for this. When it got confrontational he called the police to come in and get us out. And also, they don’t like the media. They don’t like people coming in with cameras, which I found out after the fact. And here we are with a big HD high def. camera in the middle of their neighborhood. For me, the beautiful part of that scene isn’t the confrontation. That isn’t what comes out of it. The best part about that scene is the guy who is so concerned about how I’m perceiving the situation. And just as you said, everybody who goes there says the people are beautiful, they’re warm, they’re welcoming. The guy comes up to me and says, “Listen, what you see here, the majority of us don’t think like them.” There was a small group of people, five or six, that was causing this incredible raucous, that came up and was getting in my face and screaming and getting physical with me. And that guy says, “Most of us here, we don’t think like them.” There were hundreds of people around and he was so concerned about the perception of that event by me, that he had to make sure that I was very clear about what was happening. And his line is so fantastic, because it’s a parallel of perception with everything else that you see throughout the rest of the film.

PR.com: At one point you were in a metropolitan area of Israel when there was a bomb scare.

Morgan Spurlock: In Tel Aviv with the bomb squad. Those guys get 12 to 18 calls a day for bomb threats. Imagine that that’s how you live everyday. There are bomb threats and streets get shut down, and there could be a potential bomb everyday. That’s just part of life. That’s a tragic way to have to live.

PR.com: Did you happen to ask anyone on the street how they live with that, and how they just go about their normal routine without an enormous amount of anxietyä

Morgan Spurlock: Well they said, “We love living here. It’s terrible. We don’t like it, but it is what it is.” For me, I love the interview that we did with Yair Lapid (an Israeli journalist). He said so many great things about both sides. You hear people in the Palestinian territories, and you hear people in Israel. They want things to change. They want things to be peaceful. But, all it takes is one person; all it takes is one thing to ruin that.

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

PR.com: After your experience in all of these countries and seeing the lack of freedom, the oppression, the poverty and the lack of education do you think that there is any merit whatsoever to George Bush’s concept of trying to spread democracy in the Middle East to end terrorismä

Morgan Spurlock: I think there’s something really inspiring about democracy. Letting people have a government is a great thing, and letting people have control and a voice in government is a great thing. But, what people overseas have a problem with is that here we are spreading democracy, and that’s what we’re saying, and then at the same time you have a country like Egypt that has a democracy where the President has been in power for twenty-six years. People there, if you speak out against the government you get arrested. If you try to speak out against the electoral process, there’s a guy we interviewed who was thrown in jail for three years and tortured…

PR.com: But is that democracyä

Morgan Spurlock: That’s the question. That’s what they say. “Is this democracyä Is this itä” So, what’s happened is the image of America overseas, and this is the biggest thing that our next President is going to have to deal with, is not just this “war on terror.” It’s a PR war on terror. Outside of America we’re not seen as a beacon of hope and democracy anymore. America isn’t put up on a pedestal like it once was. Now America is seen as an aggressor, as a country that wants to dominate others, as a country that wants to control the resources of other countries. Like a guy said in the film, [America] is a country that wants to eradicate the religion of Islam. That’s not the vision of America that I want or the vision of America that I have. Whoever gets elected, that should become priority number one, of shifting that.

PR.com: Do you think there can ever be a bridge extended, and the gap closed, between the Judeo-Christian population and the Muslim population in the worldä

Morgan Spurlock: I’ve got Muslim friends. I know Muslim people. It’s not like it’s a gigantic gap. I think that we get fed this idea that, “Oh, we can’t understand them and it’s impossible.” This film shows that people are people. Those three religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – all stem from the same person. They’re the Abrahamic religions. It’s all a familial religion and, a lot of the things that they talk about are the same things. Even Muhammad, when he brought down the whole idea of Islam and started talking about what it was, he said, “It’s the same thing that’s been taught to these other people, only now the message is for this audience. It’s a message for the Arab people.”

PR.com: Do you think one man has a better chance of tracking down Osama Bin Laden then a government hasä

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

Morgan Spurlock: Well, I think any time you buy a lottery ticket, you don’t buy a lottery ticket thinking you’re gonna lose. You usually buy a lottery ticket saying, “Well it’s eighteen million to one; maybe I’ll be the one.” We knew that the odds were incredibly unlikely, but at the same time I think we had as good a shot as anybody. By the end, based on what people told us and where they were pointing and where they thought he was, we were probably within fifty to seventy miles of where people told us they thought he was.

