I love restaurants. Restaurants are my business. They are also my hobby. When I go on vacation I plan the trip around visiting restaurants. Sometimes the vacation is restaurants.
I love everything about the business side of restaurants, too. It’s stressful, the hours are long, and the odds of success are lower than most other businesses— almost 60% of independent restaurants are gone after three years— but once it’s in one’s blood, and one develops a passion for it, it’s almost all one can think about.
I got labeled as chef early on because I spent the first four years of my career cooking 90 hours a week in the Purple Parrot kitchen. The next six years I probably worked 60 hours a week behind the line in that kitchen. After series of cookbooks, a few television appearances, and a couple of magazine features, the chef title stuck. Though I really think of myself as a restaurateur.
My self-pinned Facebook bio states: “Mediocre chef, average writer, pretty good restaurateur, enthusiastic traveler, world-class eater.” That’s as honest as I can be.
It’s the restaurateur beast in me that needs to be fed, and fed often. I love all phases of the restaurant business, but the creation and development stages are my favorite. I have spent three years developing the breakfast-lunch concept we are about to launch in a few weeks (though it’s been on the development table for 10 years). The donut concept we are about to open has been in the works for two years.
I have probably put more than 400 hours into the research and development of the two menus of those concepts. Those were 400 hours that some might find tedious. In all honesty, I was doing what I love to do. There is not much else I would rather be doing.
Additionally, there are two concepts that are about to move from the development stage to the construction stage in Jackson, and a couple of things in the works in a few other locations. We’ve been busy lately. Again, it’s not work if you are doing what you love to do.
Once the restaurant bug bit me, I was “all in.” I immediately enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi and majored in Hotel and Restaurant Administration. I worked 40 hours a week as a server in a restaurant while taking 18 and 21 hours of classes each semester. My spare time was spent in the USM library in the periodicals section devouring all of the restaurant trade magazines while dreaming about owning a restaurant one day. I couldn’t get enough. After work I would stay up until 3 a.m. designing potential future restaurant kitchens, front-of-the-house layouts, and menus. I have several boxes of full restaurant concepts that never were— and never will be— developed.
Some people play golf, others hunt, still others fish. I study, research, and visit restaurants. Restaurants are my fulltime and my pastime. When I am travelling to a city I knock out an extensive to-do list of restaurants, and— in between meals— do walk-throughs of other restaurants.
I enjoy most parts of the restaurant business, though if I were forced to answer a “what-is-your-favorite-part-of-the-restaurant-business” question, my answer would be the development and creation of new concepts.
Taking a concept from an idea to a fully operating restaurant is something that gives me a lot of pleasure. In a strange way, it’s like seeing one of your babies being born.
I love it most when a new concept is about three quarters of the way finished. There is still construction dust on the floor. Most of the kitchen equipment has been delivered and is in the kitchen, but it’s not hooked up yet. The front of the house dining room is partially complete, and the vision is just starting to come together. There’s something about that stage of the process that is very special to me.
I like to walk around inside the concept once the workers have gone home and the job site is quiet. Spending time in that quiet, empty, soon-to-be opened space knowing that the pre-opening madness is just around the corner is very satisfying. My best friend, the artist Wyatt Waters, talks about how sometimes his favorite stage of a painting is when it is almost— but not quite— finished. I am not comparing restaurant creation to fine art by any means, but it is a creative process, and I know exactly what he means.
There is something very rewarding about physically walking around this creation that has been living in your head for several years. I love actually standing on a spot that used to be an “x” on a sheet of paper and walking through a kitchen line that started out as a rudimentary sketch on a cocktail napkin. There is a sense of closure when I can finally hold a finalized menu after staring at hundreds of renditions of it on a computer screen late at night for months.
I love the three-quarter stage of construction when I can finally see a plan and concept coming together. I love what I do, and I guess I say all of that to say this: Thank you to everyone— guests, co-workers, managers, suppliers, and support staff— who allow me to do what I love to do on a daily basis.
Paneed Red Snapper
Red Snapper filets, 6-8 ounces each
4 tablespoons Clarified Butter , divided
1 cup Seasoned Flour
4 cups sliced button mushrooms
1 1/2 cups green onion, sliced
3 ounces white wine
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups Creole Cream Sauce
1 pound Crawfish tails, cooke, peeled
2 Tbl Fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat oven to 350. Put seasoned flour into a large shallow pan. Lightly flour filets. Heat half of the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat and brown both sides of fish. Do not overload the sauté pan. After fish is brown, place filets on baking sheet and cook in oven for 5–10 minutes, depending upon the thickness of the filet. Add the remaining butter to the sauté pan and place mushrooms in skillet and sauté until tender. Add garlic and green onions and cook 2–3 more minutes. Deglaze with white wine and let wine reduce by one-half. Add the Creole Cream sauce and simmer for one-two minutes. Stir in the crawfish and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove filets from oven and place on serving dishes. Evenly divide topping over fish and serve. Garnish with fresh parsley.
Yield: 6–8 servings
Creole Cream Sauce
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon Crescent City Grill Creole Seasoning
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Crescent City Grill Hot Sauce
1 teaspoon paprika
Place all ingredients in a double boiler over medium high heat and reduce by one-third until thickened.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.