Skip to content

Robert St. John

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

Column Notes

February 26, 2020

For the past 20 years, this column has covered hundreds of topics, some obscure, some newsworthy. It’s mostly a food column, but I write a lot about travel and family.

Like many other paths I have taken in my professional career, I became a newspaper columnist by accident. One day I was a restaurateur with very limited experience in any form of composition, and the next day I was writing a weekly column in my local newspaper. Within a matter of months, other newspapers began asking if they could carry the column, then more, and then even more. That was over two decades ago, and since that first column in the late 1990s, I have written approximately one thousand words a week, every week, never missing a week. Not one. It has been one of the unexpected joys of my life.

When I write about any of our six restaurants and two bars, I rarely mention them by name for fear the reader might think I am doing this for shameless self-promotion. I write this weekly column purely for the love of writing and communicating with my readership. But it is hard for a person in the food business not to write about his daily life in and around his businesses without, at least, referring vaguely to the source material. I go to great odds, however, not to brazenly promote my businesses.

If one were to scour the one-thousand-plus columns and over one million words written over the past two decades, one would find that I write about other people’s restaurants way more than my own. I am blessed to have always had 100% creative control in everything I do, whether it is in my restaurant business, our television production company, book publishing, or this column. There is no editor or director peering over my shoulder or giving me suggestions on topics that might need to be covered. For that, I am blessed.

I do, however, openly promote my family. There is so much material there that it is hard not to mine it for source material due to the low hanging fruit. Though these days, the stories are fewer and farther between. When my son and daughter were small children there was a column topic created daily, sometimes hourly. It got to the point that my daughter would say, “Daddy, I am going to tell you what happened earlier today, but you have to promise that you won’t write about it in the newspaper.”

“Sweetie,” I would say, “I can’t make you that promise. But I assure you that I will give you full credit.” As those two moved into their teen years, the source material became less frequent. Luckily, that is around the time I kicked the travel portion of my career into high gear.

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, “Do you ever run out of things to write about?” The answer is an easy one. Never.

Though I had to learn the hard way. In the early days, a thought or concept would enter my mind, sparked by a photo, place or song, and I would make a mental note to write about it in an upcoming column. Then I would forget until four years later— when something would trigger the memory— and I would kick myself for not writing about it earlier when I originally thought of it. I eventually started using the notes feature on my phone, and any time a thought or idea pops into my head I make a note with the word “column” in the subject line.

I typically know what I am going to write about when I sit down at my computer at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning, but if I am conflicted, I will open my notes, type the word “column” into the search bar, and pick a topic.

The columns aren’t already fleshed out. They are usually just fleeting thoughts or random sentences that will spark a memory that will result in that week’s one thousand words. At present, there are 136 separate column notes on my phone. That’s over two and a half years worth of columns. The oldest column idea note is dated September 10, 2010, and is three sentences long. It states, “Do a column on my childhood appliances– avocado green and harvest gold. I didn’t even know what an avocado was back then. The Bowen family ate them mashed up for breakfast.”

The most recent column note on my phone was dated last week. The note is seven incomplete sentences long and is the note I read before sitting down today to write this column. It states, “Use the pic of Mam Maw in the Parrot after it opened. Write about the concept of a picture paints a thousand words. The column is usually over a thousand words. Talk about how one image can spark so many memories. Also talk about sounds and smells— swimming pool songs. Gravy being made. Talk about the early days at the restaurants.”

As you can see, the original premise of the note/thought was not what has been fleshed out in these first 841 words. That happens often. The lead-in to a thought or subject becomes a column in itself. What sparked that note was seeing an old photo in a drawer. It was of both of my grandmothers in my first restaurant, weeks after it opened. We were closed on Sundays during the first year, and I would occasionally invite my family to come up to the restaurant, and I would cook for everyone. What struck me when I saw that photograph was the memory of my grandmother’s face when I would walk in to greet her in the dining room. There was a look of pride that I had never seen before. She beamed.

Her son (my father) had passed away at 36. I looked exactly like him. I imagined that huge smile on her face was one of pride for my accomplishment in opening a business, but I also think she might have been thinking about how proud my dad might have been. Maybe so, maybe not. Either way, it’s what I like to imagine.

We’ll leave the swimming pool songs theme to be fleshed out in a later column. Though it is true that certain smells bring back specific memories. Whenever I smell the toasty flour aroma of a roux being cooked. I think of that grandmother, and back to the Sunday meals we shared in her home. Gravy was always the last component of the meal to be made using the pan drippings from whatever protein she had just roasted. That smell instantly takes me back to her kitchen and to a simpler time, a time that was so impactful and meaningful to me, I am still taking notes about it, and writing about it as a 58-year old man. It defines me.


This week’s recipe: Mam-Maw’s Chicken Salad

Recent Posts

My Kind Of Town

CHICAGO— No one would ever accuse me of being a creature of habit. Other than my morning breakfast routine, I…

Read more

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