PR.com: And where were you at the end of the filmä Were you in the mountains of Pakistanä

Morgan Spurlock: We were outside of Peshawar (in Pakistan – a region that generally remains closed to foreign journalists) at the entrance to the border regions where you had to go into the tribal areas.

PR.com: And you said, “It’s not worth it.”

Morgan Spurlock: Yeah. I said a lot of things (laughs), but that’s pretty much the biggest thing for me was at that point it just really wasn’t worth it. Alex was about two weeks away from having our baby. Everybody and their brother over the course of this, before we got to the tribal areas, said “Why are you looking for this guyä He’s only one personä You’ve seen all of the other things that have kind of pushed people to follow him and his ideologies.” You know, it’s not worth it. If you could go right in and be able to knock on 342 Main Street, and he opens up the door and you go “Hey, how are youä Can I talk to you for a secondä” that would be great, but it probably wouldn’t work out like that. Would it be great to find himä Of course it would. Should we find him and bring him to justiceä Of course we should. But there’s multiple things that are still out there that would have to follow suit and would need to be addressed at the same time.

PR.com: After being nominated for an Oscar for Super Size Me have you noticed that there’s a difference in being able to raise funds and to get backing and distribution for your ideasä

Morgan Spurlock: Oh yeah. After that it became incredibly easier to raise money and to get my phone calls returned. Super Size Me did something that nobody even imagined was going to happen. It ended up playing in, like, seventy-five countries around the world. It resonated with audiences that went beyond a typical doc[umentary] demographic. That film made me realize that I want to try and make movies as broad as possible. I don’t want to make a film that preaches to one specific ideal or one specific agenda or one side of the aisle. I don’t want to make movies that are for a red state or a blue state, or conservative or liberal. I want to make films that are for everybody and deal with things that affect all of us.

PR.com: Are you more concerned with documenting a subject accurately and exploring that topic, or making what would be considered an artistically well made filmä Which is your top priorityä

  Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä  

Morgan Spurlock, in Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä

   

Morgan Spurlock: It’s all about the story. It should always come back to that. And it should come back to the people that are in that story and what it’s about. For me, when we begin a topic we have no idea where it’s gonna go. We’re gonna start at “A” and we’re gonna spin the top, and let’s see what happens. It becomes a very organic process. We either let things push us in different directions or pull us in different directions. You have ideas of people you want to talk to and where you want to go, but when you hit the ground running, that gets thrown out the window. Somebody doesn’t show up for an interview, you don’t know where this guy is, this person won’t talk to you, this guy will talk to you but you don’t really want to talk to him; you don’t know what’s gonna come out of it. Then out of that interview he opens up the door to, like, five other things that you never thought of… or five other people. It’s exciting, it’s gratifying. It makes shooting documentaries very difficult. With Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä we shot nine hundred hours of footage that we then ended up editing down to the ninety minute film that we have. There was somebody that told me, before I made Super Size Me – I was just trying to get some advice and some feedback – and a friend of mine said that if the movie you end up with is the same movie that you envisioned when you started then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way. And that’s kind of a personal filmmaking mantra that I always keep in mind.

“Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladenä” is playing in theatres now. Go to www.whereisobl.com.

The third season of the docu-series “30 Days” premieres on FX Networks on June 3rd. Go to www.fxnetworks.com/shows/originals/30days/.

 

Weekend Getaway: National Harbor

There's a lot to be said and done about National Harbor.

 

The man-made fantasy island just short of Johnny Rockets can be a teenager's bliss with plenty of curves and carousals, but it's the grown-ups who inhabitate this island and a rich island do they make. Frankly, it's gawkers paradise, with plenty of surf and turf for the ride, and weekends can be jampacked between the burgeoning restaurant corridor, off-the-cuff festivals, discovery creeks and pathaways, a gigantic hotel called Gaylord, and a grand finale of asphalt strip that leads to the river where weekend stalls and booths cajole the mood for some public good.

 

Last weekend we were in such a mood, thanks to Publicist Carlyle Fairfax Smith who shadows Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center when in-house PRshrink Amie Gorell is trailing the big guns. We had been invited for an overnight courtesy which included a luxurious suite, dinner at the Moonbay Coastal Cuisine followed by drinks at the uber-risque Pose Ultra Lounge. Breakfast the next morning was heralded at Pienza Italian Market.

 

As soon as we arrived in National Harbor, what struck us was how close this was to our usual surroundings as locals, yet how distant it seemed to our travel buds – and as soon as we took ourselves off the ramp, we were in a new man's land and among other welcomes, there it was – a new plaque announcing that Disney had arrived – or was planning to arrive as the announcement had just been made in screaming headlines just days ago that the Disney operatives had finally landed a lucrative landing spot in the nation's capital (for those who have been is Disneyland Paris all these years, the giant tried to get into town through the backdoor of Virginia's countrywide but those DisneyDollars were met with DomesticDisdain and a mini-revolt was quelched).

