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Robert St. John

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

A Golden Opportunity

February 1, 2023

To be successful in the restaurant business it takes total commitment and sacrifice. It’s a brutal way to earn a living. But for those of us who are bit by the bug, and are totally obsessed, we couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Bankers hate restaurants. The reason bankers hate restaurants is because of the high mortality rate in the industry. There aren’t many businesses one can get into so easily and fail so miserably.

Here’s the scenario. Joe cooks a good steak in his backyard. Joe’s friends tell him, “Joe, that’s a great steak. You should open a restaurant.” He agrees. Joe mortgages the house and opens Joe’s Steakhouse. Joe learns quickly that being able to grill a good steak in his backyard is about 5% of what he needs to know to run a successful restaurant. He wonders why it looks nothing like it did on the Food Network. He had visions of sitting at table five every night basking in the adoration of his grateful guests. Instead, he ended up washing dishes at 1:00 AM because the dishwasher called in with his fifth flat tire or sixth dead grandmother in the past two weeks. Around the time he’s taking the greasy mats out to wash down on the back dock for the ninth time that month, he’s decided that the bank can just keep his money.

It’s brutal, granted. But for those of us who love it, who are obsessed with it, who can’t see themselves doing anything else, it’s a blast. I got bit by the restaurant bug. At 19 years old after switching from being a radio station disc jockey to managing a delicatessen. It seems like the bite occurred on the first shift of the first day. But to be accurate, it was probably sometime during the first week that it struck me that this is what I want to do going forward. Actually, what I was “supposed” to do.

I loved the restaurant business so much that I got a second job in another restaurant, and after managing the delicatessen during the day, I waited tables at night. I immediately set a new course for my life. My goal was to open a restaurant. I was so set in that goal that I believe nothing could have stopped me. No matter how long it took— no matter what it took— I was going to open a restaurant. I haven’t looked back since.

I realize I am an odd bird. Everybody who is in this business is not totally obsessed like me. A very select few are more obsessed. A few weeks ago, I met one.

Zacchaeus Golden is one of the great success stories in the restaurant business. He was born in the Mississippi Delta and grew up with a single mom. At 16, he started working in fast-food restaurants. At 17, he moved to Mobile, Alabama. And eventually enrolled in a culinary program in junior college. He was bit. He had that tunnel vision that some of us get when all we can think about is that we want to open a restaurant, and we can’t think of anything else. He set out to learn all he could about the business. After several stretches in Mobile-area kitchens, he began a journeyman’s jaunt across the country, working his way into some of the finest kitchens in the world.

After two stints in New Orleans, working for some of that city’s finest chefs, he hopped on a Greyhound bus with $300 in his pocket and his eye on the two-star Michelin-rated avant-garde home of minimalist food, Coi, in San Francisco. He was hired. In less than seven years he had gone from Sonic to the top of the food chain in one of America’s great food cities. This is where I get humbled in the commitment category. Granted, I was obsessed with restaurants. In my spare time, I did nothing but read restaurant trade magazines. I took 18 and 21 hours in college and while working a 40-hour-a-week schedule. I stayed up until three in the morning designing menus and restaurants. I lived in a one room above a garage until I was 30 years old. That pales in comparison to Chef Zach Golden. His desire to work at a Michelin-starred restaurant was so strong, he lived homeless in San Francisco for six months just for the opportunity to work at Coi. He slept on the streets during the day and worked as many shifts as they would give him in the restaurant.

That’s commitment.

Six months in he was caught sleeping on the floor in the dry storage on an exceptionally cold night and was let go. That didn’t stop Golden in his quest to learn from the best. He was steadfast in his desire to absorb everything he could from the world’s greatest chefs. In a matter of days, he had worked himself into the kitchen at The French Laundry an hour up the road.

The French Laundry is widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country. To me, there’s no competition. It is the best. And, in my opinion, Thomas Keller is— by far— the absolute best chef in America and probably one of the top three in the world. Zach Golden, late of Sonic Drive-In in Belzoni, Mississippi spent nine months cooking in Keller’s kitchen.

It’s one of the greatest success stories I’ve ever known in this business— from tater tots and chili dogs in the Delta to foie gras, Kobe beef, and three Michelin stars in Napa. But he was just getting started. He continued his quest on the East Coast, at the Michelin three-starred Inn at Little Washington. He stayed there, “until it got cold,” and then headed back home to Mississippi

Last year, in the middle of the post-Covid decimation of the dining industry— at the worst time to open a restaurant in the history of the restaurant business— and in a neighborhood that hadn’t seen a successful restaurant in decades, Golden opened Southern Soigne. He didn’t have to worry whether bankers like the restaurant business, or not. He didn’t need a bank. He opened it with money he saved from working in other restaurants.

He was 28.

That is commitment.

That is dedication.

That is the most ultimate example of restaurant tunnel vision I have ever witnessed.

The story doesn’t end there. It’s just beginning

Golden gathered all the knowledge he gained under some of the top chefs in the nation and brought it home. In a house that was built in the final year of the Civil War, he works the restaurant virtually alone. His mother is there, and she helps serve and host. But the entire operation is run by two people. Southern Soigne is a 12-seat, reservations-only, tasting menu experience like no other in Mississippi (or surrounding states for that matter).

I’ve been in this business for 40 years. I thought I had seen it all. I have never met a person as dedicated to his craft, and as single-minded in his focus, as Chef Zacchaeus Golden.

Chef Zach Golden is everything I love about this business and is the perfect example of how razor-focus on achieving a goal and living out a dream can be done, against all odds, against all accepted norms, when one is willing to do what it takes— whatever it takes— to achieve his or her goal. Those are the stories we need to be passing on, and Golden’s journey is just beginning.


This week’s recipe: Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche

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