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Robert St. John

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

Cooking with Dad

June 12, 2019

“Dad, can we cook supper together tonight?” Are there any more beautiful words in the English language? Well, probably, but those were some pretty sweet words when I heard them last week. I’ll put it this way— in that moment, there were no better words I would have rather heard from my 18-year old son. The answer to that question is always, “Absolutely.”

His question came out of the blue. We were walking into a movie theatre about to watch an early afternoon matinee. I did nothing but think about cooking supper with my son during the entire movie. I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened on the big screen, but in my mind, I ran through one hundred potential recipes and menus. When the movie was over, we drove to the grocery store and his mom and sister waited in the car while the boy and I shopped for dinner.

Somewhere in the middle of the third act of the movie I had decided to prepare a pasta dish I ate in Italy this past spring. It would be an easy dish to prepare together and a dish I had never prepared before, so it would be a new experience for both of us. It was a simple rigatoni prepared by a great Italian home cook named Nadia who cooked it as a part of a dinner for one of our tour groups. It was nothing fancy or complicated, very simple and pure like most good Tuscan dishes, but it had made such a good impression on me that I had gone into the kitchen and asked her how she made it after dinner. She took 30 seconds and walked me through it, and I wrote it down— word for word— in the notes feature of my phone.

“Nadia’s Rigatoni– Melt Gorgonzola and milk in a skillet. Then add the rigatoni to the skillet. Then add Parmesan and a little butter. Then nutmeg black pepper and a little orange zest.”

My son and I purchased the items that we didn’t have and headed home to prepare dinner together.

“Dad, can we listen to Led Zeppelin on the Bluetooth speaker while we cook dinner?” The second time in a matter of hours I had heard such beautiful words coming out of my son’s mouth. Again, the answer to that question is always, “Absolutely.”

The cooking process was fairly smooth. He has been cooking on his own for the past four years. He eats very clean and has mastered grilled chicken, several other healthy entrees, roasted vegetables, and breakfast. He and I aren’t the typical South Mississippi father-son duo. Neither of us are into hunting. We’ll go duck hunting with my brother once a year, and I like to turkey hunt, but the turkeys are fairly safe when I’m in the woods calling. Fishing is another once-a-year event for us, and usually saltwater, not freshwater.

He and I share interests in football, movies, music, travel, and food.

He is headed to college in a few weeks. He wants to go into the restaurant business which certainly pleases me, but it’s been 100% his idea. I haven’t pushed anything on him. The restaurant business is too brutal to force someone who is not completely passionate about it into a life of potential misery and stress.

I told him, if that’s what you really want to do, and you want to come back and work in our restaurants one day, then here is the plan: Get a four-year degree majoring in business with a minor in accounting. Then spend two years in chef school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. That will include an externship in New York City. When you graduate, you need to work four six-month stints in other people’s restaurants, starting with one of my friends in Italy, and then three six-month stints for restaurateur/chef friends of ours in New Orleans. After that, you can come back to one of our restaurants, but— even with the diploma and chef experience— you’ll start at the bottom and begin to work your way up through the ranks as everyone else has done, because that is the only way the bosses son will ever gain any respect.

That’s an eight-year plan, and basically, it’s what I wish I could have done. With almost 40 years to reflect in this business it is what I know would have helped me be a better restaurateur, chef, and employer. I took a much fortuitous and rocky route, making most of my mistakes on my own dime and not on other people’s. He is all-in and can recite the plan verbatim.

For me, cooking with my son is probably what bagging a big trophy buck or limiting out on redfish feels like with other father-son duos. There’s almost nothing in the world I’d rather be doing, and certainly no one I’d rather be doing it with. We have a limited number of days left before he goes to college. We are going to take a father-son trip out west to see Paul McCartney, tour the Grand Canyon, and eat in a lot of restaurants.

The pasta turned out good. I was able to show him a few tips, and he learned the value of adding a little pasta water to the sauce to smooth it out. I taught him how to make an arugula salad the way the Tuscans do, and we toasted some ciabatta and drizzled my friend Enzo’s olive oil on it.

In the middle of dinner, he said, “Dad, can we cook dinner together at least two nights a week?” It was around that time that I began to wonder what I had done to be so blessed. And you already know what the answer to that question will always be— “Absolutely.”

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