Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Robert St. John: Inspiration

 Check out this week's recipe.

Cameron Crowe directed my favorite movie of all time, Almost Famous. A couple of years later he wrote and directed “Elizabethtown,” Which seemed like a vehicle that was created from one concept—making a cross-country mixed tape— and everything that led up to that point seemed to be there to push the story towards that moment.

This is not meant as a slight to Crowe. I have been a fan of his since the mid 1970s and would watch an industrial instructional training video if wrote and directed it. This also happens in music when a concept album is molded around one idea or song. In the end, we take inspiration where we can get it.

In the restaurant business I have seen first-time restaurateurs open a business because they came up with a catchy name. Of the 1000 reasons to open a restaurant, a catchy name doesn't even make the list. Just another example as to why there is such a high mortality rate in the restaurant business.

My restaurant inspiration has come— at least in the last 30 years— from my travels. When we started the research and development phase of our newest Tex-Mex concept, I spent a lot of time in Texas, the birthplace of the genre. I worked with several managers of successful Tex-Mex restaurants and was advised by a couple of the top chefs in the field. We certainly did our due diligence when it comes to R&D.

When visiting so many restaurants, one never knows which ones are going to be the ones that set the creative wheels in motion and make the most impactful lasting impressions.

One month into the global pandemic of 2020, I stood out in the parking lot of our first restaurant, The Purple Parrot, and wondered what the future held. At the time it looked grim and dark. I knew that I needed to close that fine-dining concept and the upscale cocktail bar adjacent to it, but it was a hard thing to do because, after 32 years, it was like one of my children.

I had been working on the Tex-Mex concept for a couple of years and was planning to build it at another location in town, one with a lot of outside space for plenty of open-air dining and drinking. Standing there in the parking lot in early April of 2020, I thought, “Why not just do the Tex-Mex concept here in this building I already own?” The problem was that the previous location I was looking into had a lot of old growth trees and other vegetation. This was a parking lot.

I knew what the inside of the restaurant would be, but I didn’t know how I was going to create a lush, fun environment out of a 3,000-square foot slab of asphalt, 10-feet away from the busiest street in town. I sketched out a rough diagram of what I thought the patio could be and then sat with it for a few weeks.

In May I started working with an architect friend, Jamie Weir, on a design. My goal was to have the patio space open by Christmas. I just laughed out loud as I typed the previous sentence (at this writing the patio is still not open). We created a 10-foot wall that would seal the space off from the outside world, and then started to go to work. At every stage I asked myself, “If I include this component, will it add to the fun, enjoyment, and delight of our guests?” If the answer was “yes” and we could afford it, then it went into the design.

The changeover from the Purple Parrot and Branch dining rooms to the interior El Rayo spaces was relatively quick and painless. I knew what I wanted. Most of the décor ideas had been swimming around in my head for a few years.  Though I kept asking myself, “What can I do with this ceiling, or that wall, to make this place more fun?” What I hoped I was creating on the inside was an escape from the outside world, and a place one could go to relax, share a meal, and forget about life for a minute.

We developed recipes in the middle of what was the worst labor crisis I have experienced in my 40+ years in this business. On January 5th, we opened the inside dining room for limited service, with half of the kitchen staff we needed to pull off a successful opening. The prep crew was dangerously depleted. Food prep— making salsas, beans, picadillo, soup, sauces, frying chips— is THE key component to Tex Mex restaurants. The key is in the execution of the recipes. On the production line it mostly comes down to putting those prepped components together in the manner in which the recipe dictates.

I’ll be honest with you, the first three months were a nightmare. Opening in the middle of a global pandemic with a once-in-a-100-year labor shortage is hard. We had many rough shifts, not because we weren’t prepared, or the recipes weren’t good, it’s just that we didn’t have the people to execute our plan. Though it makes me appreciate those who fought so hard in the trenches in those first few months, many of whom are still with us today. They are forever on my list of champions.

Let’s circle back to inspiration. At the end of August last year, I needed a short break from all of the COVID situation and just a general break from the stress and anxiety. I grabbed the wife, hopped in the truck, took Greeley’s advice, and drove west.

Again, one can find inspiration in the strangest of places. We were staying in a very fine five--star hotel along the Rocky Mountain Range that served the typical fare that one encounters in that area, elk, bison, trout, but they also had a queso on the menu. We were still in recipe development, so I ordered it, and it was the absolute best queso I had ever tried. It was perfect. The chef was originally from France, and he and I visited the next day to discuss his version of queso. Our white queso comes from that conversation.