 

Taking a walk in the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center is like cruising on a ship. It balloons in proportions and looking into the courtyard can be dizzying heights from the premium, atrium-view guest suite we were in. Of course it's a hotel, but if course it's a conference center. But where does one begin and the other end, that's hard to say.

 

Where else could you fathom a walk-way that reminds you of work and pleasure both at the same time to make you feel guilty that you may be indulging in one while neglecting the other (the photo below shows the pathway one must take if going to a convention or just indulging in the spa, or vice versa, and its a reminder alright)

 

Even though it's a large property, the staff is very pleasant and service is extra-ordinary. Since we had arrived a bit early than the usual check-in, we were compensated for our early tidings with complimentary drinks at the bar thanks to the Front Desk.

 

So we hung out at the National Sports Bar and Grille – its the biggest and most opulent sports bar we have ever seen with a 30-foot video wall plastered with wall-to-wall HDTVs (see below).

 

After downing a pint, we decided to go for a stroll in the lower-level atrium of the hotel which is lined with trees and fountains and zigs-zags through eateries, a bakery, a coffee shop and a sundry store. Aptly, they even have a store named Pajama Party (below) for those looking for a late night , last-minute hook up (and this would be the place for it).

 

Once you've decided you've had enough of the indoor sunlight the place has to offer, and you want to actually be on the water, that's when discovery island fun has just begun.

 

We spent over 24 hours just discovering what National Harbor was all about and why the fuss was so real that it was making everyone in Alexandria, and DC, nervous.

 

A few minutes of jaywalking, and we figured out why. This place is being built strategically (Tommy Bahama Rum posters on restaurant windows inviting you to the life and beyond) and at a frenetic pace that would have even given Reston Town Center a run for its money in its heydays. In just two short blocks, there is so much to do, so much to eat, so much to drink, and so much to see – and gawk.

 

For starters, the weekend we were there there was a casual flea market on Saturday and a major schmoozer-casual United States Yacht Show.

 

We snapped Coral Anika Theill of Stafford, Virginia who is a regular at the flea market with her Honeycomb Keepsakes, which sells 100% pure beeswax ornaments and candles.

 

A few doors down was the monkey-business boat show and we couldn't help but take in some of the million-dollar yachts so puritanical in look and feel that you'd just want to stare.

 

The inside cabin of a million yacht that was yours for the asking only if you didn't say recession.

 

Lending some cultural cringe to the theory of a boat show in these times was the tall and characteristic Miss Ann which was moored for the evening and also hosted the after-party for the yacht show. Seen here are newly-minted owners and brothers Frank and Guy Schroff who entertained guests at the party and wanted everyone reading this article to know that they just bought the boat (for a steal) from the owner of The Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia and that she was available for private charters and they were taking reservations for a private sail for the 4th of July Weekend. (Contact Guy if you want to take Miss Ann for a ride.)

 

So, having sailed our minds away, and before we cocooned back to our room, we decided to take one last lap of luxury to see what other things were happening at the National Harbor when we saw a few folks buzz by on those human-wheelers called Segways so we poked around and found one of the few official Segway stores in the DC area which was a cool find.

 

Before we headed back to homeland, we ate at the Pienza Italian Market and guess who we found in the buffet assembly line on Sunday morning?

 

Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder with a lady squeeze was seen hobknobbing the buffet the morning we ate.

 

Shaking Wilder's hand and taking his picture, it hit us:

 

We had finally arrived. And so had Gaylord's National Harbor.

Amazing Thanksgiving Package at Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel

Southern tradition, luxury accommodations and fine food and wine make Thanksgiving Weekend at the Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel an unbeatable value at just $69 per room night. The package, which includes breakfast for two, cocktails and more, is the perfect way to enjoy the scenic and historic attractions of the Richmond area, play a round at the adjacent The Crossings Golf Club, or get a start on holiday shopping in the delightful shops of Richmond and the area’s outlet stores. Guests can celebrate at the lavish Thanksgiving Dinner Buffet for just $42.95 per person, and throughout the weekend enjoy spectacular buffets and Sunday Brunch.

The Thanksgiving Dinner Feast will be served in the elegant Glen Restaurant, overlooking the terrace and grounds of the Wyndham Virginia Crossings. Seatings are from 2 pm until 4:30 pm. Reservations are required.

