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Robert St. John

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

Food & Art

November 25, 2013

Some consider food to be a form of art.

I don’t take food that seriously. I think food can occasionally be artistic, but I’m not sure if I buy into the whole “chef is an artist” thing. To me, a chef is a cook and a craftsman. Some have more skill than others. That doesn’t mean that the Frenchman working in the kitchen of an exclusive restaurant in Paris is more of a craftsman than a guy preparing perfectly fried chicken in a diner in Mississippi. Each has a skill set and each works within his or her individual wheelhouse.

We take food to a pretty high level in the Purple Parrot Café but I don’t consider it art, just really good food, purchased fresh, then prepared and served well.

Some people over think food and dining. In many circles food becomes too academic. Whereas I think it’s important that we know the origins of certain foods and how they got here, or the history of people who have carried the legacy of certain heritage cuisines, I don’t really think they need to be put under the prolonged microscope of academia. It’s food. Let’s just eat, appreciate, and enjoy.

My friend, and the uber-talented watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, says, “Anything taken to an excellent level is art.” I firmly trust that he believes that statement, but he usually delivers it after someone has complimented his work in one of our projects and he is trying to graciously deflect some of the praise towards the guy sitting next to him who did the recipes.

I am always appreciative of the nod, but I know— deep in my core— that there is no way that my food can ever come close to the artistic merit of his craftsmanship.

Food can be beautiful, and it doesn’t have to be fancy, over-wrought food. When speaking of nouvelle cuisine, Julia Child once said, “I can just tell that someone has had their fingers all over it.” Even the simplest foods— the perfectly cut cross-section of a juicy, vibrant orange holds beauty to me. But it’s not art. All things beautiful aren’t art, and all art isn’t beautiful.

I grew up in an artist’s home. My mother is an artist. Her mother was an artist and her mother’s mother was an artist. My best friend is an artist. I’m a cook.

I receive a monthly magazine called “Food Arts.” It has beautiful food photography in it. That is art. The art of photography— and the people who practice it well— is one of my favorite disciplines. But I consider most of the subject matter nothing more than dinner on a plate. After all, supermodels are beautiful, they’re just not art. Perfectly capturing an image through a lens at a certain moment in time is art.

I love food. It’s my hobby and my profession. I love the food business. I believe it is what I was born to do. It’s hard work and I like it.

Art is hard work, too. Yet artists get a bad rap. I was talking to Wyatt on the way back from a book signing yesterday and he mentioned that some people he has encountered through the years look at his choice of profession as a form of laziness.

I can assure you that Wyatt Waters is anything but lazy. While working on our most recent book I spent 10 weeks with him covering the entire length of the Italian peninsula. Seven of those days were spent in a car traveling from one spot to another. When one breaks it down, Waters completed 128 beautiful watercolors in 63 days. It’s his best work to date. All of the paintings were created plein air (in the open air) on location. He hiked up mountains, walked miles through city streets, set up his easel on busy one-lane roads, and battled the elements through two meteorological seasons.

He painted. I ate. None of the food that I ate was artistic. It was tasty, well prepared, sometimes beautiful, but that’s it. His work is, without question, art.

For the next few weeks the citizens of Mississippi have a unique opportunity, albeit a short window for that opportunity. From now until the middle of January, one can view the entire body of work that Waters created in Italy.

The Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson is featuring a main-gallery exhibition featuring 64 of the Italian paintings. The other 64 paintings are hanging in the Oddfellows Gallery on Front Street in downtown Hattiesburg. This will be the only time anyone will be able to view the entire body of work as many of the paintings have already sold and will forevermore hang in private collections.

Do yourself a favor— go see these exhibits. It’s beautiful art created by an extremely talented artist. There are a few paintings of food and those should certainly be considered art. In the end, if it’s hanging in a museum, it’s art. If it can be eaten, it’s not.



Cacio e Pepe


My daughter loves this pasta. It was her go-to dish in Rome and any other restaurant where it was served. Translated the name says it all “Cheese and pepper.” It is a perfect example of how authentic Italian cooking is uncomplicated and makes use of minimal ingredients— in this case: four. I like it at home for a quick easy supper as all of these ingredients are always in my kitchen.

1 lb. Dry bucatini pasta
1 gallon Water
¼ cup Kosher salt
¾ lb. Unsalted butter, cut into cubes, at room temperature
2 TB Freshly ground black pepper (more if you like)
2 TB Reserved pasta water
1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a large stockpot. Cook al dente.

In a warm mixing bowl, combine the butter, black pepper and hot bucatini pasta. Add a little of the reserved pasta water and toss. Add the cheese. Combine thoroughly until butter is completely melted.


Divide among 6-8 serving bowls.


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