Towards the end of that trip, we found ourselves in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. We had several excellent Tex Mex meals, but my greatest inspiration from that visit wasn’t a food item. Joe T. Garcia’s in Ft. Worth has been around for over 80 years. We pulled up on a hot afternoon and the parking lot was overflowing. There were two lines waiting to get in and eat. One line, the shorter one, led to a small door on an old white clapboard building that wouldn’t look out of place in a New Orleans neighborhood.

There was a second line of people that was much longer, stretching for as far as I could see down a sidewalk. I made the choice to go with the short line and we took our place in it. Though through the entire wait to get inside I kept looking at the other long line of people standing in the heat to wait and sit outside. Once we were seated, I kept asking my wife, “I wonder what it is about the outside that people are willing to wait that long?”

“Just walk out there and see,” she said. I did, and walked into a lush, old growth, tropical garden that covered an entire city block. It seemed to go on forever. It was beautiful. At that moment I started making changes in my head to our outdoor patio plans.

We started construction on the patio in early January. At the time, it hadn’t rained for weeks. As soon as we removed the asphalt, it rained for two solid weeks. Our biggest nemesis on this project hasn’t been the labor shortage or even the material costs, but Mother Nature. Hattiesburg receives 54 inches of rainfall on average each year. To date, halfway through the year we are sitting at 47 inches.

But we are close. Ever so close. We will open this week. And this idea that was born while standing in an empty parking lot during a global pandemic and sketching out a crude drawing on a sheet of notebook paper will be— we hope— a fun, lush, escape for the citizens of Hattiesburg for many years to come.


Black Eyed Pea Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Aioli

A pure Southern treat with a twist, and a perfect use for leftover black-eyed peas. However, the recipe so good, you’ll end up making them exclusively for this application and using the leftover black-eyed peas for a side dish with supper.

1 Tbl bacon grease, or canola oil

1 /4 cup red pepper, finely diced

1 /4 cup red onion, finely diced

1 /2 cup green onion, thinly sliced

1 /2 tsp garlic, minced

2 tsp. cumin

1 /4 tsp creole seasoning

1 /2 tsp salt.

 3 cups black-eyed peas, cooked

3 /4 cup Japanese breadcrumbs

2  eggs              

 1 /4 cup olive oil

 1 /4 cup Sour Cream

1 /4 cup roasted red peppers, Small diced

Melt the bacon grease over medium heat and cook onions, red pepper, garlic and seasonings for four to five minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place two cups of black-eyed peas with eggs into a food processor, and puree until smooth.

Remove from processor and place processed peas in a mixing bowl. n a separate bowl. Add vegetables, breadcrumbs and remaining cup of whole peas, stirring gently.  Firmly form the mixture into one-ounce cakes and refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat one to two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Gently place the cakes into hot pan, and brown on both sides. Add more oil as needed.

Once all cakes are brown, place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake 10 minutes.

Top each black-eyed pea cake with a small dollop of sour cream and a few pieces of diced roasted peppers. 

Yield: 20




Krusatyr said...

Cooking SouthWest cuisine with black eyed peas is smart: they produce less gas than other legumes more frequently found in tacos, sopas, etc of Texas, New Mexico and Latin America, yet add plenty of important "bean" flavor.

Anonymous said...

Since cow belching and farts contribute to global warming, certainly low gas beans should be mandatory.

Anonymous said...

Gee, Robert, while my wife, our close friends, and I might otherwise consider dining at one of your restaurants, alas, we spend all our recreational money on traveling outside the state (and even the country) while staying at expensive lodging and eating REALLY expensive meals. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave anything left over for places like yours. Besides, if we went over our allotted budget we wouldn't be able to add to our portfolio of investments. If we didn't do that and something were to happen - like an unforeseen economic hit or something similar - we might find ourselves having to ask for, bailouts, "FREE!" government loans, or something equally shameful and embarrassing to upstanding members of society who had the wherewithal to plan for such things. Being a world-traveling, fine-living businessman yourself, I hope you understand.

Anonymous said...

@4:29 - Go eat a snot burger.

Anonymous said...

My favorite movie is Nacho Libre.
It is a multilayered tale of love, betrayal, honor, and duty.
Watch it with an open mind and open heart, and you might agree.

Thomas Gentry said...

An appearance by Max Baca's Los TexManiacs at the Grand Opening would be nice. And a tip of the Sombrero to the German,Pole and Czech immigrants that introduced the button accordion to the Mexicans.

Anonymous said...

In response to 4:51AM:

Those were the centerpiece of a special chef's tasting for a very short period of time at the French Laundry, Boulud, or one of the many expensive restaurants we frequent but at $295 per person, whole table or none, it seemed a bit silly even for high-living bon vivants. Maybe Mr. St. John will pop around and fill in the whole story. I'm sure he has many more.

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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.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

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.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

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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