The Thanksgiving Weekend Package is $69 per room per night, from Wednesday, November, 25 – Saturday, November 28th and includes daily breakfast, a manager’s cocktail reception on Wednesday evening, live entertainment in the Yellow Tavern, holiday-themed movies in the ballroom, a self-guided tour of historic Henrico County and a special Black Friday Sale in The Crossings Golf Pro Shop. Service and taxes are additional as is the Thanksgiving Buffet Dinner.

Throughout the Thanksgiving Weekend, The Glen will be serving its famous buffets and Sunday Brunch, open to both guests and to the public. On Friday, November 27, it’s Prime Rib Buffet from 6pm – 9pm at $21.95 per person. On Saturday, November 28, the Seafood Buffet at $29.95 per person is offered, and the Sunday Brunch is $34.95 per person, served from 11 am – 2pm

Executive Chef Ivan Coleman plans a Thanksgiving Dinner Feast that combines Southern tradition, fresh local specialties from nearby farms and the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. The Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel also partners with two area cheese makers, Caramont and Marshall Farms. Start with a savory Mushroom Soup, Steamed Prawns in an Old Bay Remoulade or Home Smoked Oysters. Entrees combine fine Southern cooking with Continental touches, such as White Bean Cassoulet with Local Surry Sausage, Pesto Accented Stuffing with Toasted Pine Nuts and Southern Fried Crispy Pork Cutlets with Cranberry Demi Glaze. Locally raised turkey and fine Virginia Ham from the Carvery are followed by an array of traditional pies, cake and cookies. (Note to editors: See complete menu below.)

To make Thanksgiving Dinner or Sunday Brunch reservations, call 804-727-1480. For Thanksgiving Weekend Package reservations, call: 888-444-6553 or go to www. wyndhamvirginiacrossings.com.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

SOUP DU JOUR

A Celebration of Mushrooms with Sherry and Cream

FALL HARVEST

Marshall Farms Natural Cheese Display with Artesian Crackers and Lavish

Fresh Fall Fruit Display

House Smoked Oysters with Barley and Scallions

Curried Couscous with Dried Fruit and Toasted Coconut

Traditional Steamed Prawns with Caper-Cocktail and Old Bay Remoulade

Spinach Salad with Walnuts, Bleu Cheese, Diced Pear, Grapes and Sherry Vinaigrette

Iceberg Wedges with Cheddar, Diced Tomato, Bacon, Petite English Cucumber and Roasted Garlic Ranch

HOLIDAY INSPIRATIONS

Freshly Buttered Haricot Verts with Carrot Slivers

Braised Swiss Chard with Bacon, Onions, Riesling and Butter

Home-Style Red Skin Mashed Potatoes

Root Vegetable Hash Brown Casserole with Nutmeg and Pumpkin Cream

White Bean Cassoulet with Local Surry Sausage

Pesto Accented Stuffing with Toasted Pine Nuts

Slow Roasted Dark Meat Turkey in Pan Gravy

Southern Fried Crispy Pork Cutlets with Cranberry Demi

Roasted Salmon with Caramont “Old Green Mountain” Chevre Sauce

Kalamata and Fresh Diced Tomato

CARVERY

Crusty Dinner Rolls with Butter

Classic Brown Sugar Glazed Ham with Pineapple Sauce

&

Herb Crusted Turkey Breast with Giblet Gravy

DESSERTS

Caramel Apple Pie

Bourbon Pecan Pie

Apple and Rhubarb Crisp with Whipped Cream

Chocolate Spoon Lovin’ Cake

Pumpkin Pie Shooters

Chocolate Dipped Harvest Cookies

About The Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel & Conference Center

The Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel & Conference Center consists of 183 guest rooms, 23,000 square feet of meeting space and a 4,700 square foot ballroom. Meeting space meets the exacting standards of the International Association of Conference Centers. Wyndham Virginia Crossings also offers two popular restaurants, a fitness center, business center, and outdoor pool. Guests have access to an adjacent, separately owned 18-hole championship golf course, The Crossings Golf Club.

The property is located at the interchange of Interstates 95 and 295, just 12 miles north of the City of Richmond, 20 miles from Richmond International Airport, and 90 miles south of Washington, D.C.

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide Corporation (NYSE: WYN), offers upscale hotel and resort accommodations throughout the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Mexico and the Caribbean. All hotels are either franchised or managed by Wyndham Hotels and Resorts or an affiliate. Additional information is available at www.wyndhamworldwide.com. Wyndham Hotel Management, also a Wyndham Worldwide subsidiary, provides comprehensive hotel and resort management services to upscale hotels in North America. Wyndham Worldwide is based in Parsippany, N.J.

Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel and Conference Center
1000 Virginia Center Parkway
Glen Allen, Virginia 23059
Phone: 804.727.1400
Toll-Free: 888.444.6553
Fax: 804.262.2332
www.wyndhamvirginiacrossings.com

Benchmark Hospitality Chefs at James Beard House

For the fifth consecutive year, Benchmark Hospitality International chefs from the company’s fine dining restaurants, luxury hotels and resorts have been invited by the prestigious James Beard Foundation to cook at the storied James Beard House in New York City. What has become an annual tradition for Benchmark chefs was begun five years ago by Bob Zappatelli, who was Benchmark’s revered Vice President Food & Beverage. Mr. Zappatelli passed away last May 31st.

The culinary event, a five-course “Benchmark Holiday Dinner” paired with fine wines, will take place Thursday, December 17th, 2009. Featured Benchmark Hospitality chefs include Hector J. Morales, Jr., executive chef for Turtle Bay Resort and its signature restaurant 21 Degrees North, North Shore, Oahu; Peter Csikos, executive chef, The Heldrich Hotel & Spa and its signature restaurant, Christopher’s, located in New Brunswick, New Jersey; David Rodriguez, executive chef at Costa d'Este Beach Resort and the property’s acclaimed restaurant, Oriente, in Vero Beach, Florida; John Billings, executive chef for Eaglewood Resort and its restaurant Burnham’s, Chicago, Illinois; Francisco Aceves, executive chef of Stonewall Resort and Stillwaters Restaurant, Weston, West Virginia. Mary Watson, Benchmark Hospitality’s Chief Wine Officer, has paired each course with fine wines. Included is her Signature Blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Tannat — “Mary’s Cuvée” — created by Ms. Watson and produced by Virginia’s award-winning Corcoran Vineyards.

The “Benchmark Holiday Dinner” will begin at 7:00 pm on December 17th with an hors d'oeuvres and wine reception. A five-course chefs tasting menu will be served starting at 8:00 pm. Reservations can be arranged by calling the James Beard House at 212-627-2308 and are $125 per person for members of the James Beard Foundation and $165 per person for the general public.

“It is a privilege to be invited back to cook at this national temple to the culinary arts ~ the James Beard House,” said Greg Champion, Chief Operating Officer for Benchmark Hospitality. “We return with great anticipation and with reflection upon the person who helped establish this annual and honored tradition for our company, Bob Zappatelli. Each of us cherishes Bob’s memory and the important legacy he left our company and all Benchmark’s chefs, and we dedicate this special holiday celebration to his memory.”

“Every year for the past five holiday seasons, Bob Zappatelli and Benchmark Hospitality’s chefs have been a part of the annual holiday celebrations here at the James Beard House,” stated Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation. “We miss Bob and honor his legacy. And we look forward to the return of Benchmark’s chefs for the 2009 Benchmark Holiday Dinner. In some way we feel Bob remains here with us through the chefs he has influenced.”

The historic James Beard House was home to the renowned James Beard, who is celebrated today as the dean of American Cookery. Beard lived in his Greenwich Village, New York, townhouse from 1976 until his passing 1985. A gifted impresario who along with his great friend, Julia Child, led the way for many of today’s celebrity chefs, James Beard established cooking schools and published over 20 important cookbooks, many of which are still in print. As important, he left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity for generations of America’s home cooks and professional chefs. His name remains synonymous with American cuisine.

