Skip to content

Robert St. John

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

Creative Collaboration

September 13, 2016


If one reads a business book about corporate collaboration there will be many salient points made about how the collaborative process leads to various levels of success. A few years ago one of the hot business buzz phrases was “collaboration.”

Those of-the-moment concepts and motivational-poster affirmations can be overwrought and overly simplified. What I know to be true is: collaboration is fun and, in my experience, has always proven to be a more probable route to success.

Most of the restaurant concepts I have been a part of have been collaborations between myself and, at least, one other person. Whether it was with menu, atmosphere, concept, or culture, I have always found that working with someone else towards a common goal is enjoyable, rewarding— both personally and professionally— and successful.

Nowhere has collaboration— in my personal life and professional career— been more gratifying, fulfilling, and outright fun than the working partnership with my best friend and renowned watercolorist, Wyatt Waters.

Waters and I have collaborated on three coffee table cookbooks, with a fourth in the works.A Southern Palate was our first book. It was written and developed shortly after the two of us met in 1999. That book surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams for success, which I believe was due to the fact that the collaboration hit on all cylinders. Its origins were organic and our aim— to produce a beautiful book that told the story of the south through food and art from our respective perspectives— was true.

Waters and I never planned on doing a second book. But we became fast friends during the process of the first book, and after years of travelling together and doing demos and book signings, while our families grew closer, another book project grew organically out of the friendship. Southern Seasons told the story of the seasons of food, art, nature, and life throughout the south, and once again included Waters’ amazing watercolors.

Several years later a casual lunch conversation with Waters turned into a joint-book project that covered the entire Italian peninsula. In a 10-week span he and I (along with my wife, two kids, and another friend) covered Italy from the southernmost tip of Sicily to the Alps. Waters completed 128 paintings in 62 non-travel days— an amazing feat. The resulting book, An Italian Palate, might be the best book we will ever publish. The recipes were spot on and Waters’ paintings were Sargentesque in their beauty, intent, overall quality, and skillfulness.

It was around the time we were travelling throughout Italy that Waters and I began talking about collaborating on a restaurant project together. A few years ago, during a breakfast in Ocean Springs, we were ready to pull the trigger when another tenant picked up the building before we could start the process. Since then we have talked about what a restaurant that focused on my food and his art would look and feel like.

Throughout the history of the world food and art have always made life better. Italy and France are the greatest examples of cultures that put a premium on food and art. A chef/restaurateur collaborating with an artist is probably not a new concept, and had likely been done before Waters and I began working together, but we didn’t know about it, or hadn’t seen any examples, so it was uncharted territory for us.

While talking about collaborating on a restaurant project it struck me one day— why not here? Why not the flagship of all of our restaurants in my hometown? Why not the Purple Parrot? Why save those beautiful watercolors for another concept?

We opened the Purple Parrot Café in my hometown of Hattiesburg in 1987. The original art that hung in the Parrot was by local artist, Beverly Dennis. Within a few years the dining room displayed the beautiful works of my friend, Bill Dunlap. After a major re-concepting, followed by a re-working of the theme, we hung the art of neo-cubist artist Max Papart. In 2013, Jackson artist, William Goodman’s work adorned the Parrot’s walls. Goodman’s work will now move to Branch, our cocktail/small plate concept, and the artwork in the new Purple Parrot Seafood & Steaks concept will be all Waters.

For the past several weeks Waters has been bunking at our house and driving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast every morning. He is painting the Coast from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs. The new works will hang in Purple Parrot Seafood & Steaks beginning October, 3rd. We have finally been able to collaborate on a restaurant together and it has been a blast.

These past few weeks have reminded me of our time in Italy. Waters, who always chooses to work on location, has been single-minded and focused. It is hot, hard work making beautiful art. Waters has an amazing work ethic to go along with his talent. Most of all he has a passion for excellence and being true to his craft and true to himself. That is what collaborative process is all about.

RSJ’s Minestrone Soup

I created a version of this in the early days of the Purple Parrot Café in the late 1980s. When we opened Tabella, I revised it and it’s a regular menu item.

¼ c.     Pure olive oil
1 ½ c.  Onion, diced
1 ½ c. Carrot, diced
1 c.      Celery, diced
½ c.     Garlic, minced
¼ c.     Kosher salt
1 tsp    Dried basil
1 tsp    Dried oregano
½ tsp   Dried thyme
2 tsp    Fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp   Crushed red pepper
2 ea.     Bay leaf
2 TB    Balsamic vinegar
½ c.     White wine
¼ c.     Tomato paste
2 ea.     28 oz. can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
1 gal.   Vegetable Stock
2 c.      Zucchini, medium dice
2 c.      Yellow squash, medium dice
1 ea      10 oz. package frozen spinach, thawed, drained
2 ea      15 oz. can kidney beans, drained
¼ c.     Pesto
1 TB    Worcestershire sauce

Heat olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat.

Add onions, carrots, celery, salt, peppers, basil, oregano, thyme and bay leaves. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add wine and balsamic vinegar.  Continue cooking for 3 minutes.

Add tomato paste and cook 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to let it burn.

Add canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Simmer for 1 hour.

Add zucchini, squash, spinach and kidney beans and cook for 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in pesto and Worcestershire.


Yield: 1 gallon


Recent Posts

My Top 25 Cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows,…

Read more

Travel Connections

QUEENS, NEW YORK— After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing—…

Read more

A True Magical Mystery Tour

LIVERPOOL— I am midway through a 10-day tour of England and Scotland with a group of 26 Americans. All have…

Read more