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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Grande Dames

October 11, 2010

Women are beginning to lead the way in the culinary world.

It all started with Julia Child. When she came along, only male chefs were considered “legitimate” in an upscale professional kitchen. Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkley, took it a step further bringing local cuisine to the forefront.

My favorite restaurants in other cities are owned and operated by men. The list is long and varied— Thomas Keller, Danny Meyer, John Besh, Charlie Trotter, Richard Melman, Alfred Portale, Charlie Palmer, to name a few.

It struck me last week that the independent restaurants in my hometown that I visit most often are owned and operated by women— three very diverse women.

To me, the Grande Dames of the Hattiesburg restaurant scene are Leatha Jackson, Alma Gonzalez, and Nellie Gill.

Leatha and her daughters have been cooking barbeque for decades. Almost every time I’m in there, I meet someone from a faraway city or state who has driven out of their way to make a pilgrimage to one of the South’s most-loved barbeque joints. A few years ago in Leatha’s, my dining companion looked across the table, and said, “I’m just glad that I live in a town that has this restaurant.”

Mama Alma’s restaurant is the real deal when it comes to Mexican cuisine. Last week, I took two friends on seperate occasions. One is an extremely well-traveled gourmet cook who fell in love with the place. This day Alma was preparing a soup made from the stock of a lamb that she was steaming in banana leaves. She added chickpeas, potatoes, and rice for a beautiful end result. My friend called it, “the best soup I have ever eaten, seriously.” She was also making Paella that day, too, and her version of the Spanish classic was spot on.

Several days later, I brought a friend who is somewhat of an expert on tamales. He has written on the subject and is often quoted in articles about tamales. In addition to calling Alma’s tamales, “fabulous” and “exceptional,” he made a comment that was the flip side of the statement my Letha’s friend made, when he said, “I wish that I lived in a town that had this restaurant.”

Nell Gill mans the cash register at Donnanelli’s and oversees the small space. The steaks at Donnanellie’s are prepared just the way I like a steak prepared— highly seasoned. The 12-ounce ribeye is a go-to food staple for me about twice a month. The ribs at Donnanelli’s are excellent, too. Not as sweet as Letha’s, but spicy and— like Leatha’s—cooked over real wood, not a stainless steel propane fueled monstrosity.

All three of these restaurants are what I call “joints.” Some might call them “dives” but that term has a negative connotaion to me. A joint is a place that is all about the food. No pretense, just real food served by “real” people.

My mentor in the restaurant business was a man named Nick Apostle. Nick’s father, a Greek imigrant, and extremely successful restaurateur, once told me, “Robert, you can serve the food in a room lined with pure gold, but if the dishes don’t taste good, the customers won’t come back.”

It’s true. I love a well-designed dining room, and I appreciate efficient and professional service. But in the end, for me, it’s all about the food.

Stong-willed women have always been a big part of my life. I was raised by one, and currently live with two. So, it comes as no surprise to me that my favorite restaurants are run by women.

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