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Robert St. John

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

The Next Generation

May 12, 2021

This year marks my 40th year in the restaurant business. I got into this business after flunking out of college in 1981. Though I have always worked. I mowed lawns until I got my first, real, full-time job at 15 as a radio station disc jockey. When it came time to declare a major for my freshman year in college, I chose communications since all my experience was in radio to that point. However, I had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life.

Flunking out of college after two years seemed like one of the worst things that had happened to me to that point. Actually, it turned out to be a blessing. I moved back home to Hattiesburg and got a job as a manager of a soon-to-be-opened delicatessen. I fell in love with restaurant work from day one. I am obviously wired for this business. I managed the deli during the day and started waiting tables at another restaurant at night. I couldn’t get enough of the restaurant business.

Eventually went back to school and majored in hospitality management. I worked 40 hours a week while taking 18 and 21 hours in college. In between classes I spent my time in the library thumbing through all of the restaurant trade magazines dreaming of the future restaurant I hoped to open. At night after my server shift, I would stay up until two or three in the morning designing menus and floorplans for restaurant concepts I hoped to open one day. I still have a box filled with various restaurant concepts that I have created over the years. I was totally consumed by the restaurant business. I am still totally consumed by the restaurant business.

I opened my first restaurant in 1987 and never looked back. I have never regretted my chosen profession, and actually, I’ve never even had a day where I lamented opening a restaurant. That’s not to say it’s been easy. Actually, there have probably been more challenging and trying days than there have been rewarding days over the last 40 years. But I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The restaurant business is a harsh mistress. It’s nothing I would ever push on my children, and even though they have lived in and around restaurants all of their lives, I have never tried to force my love and hobby onto them. I have friends whose fathers were doctors or lawyers and pressed their sons to go out and be doctors and lawyers. Some of them are miserable as doctors and lawyers. It made no sense to press either one of my kids into going into a business as rough and brutal as the restaurant business.

Though, five years ago, my son let me know that he would like to go into the restaurant business. We sat down and talked about it for a while, and I didn’t get too excited because plans can change, especially for 15-year-olds. Though, over his high school years, he never wavered and still made plans to eventually go into the restaurant business. Three years ago, he started working in a few of our restaurants. Mostly front of the house stuff. No cooking. Though this past Christmas he started working in the kitchen of our New Orleans creole concept. First, he was working the fry station and then moved into the sauté station.

The sauté station takes some skill and he seemed to take to it immediately. I’ve told both of my children when they have worked in the restaurant that they are going to have to work harder than everyone else because everyone is looking at them and expecting them to get an easy ride. I’ve also told my managers to not cut my kids any slack when they are on the clock.

A couple of years after my son told me he wanted to go into the restaurant business I laid out a plan. It’s actually what I wish I would have done before opening my first restaurant as I learned a lot of lessons the hard way and made a lot of mistakes on my own dime.

He will go to college for four years and get a degree in business, with a minor in accounting (he’s currently headed into his junior year). Then he will attend culinary school for two years at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York. Once he has earned his chef’s degree, he will spend two years working for other people in six months stints (called a stage in the restaurant business). He may end up working for a friend of mine in Italy for six months and then will probably head to New Orleans to work for three different restaurants owned by some of my friends down there. Then, and only then, I have told him he can come back and work in one of our restaurants. But he’s going to start at the bottom. No matter what his degree says, and no matter his culinary education or experience in other restaurants, he will start at the bottom because there’s no other way to gain respect from co-workers.

This summer he has been working in the prep area of the newly opened Tex Mex concept. We make everything from scratch in all of our restaurants and so prep positions are a crucial key to our success. On his second shift, I pulled our head chef aside and asked him how the boy was doing in the prep area. He said, “He just finished his first batch of black beans. Do you want to taste them?” I went back and stuck a spoon in the still-warm black beans, and they tasted perfect.

It’s hard to describe my sense of pride in that moment. I’m not sure what to compare it to. I guess when a doctor has a son who has a son who performs his first successful surgery, or a lawyer who has a son who wins his first case, the feelings are the same. I’ll never forget it.

It was a five-gallon batch of black beans, but to me, it was perfection. I look forward to watching him grow in his chosen profession. My dad died when I was very young, so he never got to see how my life turned out. But my mom tells me often that my father would be proud of me. Now I know exactly how he would have felt.


This week’s recipe: Grouper with Black Bean, Corn, and Tomato Salsa

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