Skip to content

Robert St. John

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


September 28, 2016
“It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change.”—Miles Davis

I’ve been fostering a lot of change in my life lately, and it’s been a blast. Some say change is hard. Fear of the unknown can be a scary thing. It can also be the introduction wonderful new things. On my best days I welcome change. It is what keeps life fresh and days less boring.

The first restaurant I opened was the Purple Parrot Café on Hardy Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. I consider it my third child. Actually, it was sort of my first child. There is something romantic about a first business. It’s the embodiment of years of hopes and dreams that finally come together to make a viable, working entity. Change is occurring there as I write.

In the almost three decades of its existence, that restaurant has been through a lot of changes. We have undergone major remodeling six times. The kitchen has seen four massive overhauls. The food menu has changed quarterly— though there was a three-year run where we changed it weekly— which has provided over 100 menu changes through the years. Tens of thousands of entrees and appetizers have crossed through that pass window. Art has always been a huge part of what we do, and there have been five artists whose work has hung on those walls. It is those factors that have helped us buck the odds and transcend the mortality rate for independent restaurants. We wouldn’t still be in business if it weren’t for change.

If there is one thing I have learned over 36 years in the restaurant business— 28 years as an owner— it’s that you have to keep moving forward and getting better. A restaurateur must listen to his customers, because they speak with their feet.

Today might be the most excited I have been about our original concept since the grand opening on December 27th, 1987. Change is once again taking place and I am fired up and having a blast.

In many ways it is much harder to change an existing business than to open a brand-new concept. Either way I love the challenge. I am at my happiest when designing and developing restaurant concepts and menus. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a brand-new venture or the remodeling and re-conceptualizing of an old favorite— creating is creating.

There are a lot of aspects that go into business changes and the considerations of such. First, one needs to be aware of the locale.

Though we are in South Mississippi, The Purple Parrot Café has always had a New Orleans bent. It’s the city where I first experienced fine dining, and it’s the style I first learned how to cook, professionally. The older I get, and the more I have gotten into book publishing and other ventures, the more inward my focus has become. We have slowly evolved into a “Mississippi restaurant,” and that makes perfect sense. I love Mississippi. I love living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and I love the food in our little part of Mississippi

I might have first learned how to cook in the New Orleans style, but I first learned to eat in Mississippi. Change number one: Make it a Mississippi concept. We have been “local” from day one. The challenge is to make it local with fresh ingredients and familiar within the local environment and landscape. The concept should tell a story of the city, town or district through, food, art, and attitude.

The second key to change involves product.

We are fortunate to live 70 miles due north of the Gulf of Mexico, and have always been blessed with the bounty of seafood that comes from those waters. I have eaten seafood all over the world, and the seafood available to us in South Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico is unmatched. With this latest change, we will broaden our focus even more, and dive heavier into the steak business.

The third key to change involves core values.

The key to long-term success and excellence in business is to grow with the times without changing your core values. A restaurateur can never, ever change his core values. Our core values involve serving fresh Gulf seafood, high quality steaks, offering an extensive wine list and cocktail program, while always putting a major emphasis on service and hospitality. That is who we are. That is what we must always be. Change can occur, but the core must remain.

The fourth key to change is commitment.

I have always based my decisions on the “long term.” We plan to be here 25 years from now, therefore every change decision that is made should be made using the premise— “will this help us achieve our goal of long-term success? Will this help us on our mission to still be relevant 25 years from now?” Restaurants are generational. That question must be asked, often.

A wise man once said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” He was a wise man, indeed.


Grouper Orleans

6 grouper filets

1/4 cup clarified butter

1 cup Seasoned Flour

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tbsp minced garlic

4 cups sliced mushrooms

1 1/2 cups sliced green onions

3 ounces white wine

1 1/4 cups creole cream sauce

1/2 cup Romano cheese

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

1/4 cup Parmesan Cream Sauce

1/4 cup Romano cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Place seasoned flour into large shallow pan,.  Lightly flour filets.  Heater butter in a large skillet over medium high heat and lightly brown both sides of fish.  Place filets on baking sheet and cook in oven for 5- 10 minutes .

Sauté shrimp until they begin to turn pink.  Add mushrooms and cook until tender.  Add garlic and green onions and cook an additional 2-3 minutes.  Add creole cream sauce and Parmesan cream sauce and bring to a simmer.  Remove from heat; stir in cheese.  Divide evenly and spoon over fish.  Garnish with fresh parsley and grated Romano.

Yield:  6 servings

Creole Cream Sauce

2 cups heavy cream

1 tbsp Creole Seasoning

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp hot sauce

1 tsp paprika

Place all ingredients in a double boiler over medium high heat and reduce by 1/3 until thickened.

Parmesan Cream Sauce

1 quart heavy cream

1/2 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

1/3 pound Romano cheese, grated

2 teaspoons white pepper

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

light blond roux– 3 tablespoons butter + 4 tablespoons flour

Bring heavy cream to a boil.  Add cheese and stir well.  Add pepper and nutmeg.  Prepare roux.  Add roux to milk & cheese mixture and cool until thickened.

Yield:  1 quart

Recent Posts

Father’s Day 2024

By the time this column is published Father’s Day will be several days in the rearview mirror. That may be…

Read more

For the Love of Fish

This month kicked off my 44th year in the restaurant business. The first seven years were spent working for other…

Read more

Big Apple Birthdays

BROOKLYN— Growing up I had relatives in New York. My maternal grandmother and grandfather lived here for 10 years or…

Read more