Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Robert St. John: Restaurant People

It is my belief that some people are born with their life’s mission already implanted deep in their DNA. Just as we are wired at birth to like certain foods, musical styles, and activities, I am of the school that believes that careers and interests are hardwired from the start. It’s better that way. We’d all be boring clones and mindless robots if we all liked the same exact things to the same exact degree. The 18th century poet, William Cowper, said, “Variety is the spice of life,” and that’s back when there weren’t many spices that were even available to the general populace. 

It’s the uniqueness of people that separates us. That’s what makes life and interpersonal relationships interesting. Never is this more apparent than with restaurant people. 


Restaurant people are a unique breed. We truly are. Sure, there are other careers that set people a breed apart— but many of those are professions take a great amount of learned skill and formal education. Most people who rise in the restaurant industry did so from the bottom up. Some industries have the mail room. We have the dish pit and the busser station. Most of us started in, or around, one of those positions.


That is part of what makes us unique. Though there are many other components that go into that formula. There is nothing nine-to-five about the restaurant industry. We don’t take weekends off. That’s when the real work begins for us. While others are shedding their heels and neckties looking forward to a relaxing two days off, we’re suiting up and getting ready to make hay for the three best shifts of the week.


Nine to five? You’re kidding, right? Someone is in one of our facilities at 4:00 a.m. and many times another is locking the back door at 2:00 a.m. That’s not unusual. We knew it when we signed up. It fits our lifestyle. Most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. 


Bill Murray’s character, John Winger, in the movie Stripes was referring to soldiers in his late-night motivational speech to his platoon, but he could have just as well been speaking about restaurant peeps. “We’re all very different people… We are the wretched refuse. We are the underdog. We’re mutts! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt… we’re all very, very different!” Even people who haven’t worked in a restaurant for decades still consider themselves restaurant people.


Restaurants are brick-and-mortar hatcheries for the American dream. There aren't too many professions where one can start at the absolute bottom and rise to the pinnacle of ownership. I am certainly an example of that, as 40 years ago I fell backwards into this industry when I flunked out of college. My business partner at our Italian concept in Hattiesburg, Steve Andrews, started as a prep cook at my first restaurant in 1987. He met his wife Stacey, who was a hostess in that restaurant, they married, both got into management, and now own 1/3 of Tabella.


Jarred Patterson, started as a busboy during college. He now owns 50% of our Italian restaurant in Ridgeland Ms. There aren’t too many Good Will Huntings out there who started as a janitor and became a tenured professor, the top producer in a law firm, a managing partner in an accounting office, or the chief of surgery in a hospital. But the restaurant industry is filled— seriously loaded— with those success stories.


We are also, many times, the entry level into the workplace for the nation’s workforce. How many top executives and business have you heard who speak about bussing tables or slinging fries in a fast-food joint as their first job? When people are first able to get off government assistance and hop into the workforce, where are they doing that? With us. We are always hiring. Always.


It hit me almost on the first day of the first shift of the first restaurant I ever worked. I was smitten and bitten. I knew— probably within a week— that this is what I want to do. No, this is what I was born to do. It’s hardwired into my inner being. 


I grew up without a father. That sets one apart as well. There aren’t a lot of positives one can draw from losing a father, but one thing I didn’t grow up with was any preconceived expectation of what I should do with my professional life. 


My mom wanted me to be an architect. But there were no expectancies tied to her dream. I had friends whose dads were doctors or lawyers who expected their sons to be doctors or lawyers. Some of them became doctors and lawyers. Some were hardwired at birth to be brilliant and successful doctors and lawyers. A few are miserable being doctors and lawyers. Some are no longer doctors or lawyers. I might have made a pretty good architect, but I would have missed my calling and the thing I believe I was meant to do. 


As soon as I started working in restaurants, I was hooked. I went back to college and loaded up on classes while working towards a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management. I spent my spare time between classes in the library reading restaurant trade magazines in the periodical section. After my shifts waiting tables, I stayed up till three in the morning designing future menus and kitchen layouts. I couldn't get enough of it. I still can't get enough of it. I love it.


There's an old saying that if you love what you do for a living you will never work a day in your life. That seemed like a cheesy motivational poster saying to me until a few years ago when I realized that I’m a living example of that premise. My son was probably 13 years old, and we were riding down the road when he said, “Dad what do you think I ought to do for a career one day?”


I said, “Son, whatever it is, don't chase the money.” And then, not really thinking about what I was saying, I said, “Here's the deal, son. I opened that first restaurant several decades ago and never, seriously never, have I ever gotten up in the morning and told myself, ‘Man, I don't want to go to work today.’ Not once. That is what I want for you.” I had never realized it myself until I heard the words coming out of my mouth. It was true. It is still true. I’m a restaurateur.


It's not like my restaurant career has been a breeze. Far from it. This business is brutal. But I have loved every minute of it and the hard times have turned out to be excellent lessons in life and in business. The best lessons are often the most expensive. Business is problems. A successful business is problems well handled. 


