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Robert St. John

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

Guilty Food Pleasures

January 6, 2015

Misconceptions abound in the culinary world.

There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when I am eating in a burger joint, pizza parlor, or dive bar. People who recognize me often walk over and say, “What are you doing here?” These are obviously people who don’t know me very well because my good friends know that is the exact type place I love to frequent.

I travel and eat in first-rate restaurants a lot. Sometimes the meal is work related and involves research and development, and sometimes I just want a nice meal in an elegant setting. I spent my first two decades in this business eating almost exclusively in fine dining establishments.

Though when I am just eating for sheer pleasure and enjoyment, I want to be in a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall joint with excellent food. I will forgive atmosphere, and can often overlook poor service, as long as the food is good.

And by “good” I mean prepared well for what it is. I can get as much enjoyment out of a slab of perfectly smoked ribs or a wafer-thin pizza with authentic ingredients as I would an over-the-top classical French entrée or the latest trend-of-the-minute concoction in molecular gastronomy. Some people see me as being out of place in a dive or joint. The truth is that I feel right at home.

Working chefs are the same way. Find out where the chefs are eating when they get off of their dinner shift in New Orleans or New York and you’ll almost always find a very laid-back atmosphere with excellent food.

At one time in my career I was probably guilty of the same misjudgments about restaurant people and fine dining. Then one day, while in Aspen, I saw Drew Nieporent walking out of a McDonald’s stuffing two Quarter Pounders with cheese in his jacket pockets. I remember thinking, “Here’s a guy who owns some of the greatest restaurants in New York and he’s eating McDonald’s.”

To be clear, a McDonald’s is not the type place I am referring to and the food served there is not the casual, dive-bar cuisine I am talking about. Give me a plate of bacon-cheese fries at midnight in a dimly lit joint with mismatched chairs and tables and I am a happy camper.

With all that being said, I, the owner of the Purple Parrot Café— a restaurant at or near the top of the Mississippi food chain for 27 years— will freely admit that I like to eat at Waffle House. There I said it. I, Robert St. John, like a scrambled egg, bacon and cheese sandwich with hash browns at 11:30 at night. If I lived in New Orleans or New York I would have many more options at that time of the evening, but in Hattiesburg, Mississippi it’s Waffle House or my place, The Mahogany Bar, and whereas the food is infinitely better on the Mahogany Bar late night menu, it feels like work if I am there, so Waffle House it is.

While I am confessing my guilty food pleasures, I might as well tell you, the reader, that I like $1.00 frozen Totino’s pizzas, too. Someone once said, “Even bad pizza is good.” I don’t know if that is always the case. I have had bad pizza before and it was bad. But the $1.00 pepperoni Totino’s, the cellar dweller of the pizza world in the freezer section of your local grocery store, tastes good to me. Now I admit that Totino’s is probably a sentimental kickback remembrance to my broke, counting-change-in-the-sofa-cushions days during my unfortunately elongated college career, but I still like them on occasion. Though it has to be those little cubes of pepperoni (not the slices). There is no telling what that pepperoni meat is made from— probably the scraps that fell on the floor during hot dog production— but I like it, nevertheless.

I will also admit that everyone in my family eats “grown-up breakfast cereal” except me. They can have their Chex, Shredded Wheat and Special K. That just means more Count Chocula, Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops for me.

While we are on breakfast, I will make another admission. I eat at the French bakery across the street several mornings a week, but every once in a while I like to eat Pillsbury Orange Danish Sweet Rolls (the kind you whop on the counter). While visiting my brother last week I mentioned, while eating an Orange Danish breakfast, that we have been eating those things for over 50 years (and we still fight over who gets the sweet roll in the middle). While we are clearing the air here, I will admit to also enjoying Pillsbury caramel and cinnamon sweet rolls, too. Add to that list Fiddle Faddle and fried apple pies from Krystal (they are the only ones who do apple pies in the old school manner).

So dear reader, my confession is over. Absolve me from my culinary sins, and make me say 50 Hail Betty’s (Crocker), though I can’t promise that I will sin no more (there are still songs I haven’t heard on the Waffle House jukebox). Amen


Cinnamon Rolls

1 cup                        Boiling water

1 cup                        Shortening (or 2 sticks of butter)

1 cup                        Sugar

1 1 /2 tsp                 Salt

2                               Eggs (large)

2 Tbl                        Yeast (2 packages)

1 cup                        Warm water

Dash                        Sugar

6 cups                      Flour

1/2  cup                   Melted butter

1  cup                       Raisins

1/2 cup                    Brown sugar

1/2cup                     Sugar

1  1/2 Tbl                 Cinnamon

1 pound                   Confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp                          Cinnamon

2-4 Tbl                      Milk


Preheat oven to 350.

Pour water over shortening, sugar and salt. Blend and let cool. Add eggs and beat well.

Let yeast stand in warm water with a dash of sugar until bubbly. When the yeast-water mixture has cooled completely add to shortening mixture, then beat in the flour. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours.

Using melted butter, grease six aluminum-foil lined nine-inch cake pans.

Roll out dough into a large rectangle (1 foot by 3 feet). Using a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the dough with the melted butter. Distribute the raisins evenly over the buttered dough.  Combine the brown sugar, sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle the surface of the dough with this mixture.

Roll up dough, jellyroll style, from the long side. Cut into 3 /4-inch thick segments and place into prepared cake pans. Let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

Bake for 15 minutes.

Combine the confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, and milk to make the icing. Ice rolls while they are hot.

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