Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Robert St. John: Restaurant Mornings

“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Pablo Picasso

Mornings are magical in an empty restaurant dining room. There is a different energy in a restaurant in the early morning. Everything is quiet and still. It’s a stark contrast from the hectic hustle of the pre-shift scramble and the frenzied activity of lunch and dinner service.

I like to walk around in my restaurants in the early morning when no one is there. It’s something that I’ve always done. At 5:30 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. the place is quiet and still. There may be one or two people getting their day started back in the kitchen, but I prefer to walk around in the dining rooms at that time of day.

I make mental to-do lists of things that I see that need to be taken care of. Sometimes I’m trying to stay out of the way of members of the cleaning crew, but most mornings it’s me and the stillness of the dining room. It’s a rare moment of solitude.

The restaurant business turned me into a morning person. Over 30 years ago, I could sleep late into the morning. Back then, when I opened my first restaurant, and had to start showing up early to open the doors and cook, my lifestyle changed. Now I can’t imagine not being a morning person.

Early mornings are the only time of my day that I feel are 100% mine. No one is calling on the phone, emails aren’t filling in the inbox by the minute, and no one is asking me to make a business decision. It’s just me, the tables and chairs, my own business decisions, and the stillness of the dining room.

I do my best thinking in the morning. I also write in the mornings. That’s when my brain is fresh and uncluttered and I’m not too far from that misty awakening stage where I’m caught midway between dreams and total consciousness. Of the 17 restaurant concepts I have developed and opened over the past three decades, most of them were conceived before 8:00 a.m.

There is something about an empty dining room in the early morning that offers promise in the coming day, and it’s the anticipation of future business that gives me hope. An empty dining room after a shift in the evening has an entirely different feel. The late-night emptiness is prostrate and fatigued. The day is over. The business is closed. It’s done.

Mornings are more positive. Everyone is there to get the business open. At night it’s all about the closing. Opening is more positive than closing, unless you’re the team member who has worked a long shift and are tired. Then closing means the work day is done and it’s time to head home.

Back in the early 1990s I was walking through the French Quarter with my wife and passed a restaurant with a single waiter sitting at a table in an empty dining room at 8:00 p.m. It was such a desolate scene. It was disturbing and, at the same time, sobering. It made me grateful for the business we had at the time. In my mind’s eye, I can still see that waiter sitting at that table hoping someone would walk in. Restaurants need people.

Restaurants are really all about people. Whether it’s the people who work there or the people that dine there. Early in my restaurant career I learned how valuable people are to a business. We were the young, up-and-coming thing, and I had received a lot of early positive press that went to my head. I don’t remember exactly, but I am sure I went to bed every night patting myself on the back for all of the great accomplishments and recognition the restaurant and I were receiving.

Then one morning a freak thing happened. This was back in the days I was pulling 90-hour weeks in the kitchen. I was opening up and getting ready to oversee the prep work that needed to be done to handle the lunch service and I got a call from a prep cook who wasn’t going to be able to make it in that morning. A few minutes later a line cook called with a death in the family. Then the dishwasher called with car trouble. Before the hour was out another line cook called and wasn’t going to be able to come in. It was in that moment that it hit me like a direct shot to the head— you idiot, it’s not you, you don’t do this alone. No matter what the television news features, and newspaper articles say, it’s the entire team.

I had been taking the credit for everything the restaurant was accomplishing, when, in reality, I was a very small component in our success. I am even a smaller piece of the puzzle these days. I am in an office in a different location while 300 men and women are doing the daily work that is involved in opening, operating, and closing down a restaurant every day.

It’s not a one-man show. It never has been, and it never will be. I always try to give credit where credit is due, and 95% of the credit lies with the team, not the owner.

Maybe that’s why I like the stillness of an early morning restaurant dining room. It reminds me of that morning when I learned a valuable— yet sobering— lesson.


Dr. Pepper Glazed Ham
24 oz. Dr. Pepper
2 Tbl Mayhaw Jelly (or Muscadine Jelly)
2 Bay leaves
2 Tbl Pickapeppa Sauce
1 tsp garlic, minced
2 Tbl shallot, minced
5 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbl fresh orange zest
1/4 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp lime zest

1 cured smoked ham, 10-12 lbs.
1 tsp dry mustard
1 cup light brown sugar

Prepare grill for low heat cooking and soak 4 cups of wood chips.

Combine all ingredients for the glaze in a small saucepot.
Place over medium heat and simmer 30 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the solids. Return the mixture to the stove and reduce to 3/4 cup liquid.

Place the ham on a v-shaped baking rack in a disposable roasting pan. Using a paring knife, cut shallow slits in a criss-cross pattern on the top of the ham. Spoon two tablespoons of the glaze over the top of the ham.

Combine the dry mustard and brown sugar, and press the mixture over the entire surface of the ham. Pour one cup of water into the bottom of the roasting pan.

Prepare the grill or smoker. Add wood chips to the charcoal as needed. Cook over indirect medium heat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the glaze over the ham every 15-20 minutes until all of the glaze is gone. Cover as much of the surface of the ham as possible.

Allow the ham to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.

10-14 servings

If you don’t have an aluminum disposable roasting pan, use a roasting pan that has been completely lined with foil


Anonymous said...

Success with humility is always an admirable combination.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Kingfish. Mr. St. John is a good writer.
There's no quiet quite like that of an empty space usually busy. I've never had the experience of a restaurant, but have several other places. Airports are interesting, like Jackson when you come in on the last flight of the night. Churches are my personal favorite.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed his columns when they were in the paper. Glad KF is apparently picking up the column. Guy is a talented writer. And if you ever get to hear him speak, he is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

What's a restaurant? Heard that term used a long time ago, but can't remember what it is. This mask I wear in my closet makes it hard to concentrate.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

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This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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