The Benchmark Holiday Dinner for 2009

Menu

Reception

Hors d'oeuvres

Saffron Glazed Foie Gras, Tuna Square

Texas Pecan Chevre Quenelle, Peach Habanera Preserves

Wild Salmon Wrapped Quail Egg with Caviar on Toast Point

Lemon & Olive Oil Poached Frutti de Mare nestled in Fingerlings

Kahlua Pig, Lomi Tomato & Sweet Onion Compote, Hawaiian Sweet Bread

VIRGINIA WINE RECEPTION

KLUGE BRUT

2008 CORCORAN CHARDONNAY

2008 BARBOURSVILLE PINOT GRIGIO

2008 MARY’S CUVEE

2007 SUNSET HILLS CABERNET FRANC

Dinner

First Course

Bone Marrow Flan with Butternut Squash Stew

2008 MENAGE A TROIS BLANC

Second Course

Pan Seared Chilean Sea Bass, Citrus Beurre Blanc, Micro Greens

2008 JOEL GOTT SAUVIGNON BLANC

Third Course

Melon Gelee, Crab and Avocado Napoleon, Tomato Vinaigrette

2008 KIM CRAWFORD PINOT GRIGIO

Fourth Course

Roasted Saddle of Lamb, Goat Cheese Polenta Eggroll, Rapini and Herb Reduction

2007 DONKEY & GOAT MENDOCINO SYRAH

Fifth Course

Lakota Bison Wellington, Native American Fry Bread

Morel Duxelle, Lavender Coca Demi

Saffron Risotto, Roasted Autumn Harvest

2005 FOLIE A DEUX LEWELLING VINEYARD

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Dessert Course

Black Raspberry & Fig Tart

Amaretto Syrup

Mascarpone & Lemon Ice Cream

Espresso Tuile

TERRA D’ORO ZINFANDEL PORT

The Benchmark Hospitality Chefs
Hector J. Morales Jr., Executive Chef

Turtle Bay Resort, North Shore, Oahu

Hector J. Morales Jr., whose experience includes serving as the banquet chef for the King of Norway, is executive chef at Turtle Bay Resort, the landmark property located in Oahu’s North Shore. Chef Morales is responsible for the oversight and management of the award-winning resort’s kitchens and the Palm Terrace, Hang Ten Grill and 21 Degrees North restaurants.

Chef Morales immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico at the age of 4. He credits his interest in cooking to his mother, who was an accomplished chef in her own right. He began cooking at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey at the age of 14. He was later accepted into the prestigious Johnson & Wales University Culinary Arts program and, upon graduation served as the chef saucier at the Americana Snow King Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved to Hawaii, serving as the chef saucier on the S.S. Independence.

In 1985, Chef Morales continued his education in Europe under the direction of master chefs from Switzerland, Germany and Norway. He served as the banquet sous chef at the S.A.S. Hotels Scandinavia in Oslo Norway, banquet chef for the King of Norway, and banquet sous chef at the Sheraton Hotel in Oslo.

Chef Morales became the senior sous chef at the Sydney Regent in 1987, Australia's premier Five Diamond Resort. He returned to Hawaii to serve as the executive chef on the S.S. Independence and the S.S. Constitution, American Hawaii Cruises and as chef de cuisine at the Stouffer Wailea Beach Resort before joining Turtle Bay Resort as its executive sous chef in 1996.

Peter Csikos, Executive Chef

The Heldrich Hotel & Spa, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Peter Csikos is executive chef for The Heldrich Hotel & Spa, the award-winning property anchoring the renaissance of downtown New Brunswick, New Jersey

As executive chef, Peter Csikos oversees and provides leadership for the entire culinary operation at the elegant center-city property, including Christopher's Restaurant, Christopher's Bar, a vast banquet operation, in-room dining, and spa cuisine.

Chef Csikos previously served as executive chef at the Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and in the same role at the Sheraton Crossroads of Mahwah, New Jersey. His first position within the state was as executive chef at Pegasus Restaurant in East Rutherford.

While in New York City, Chef Csikos was director of food and beverage for the storied Warwick Hotel. He was promoted to this position following success as executive chef for the property, which has a specialty in French and International Cuisine. Mr. Csikos held the position of executive sous chef for landmark New York Palace, working under renowned chef Andre Rene.

Originally from Hungary where he received his culinary education and training in International and French Classical cuisine, Peter Csikos gained early experience as chef working for fine dining establishments in Cologne, Germany, and with large scale restaurant operations in Budapest, Hungary. While in Europe, his culinary positions included such titles as head chef, chef saucier, and chef de partie.

Peter Csikos is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Budapest. He has received additional culinary training at Johnson & Wales University located in Providence, Rhode Island.

David Rodriguez, Executive Chef

Costa d'Este Beach Resort, Vero Beach, Florida

David Rodriguez is the executive chef of Costa d'Este Beach Resort and its acclaimed restaurant, Oriente, located in Vero Beach, Florida. The luxury property is owned by the internationally acclaimed recording artist/producer couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The menu of Oriente – named for the Oriente region of Cuba, pairs gourmet Cuban specialties with influences from Spanish, Latin, and Creole traditions.

In preparation for his post, Chef Rodriguez, who is Cuban-American, fine-tuned his Cuban culinary repertoire at both Larios and Oriente, popular Cuban restaurants in Miami owned by the Estefans.

