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Robert St. John

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


July 8, 2020

My wife, son, and I were having dinner last night. Nothing special. Just a quick Sunday night supper of burgers and fries. Halfway through the meal, I said, “I love French fries.” It was an out-of-the-blue, random statement, and my wife and son stared blankly at me.

My son, who eats much cleaner and healthier than I do, replied, “French fries are universal.”

That’s true. Whether you are eating chips In England, frites in France, or patata in Italy or Spain, almost every country in the Western World fries potatoes in some form or fashion.

It reminds me of the Ella Brennan quote, “You know why kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches are good.” The same goes for French fries.

I don’t know if I have ever met anyone who doesn’t like French fries. French fries are one of those foods— along with donuts— that makes me happy (though I don’t feel as miserable and weighed down after eating fries as I do after eating donuts). If there were one specific food group I could track that I ate when I was four-years-old and that I continue to eat today— almost in the same exact manner, with the same exact accompaniments, and almost in the exact same amounts (if not more)— it would be French fries.

Potatoes and bread are my dietary downfall. I hope I never have to give up either, but if someone was holding a gun to my head forcing me to give up either fries or bread, for the rest of my life, the winner might be fries (and that’s coming from someone who has a 58-year love affair with bread).

My earliest memories of French fries came from a restaurant called the Frostop in my hometown of Hattiesburg. My friend Stan and I used to eat there every day after kindergarten with our mothers. I would order a small hamburger and a large order of French fries. I probably never finished the hamburger. I would have never left a French fry.

Some of the fondest French fry memories from my youth came from the Hattiesburg Country Club. My mom was not a member of the Hattiesburg Country Club, though my grandmother was. I was able to go out there on guest day or occasionally when accompanied by a friend. There was a giant swimming pool and a short-order walk-up counter-service area they called the teen room.

There was something about coming out of the hot, summer, Mississippi heat, dripping wet, smelling of chlorine, and walking into that air-conditioned teen room that holds fond memories for me. The French fries were excellent.

I’m sure there was nothing fancy about the product. They were probably just typical frozen fries from a large supplier. But when all of those factors came together, in that environment, they were memorable. So much so, that I am writing about them 50 years later.

The teen room at the Hattiesburg Country Club was probably the only place I squirted ketchup on top of fries in a basket. There are two schools of thought here. Dip the fry in ketchup or squirt the ketchup all over the fries. Believe it, or not, there is a difference in the flavor profile of the final product. I dip these days. Squirting is too messy.

There have been several restaurants over the years that have done a great job with French fries. the most memorable meal I have ever eaten that involved French fries in this country was in Aspen, Colorado at a restaurant called Ajax at the base of the ski lift. It was in the early to mid-1990s and it was the first place I ever ate truffle fries.

They took fresh-cut potatoes, fried them, and drizzled them with truffle oil, sprinkled salt and pepper, and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano over the top. That is a very common application these days. In the early 1990s, no one was doing that to my knowledge. We have served truffle fries at one of our restaurants over the past 10 years and they have been a huge hit.

Some of the best French fries I’ve eaten in my life have been in Europe. When I am leading tours in Italy, I stick to Italian food— 100%– with my guests. Though on my off days, and on days in between groups, I sometimes deviate. Two years ago, I was three weeks into a Tuscany stay and was waiting on the fourth group to arrive. My friend Marina took me to a hamburger joint called Vinile in the middle of nowhere, outside of the town of San Casciano in the Tuscan countryside. The burger was good, the fries were outstanding. We ate on a table outside under large hardwoods and listened to American rock and roll. It was a nice temporary respite before my next group arrived the following day.

The best meal I have ever eaten in France was in Lyon, at Paul Bocuse’s Sud. The first course was a mushroom soup that was so good, I pulled what my managers call “The St. John move” and ordered another bowl once I had finished my first, and before the entrees arrived. I do that often. I figure, if it’s that good, go ahead and get another, you never know when you’ll return, and it’s likely better than whatever else is coming in future courses. I couldn’t tell you the protein that was served at that meal, but I can enthusiastically report that the frites were otherworldly. I remember thinking to myself, “How can anyone make fried potatoes taste this good?” The answer was simple: Paul Bocuse.

Fried potatoes are plentiful in Spain and Greece. So much so, that when I have visited those countries— and this is coming from someone whose primary weakness is fried potatoes— I have always reached a point where I couldn’t eat another fried potato.

Leonardo DaVinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I like to think he was sitting in front of a plate of fried potatoes when he made that statement.


This weeks’ recipe: Homemade French Fries

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