I’m a restaurateur. My son is currently in culinary school studying to be a chef. It’s a choice he made on his own. These days we ride in my truck and talk about the restaurant business. Is his desire and commitment as deep as mine? He’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, I will keep doing what I do for as long as I can do it. My mother often asks, “When are you going to retire?” The answer is never. Why would I? I don’t hunt or fish much. I don’t play golf. I do what I love to do every day. My work is my hobby and a large part of my happiness. Why would I ever walk away from that? 



Lobster and Brie Bisque

2 1-1/2-pound lobsters, cooked and cleaned (reserve meat for soup and shells for stock)

1 cup white wine

1/2 gallon lobster stock

1 cup tomato paste

2 cups whipping cream

1 bay leaf

1 pound brie, rind removed and cubed

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme

1/4 cup butter

1/3 cup flour

1/2 cup sour cream

2–3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

In a large saucepan, bring the lobster stock, white wine, and tomato paste to a boil. Continue to cook, allowing stock to reduce by half.

In a double boiler, heat the cream and cheese together until the cheese has melted.

In a medium-size skillet, heat the butter and add flour to make a blond roux. Once stock has reduced, add cream and cheese mixture to the stock. Add roux and bring to a boil. Lower heat and add reserved lobster meat.

 Ladle soup into serving bowls and garnish with sour cream and freshly chopped chives.

 Yield: 3 quarts


Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

I was a grill guy during High school days, many/many years ago (T-willie's Frostop in Jackson). I enjoyed it. Also happy I went in other directions. It can be a tough way to try to earn a living, for both workers and owners.

Good stuff here. Easy to cook and tasty.

Sautéed Pork Tenderloin with Apricots and Mustard


1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, sliced on the diagonal 1/2 inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 parsley sprig
1 rosemary sprig
1 thyme sprig
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon brown mustard
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (6 ounces)
1/2 cup dried apricots, thinly sliced


Put the flour in a large bowl. Season the pork with salt and black pepper and dredge in the flour; tap off the excess.

In a 12-inch skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add half of the pork and cook over moderately high heat until golden brown all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining butter and pork.

Add the shallot, parsley, rosemary, thyme and crushed red pepperto the skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the shallot is softened, about 2 minutes.

Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the orange juice, mustards, tomatoes, apricots and the pork and season with salt and black pepper.

Cover and simmer until the apricots are softened and the pork is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Uncover and simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 3 minutes.

Serve witth a green salad.

Anonymous said...

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear why are you always peeing on St. John's column? Not that yours is not a good recipe also, but get your own column. Geeze...

Anonymous said...

@1:38 I agree.

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...


I have met Robert and he is a good guy. If you go back, you might notice I have never made a negative comment about him or his business.

Mr Kingfish can kill my posts with quickness if he chooses. I guess they are ok with him. As to Robert, When I post them as a comment, they are intended to be a gift to those who read the blog and nothing more.

If Robert likes them, he has permission to put them on his menu, since they become public property when I post them.

Cheers, peace and happiness to you sir.

Anonymous said...

Very glad to see Enzo updated their menu. I will go back and give it another try. The service was A+. I am a HUGE fan of Italian cuisine and would love it for Enzo to be a great Italian restaurant.

Anonymous said...

May I please make a comment? I own a construction firm and I scratch my head as to why younger people are painting themselves with tattoos from their fingers to their necks . We, who grew up without them are left scratching our heads and it’s not a good image to give your clients. My point is when I sit down at a restaurant and I see the wait staff with nose piercings, extremely large amount of tats and men wearing earrings and man buns, it makes me not want a server sticking their arms in front of me serving me because it makes me think of the blue collar workforce that wear tats and it looks unclean. I want to not look at that when I’m eating and actually it turns me off. I know it does others also. Can someone please enlighten me on this?

Anonymous said...

@7:19 Thanks you. 👍👍 Also, one grows tired of hearing my name is "whatever, and I'm here to serve you". Introducing yourself is one thing; we know why you are there.

Anonymous said...

A perfect service night is my drug. A tight running kitchen is a moving work of art. It would take me hours to go to sleep after great night at one my restaurants. RSJ does a great job of describing it but no one can truly capture the feeling/high that those of us that love it get. You never stop learning tips, techniques and tricks even after 40 years. I’m happily retired yet I miss it every day.

Anonymous said...

@7:19 for the win. Thank you for your totally on point post!

Anonymous said...

If you want to see the "behind the scenes" of the restaurant business, watch "Waiting".

Anonymous said...

I stand with @7:19.

I know, I know, the tats make the waiter or waitress unique; the nose piercing makes — well, whatever they think it does for them.

But it’s not an attractive look, and it certainly doesn’t add in a positive way to the pleasure I might have derived from a fine meal.

I’m able to remember when almost the only people with tattoos were sailors, ex-cons, or just plain ol’ white trash. Now, though, it seems that an entire generation thinks their Creator screwed them up somehow they’re going to improve their look by marking their bodies with permanent doodling.

Anonymous said...

As a relatively young'un myself I agree with 7:19.

I miss the days when only hidden-by-work-clothes tats were the only socially acceptable ways to have them. But I don't fit in with my generation in many ways, so I don't think my opinion is common amongst my peers.

Thanks for letting us ramble, KF

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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!!!

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