Previously, Chef Rodriguez held a number of culinary posts in New Jersey, including as executive chef for Doubletree Hotel in Somerset, executive sous chef for the Palace at Somerset Park, and as chef at The Old Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. He has also served as chef for the acclaimed Dining Room at The Hilton Short Hills, and was chef at the Parsippany Hilton. Rodriguez launched his culinary career at the Rihga Royal Hotel in Manhattan.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Chef Rodriguez is a member of the American Culinary Federation and the renowned Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.

John Billings, Executive Chef

Eaglewood Resort & Spa, Chicago, Illinois

John Billings, CEC, is executive chef and assistant director of food & beverage for Eaglewood Resort & Spa, located near Chicago. Chef Billings is an industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience in building and leading culinary operations for fine dining, banquet and catering establishments. At Eaglewood Resort & Spa, Chef Billings is responsible for the property's extensive catering and events operations, as well as overseeing Burnham's, the resort’s signature restaurant, and Prairie River, the relaxed dining venue.

John Billings appointment as executive chef represented a return to Eaglewood Resort & Spa for Chef Billings, having previously left the property to become an entrepreneur, opening his restaurant, Monte's Steak House, in Faribault, Minnesota. The successful restaurant featured an open kitchen and was situated in a circa 1854 warehouse. Chef Billing's subsequently sold his interest in the restaurant to return to his resort roots.

John Billings is a recognized leader in his field, having been honored for his outstanding work by numerous professional organizations. He is a Certified Executive Chef and was named American Culinary Federation Chapter Chef of the Year for 1997 and 2001 as well as Best of Show, Geneva Executive Club Annual Food Competition. He has also received six Gold Medals, four Silver Medals and two Bronze Medals in honor of his culinary talents from Arklatex Culinary Salon, Lafayette Culinary Salon and Baton Rouge Culinary Salon, respectively.

Francisco “Paco” Aceves, Executive Chef
Stonewall Resort, Weston, West Virginia

Francisco “Paco” Aceves is executive chef for Stonewall Resort, located near Weston, West Virginia. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Aceves previously held the title of executive chef for one of West Virginia’s most popular restaurants, The Bridge Road Bistro in Charleston. Prior to this appointment he served as banquet chef for the Four Diamond-rated La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, gaining experience in southwestern cuisine.

Early in his career, Paco Aceves was employed as sous chef for The Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas, where he trained under Certified Master Chef Fritz Gitschner. During his tenure there, Chef Aceves was chosen by Gitschner to participate as part of the United States culinary team at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, one of the world’s most distinguished culinary competitions.

At the launch of his career, Francisco Aceves apprenticed at Handke’s Cuisine in Columbus, Ohio, where he trained under Certified Master Chef Hartmut Handke.

Mary Watson-DeLauder
Chief Wine Officer, Benchmark Hospitality International

Mary Watson-DeLauder is chief wine officer for Benchmark Hospitality International, the first professional to serve in this position for the leading hospitality management company. Ms. Watson was previously the award-winning sommelier for Lansdowne Resort and its popular On the Potomac restaurant in Leesburg, Virginia, Benchmark Hospitality’s east coast flagship property. She held this role for 16 years, garnering several awards along the way.

Throughout her tenure with Benchmark Hospitality, Mary Watson has been instrumental in strengthening the company’s relationships with signature wineries in Virginia, nationally and internationally. She developed an acclaimed curriculum of food & wine and Culinary University classes, which provide an in-depth look at a variety of American and International cuisine and wine.

Ms. Watson has also developed the wine programs for Benchmark Hospitality International’s newest properties, including Costa d’Esta Beach Resort and its signature restaurant, Oriente, in Vero Beach, Florida, and Naples Bay Resort and its restaurant, Olio, in Naples, Florida.

Mary Watson's expertise has been recognized nationally. She has been the recipient of the Wine Spectator award for the past 18 years, and has been featured nationally on NBC’s Today Show and in countless regional and national consumer and food & wine publications. She is an active member of the Women Chef Restaurateurs, Knights of the Vine, Society of Wine Educators and the Virginia Viniferea Wine Growers Association.

Ms. Watson has received the Gold Cluster of Virginia Award and served as a judge for the Virginia Wine Growers Association Wine Competition, the American Wine Competition and the International Wine Competition. She has served as sommelier for numerous events at the renowned James Beard House in New York City.

Attached Photo L-R, Top-Bottom: Hector Morales, Jr., Peter Csikos, David Rodriguez, John Billings, Francisco Aceves, Mary Watson.

