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Robert St. John

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


September 19, 2018

A strange phenomenon occurred after I opened our first fine-dining restaurant in 1987. It’s still happening. Most people assume the chef/owner of an upscale establishment must eat upscale food all of the time. They picture a life filled with micro greens, waygu beef, caviar, and foie gras. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most chefs live off of black coffee and heavy breads in the morning and whatever junk food is available after midnight at the end of the day. During the day, and especially throughout the shift— there is constant tasting and sampling. The most substantial— and complete— meal most chefs enjoy during their work week, is the family meal that the staff shares before service.

That’s probably true for most occupations. When one is off duty, one doesn’t want to have much to do with whatever it is that they deal with all week long. It has been my experience that chefs and restaurateurs love research and development. Though when they aren’t eating food in their establishment, or dining at similar concepts mining other restaurants for ideas, they’re eating basic everyday food. That is certainly the situation in my case.

I often have people look in my shopping cart at the grocery store. Sometimes they try to be sly about it, other times, they’ll say something like, “Let’s see what the chef is having for dinner.” It’s always nice when they’ve caught me on a night I’m throwing together a pasta dish for the family and needed some last-minute ingredients from the gourmet section. But, more times than not, I’ve got a box of Cap’n Crunch, some Talenti gelato, chips, and a few frozen pizzas. In those instances, they approach the basket with a wide-eyed look of wonder and quickly have their expectations expunged, and mumble something like, “Oh,” which is the polite, edited version of, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you ate crappy food like this.”

I have had ladies at parties say, “I want to see what is in your refrigerator.” I’m always hopeful that the chefs that are catering the event are working out of the kitchen refrigerator and not the laundry room refrigerator because it will be loaded with boiled shrimp, raw tuna, smoked beef tenderloins and a few exotic condiments. If not, they are going to be disappointed with very standard, every day, family-of-four fare.

For some reason, some people think I am above eating delivery pizza, junk cereal, and all-night diner food. I love all of those things. But the one food I have had the longest love affair with is French fries.

I love French fries.

I feel like the above statement isn’t really strong enough to convey my point. I really, really, really love French fried potatoes.

There are a few food items and food groups that have stayed with me my entire life and become like old friends. My love affair with French fries began every day after kindergarten at a local burger joint called The Frostop. I ate the hamburger because my mother made me. What I really wanted were the fries.

Back then I squeezed ketchup on my fries. Today, I dip. One wouldn’t think so, but there is a big difference in the flavor profile between the two applications. Sure, it’s fried potatoes and ketchup in both instances, but having ketchup on top of the fries is different— messy, but good. If I’m feeling especially youthful these days, and the restaurant has ketchup in a squeeze bottle, I’ll squeeze a few zig-zags of ketchup over the top of my fries, if for no other reason than to re-live my youth for a few minutes.

The height of my squeezing ketchup on French fries came during the summers of my teen years when I would order a cardboard boat of salted fries at the teen room of the local country club. We weren’t members, but my grandmother was, and she let me be her guest and charge to her account. I didn’t abuse the privilege, because I was mainly interested in swimming with my friends, talking with the girls who were tanning on the pool deck, and eating French fries. If one were to ask 14-year old Robert what his priorities in life were in the summer of 1975, they would have been those three things (but not in that order).

I have always believed that even bad pizza is still pretty good. Not so with French fries. Bad French fries are bad.

I can remember my favorite fry meals just as vividly as I can remember my favorite steak, pasta, and fish meals. My top five fry experiences of all-time are:

5. Teen Room, Hattiesburg Country Club— This is an instance where the memory is probably way better than the quality (the scenery probably helps, too). I am sure they were using run-of-the-mill, every day, frozen fries. But the combination of the heat mixed with sunshine, the smell of chlorine, and relief from air-conditioning made them taste so good. It’s the first time I can ever remember thinking, “I really love French fries.”

4. Barcelona— My favorite tapas restaurant in Barcelona is a place called Tapeo. Chef Dani fries potatoes in extra virgin olive oil in a skillet on the small stovetop in his tiny, one-man kitchen. It’s the same olive oil in which he par cooks ribs. The flavor of the fries is amazing.

3. New Orleans— Late-night fries at Sylvain— My friend, and the Chief Operations Officer in all of our restaurants, Dusty Frierson, is a late-night French fry disciple. He eats uber clean most every day of the week, but when he’s out doing research and development, he ends up in some type upscale restaurant (likely his sixth restaurant visit of the evening) eating fries. On the nights I can stay up that late, I take his advice and go to Sylvain in New Orleans.

2. Mercatale, Tuscany— Our friend Marina, a lovely Dutch woman living in Italy, took my friend Wyatt and me to a remote burger joint in the Tuscan countryside this past spring. The place was a small, very casual, open-air joint called Vinile (vinyl in English, named for the owner’s love of vinyl record albums—my kind of guy). The first time we visited, we had been in Italy for a month, eating nothing but Italian food with our guests. This night off was a welcome respite with a large hamburger and expertly prepared fires. They were clean and crisp, and tasted like home.

1. Aspen— The best fries I have ever eaten in my life were in Aspen, Colorado in the mid 1990s. Fries drizzled with truffle oil and topped with shaved Parmigianino Reggianno are a dime a dozen these days. But the restaurant Ajax was the first place I ate them 25 years ago. They also had a light sprinkling of sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. Potato perfection.

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