__________

The James Beard Foundation www.jamesbeard.org, based in New York City, is the definitive culinary arts organization in the United States dedicated to showcasing American chefs' talents. It is named after the great American chef, Dean of American Cooking, and Father of American Gastronomy, James Beard, who authored over 20 cookbooks and hundreds of articles, many of which are still in print. Beard appeared on network television's first cookery program in the 1940s and established a re
owned cooking school. The Foundation and The James Beard House, where chefs from around the world showcase their talents, are situated in Manhattan in Beard's original townhouse, located in Greenwich Village.

The mission of The James Beard Foundation is to celebrate, preserve, and nurture America's culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of the nation's culinary excellence. The Foundation is a national not-for-profit ­ 501(c)(3) organization. According to the James Beard Foundation, all performing artists deserve a great stage: Musicians have Carnegie Hall; Opera singers have The Metropolitan Opera House; and Chefs, Winemakers and Cookbook Authors have The James Beard House. More than 20 dinners, lunches and workshops are held each month at The James Beard House to showcase culinary artists from America and around the world.

Located on the North Shore of Oahu, the 880-acre Turtle Bay Resort is operated by Benchmark Hospitality International and is a Preferred Hotels® & Resorts Worldwide property – a collection of the world's finest independent luxury hotels. Famous for world-class surfing, pristine white sand beaches, and its charming country setting, the North Shore also offers colorful cultural attractions, innovative ecological endeavors, and environmental adventures. For reservations or more information, visit www.turtlebayresort.com or call (808) 293-6000.

The Heldrich Hotel & Spa is located in the cultural heart of New Jersey in New Brunswick. The property is situated at 10 Livingston Avenue across from the city’s famed Theatre Row, just west of important US Route 1 and four blocks from the New Brunswick Train Station (serving the Northeast Corridor: Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington, DC) and close to Exit 9 of the NJ Turnpike. It is 45 minutes outside New York City and has rail service to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). The Heldrich features a 248-guestroom luxury hotel, Christopher’s Restaurant, serving freshly prepared specialties created in an exhibition kitchen to delight even the most discriminating palate, Christopher’s Bar, and an elegant ballroom, ideal for social and corporate gatherings. For more information on The Heldrich, call 732-729-4670 or visit www.theheldrich.com.

Costa d’Este Beach Resort in Vero Beach, Florida, is a chic, beachfront property redefining style, comfort and luxury on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Sumptuous accommodations, contemporary Cuban-fusion cuisine and discreetly attentive service, coupled with a fully equipped gym, bi-level Spa at Costa d’Este and stunning infinity edge pool, satisfy the most discerning world travelers. Costa d’Este is owned by the internationally acclaimed recording artist/producer couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan and is operated by Benchmark Hospitality International. For more information, visit www.costadeste.com or call toll-free 877-562-9919.

The Eaglewood Resort & Spa offers 295 spacious mission-style guestrooms and suites; a fine dining restaurant, Burnham's; and a casual restaurant, Prairie River. Additionally, the resort offers exceptional recreational opportunities, including a USGA-rated 18-hole, par-72 championship golf course, indoor pool, six-lane bowling center, and a comprehensive fitness center. The property also features a 10,000 square-foot destination spa with eight treatment rooms, two esthetic rooms, four massage rooms (one for couples massage), two hydrotherapy rooms with tubs and vichy shower, and a full service salon. Eaglewood Resort & Spa provides 38,000 square feet of superb conference space with 39 meeting rooms, which is supported by Benchmark Hospitality's signature conference concierge services. The resort's conference facilities are certified by the prestigious global organization, the International Association of Conference Centers. Eaglewood Resort & Spa is situated on 106 scenic acres northwest of Chicago, just 35 minutes from downtown Chicago and 20 minutes west of O'Hare International Airport.

The Four Diamond-rated Stonewall Resort is a 208-guestroom property with a lakeside lodge and lakeside cottages, a conference center, restaurants, complete fitness center and swimming pool, spa and an 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course. The resort is located at Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park near Weston, West Virginia. Stonewall Resort is a joint private/public development between McCabe-Henley LP and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. Benchmark Hospitality International operates Stonewall Resort.

Benchmark Hospitality International is a leader in the management and marketing of resorts, conference centers, hotels, and Personal Luxury Hotels™. The privately held company, launched in 1980, is a founding member of the International Association of Conference Centers. Benchmark Hospitality is a worldwide organization operating properties in major metropolitan and resort destinations. Benchmark's international headquarters is located in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston, with regional offices in New Jersey and Connecticut. International offices are located in Tokyo, Japan, and Santiago, Chile. For the location of Benchmark’s properties and additional information, visit www.benchmarkhospitality.com.