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Robert St. John

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

Perfect Simplicity

April 5, 2023

Sometimes the simplest things give me the most satisfaction. That probably seems like an obvious statement to most. I have only recently come to that realization in my personal life.

For the first 30 years of my career, I was a hardcore devotee of fine dining. My early goal was to open a fine dining restaurant in my hometown and all my thought processes, research, development, and spare time was spent towards achieving that goal. Once the restaurant opened my focus was on growing and improving that business. Most of the meals I enjoyed while traveling during that period were in upscale establishments to learn, be inspired, and keep our restaurant on top.

That fine dining restaurant, The Purple Parrot, was my first. It was my baby. That baby grew into a 33-year-old. The final six years were a struggle trying to decide where to pivot in an ever-changing local market filled with geographical and population shifts. But that’s business. We rolled with the punches as best we could until Covid put the final stake in the concept.

Truthfully, I probably hung on five years too long and should have closed or re-concepted the restaurant much earlier. But, again, it was my firstborn, and I always believed my hometown needed a fine-dining establishment.

Since the closing and re-concepting I have mostly shied away from the upmarket genre of restaurants. I am, and have always been, a casual person. The restaurants I appreciate most today are those that excel in the kitchen. Atmosphere is way down the list for me. Service is a challenge in a post-Covid world, and I can easily overlook front-of-the-house labor shortages and hurdles in someone else’s restaurant if the food is spot on.

In our restaurants, we live in the casual middle. I want anyone who can afford to dine out to be able to dine with us. These days I’m all about community and accessibility. Our restaurants always put a lot of emphasis on atmosphere and casual surroundings, and we always strive to give the most hospitable and efficient service we can.

For me, it’s all about the food.

Now my son— who is in his early twenties and grew up living this business from the inside— has been bitten by the fine-dining bug. He’s in chef school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hye Park, New York. He and the classmates he’s befriended are all chasing Michelin stars. They take the 90-minute train ride into the city on weekends and worship at the altar of fine dining. I get it. I was there at his age, though I didn’t have the knowledge, access, or finances available to them.

He is on an eight-year career plan. Seven years ago, he came to me and said, “Dad, I want to go into the restaurant business.” I told him that would be nice but didn’t take it much farther in case it was a teenage whim. The restaurant business is not something one steps into on a whim. It can be brutal, and it takes constant focus, commitment, and obsessive dedication to succeed. It’s the only business I know of in which there are more ways to lose money than there are ways to make money. Over the next couple of years, he mentioned it several more times until I finally decided he was serious.

I sat him down and said, “Son, if you’re serious about going into the restaurant business and want to work for our company one day, this is what you’re going to do. It’s an eight-year commitment— Go to college and get a degree in business with a minor in accounting. Once you’ve graduated you need to go to culinary school, and that culinary school needs to be the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Once you’ve finished your two years there you will have to go and work for other people (probably one year in Chicago and one year in New Orleans). Then, and only then, you can come back and work in one of our restaurants. But you are going to start at the bottom. I don’t care where you’ve worked, what your title was, or where you went to school. You will start at the bottom and the degree to which you rise through the ranks will be 100% dependent on your performance and nothing else.”

He’s been all in from day one.

He’s four years into the plan. We deviated a little due to Covid altering his college experience, but, for the most part, he is on course to gain a couple of degrees and to get out into the workforce.

The plan I set out for him comes from experience (or lack thereof). It’s what I should have done. It’s what I wish I would have done had I had the knowledge and resources. Instead, I made mistakes on my own dime and not someone else’s. To be honest, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. All I wanted to do was open a restaurant. Nothing else mattered to me at the time. I spent the first four years in the Purple Parrot pulling 90-hour-a-week shifts in the kitchen and loving every minute of it. I paid myself $250.00 a week before taxes and lived in one room above a garage until I was 30 years old and wouldn’t have traded places with anyone on the planet. Had I had any money I would have paid someone for the honor of letting me own my own restaurant.

Though I would have been much better off, averted a lot of mistakes, and saved a whole lot of money— the expensive mistakes are the ones that teach the most— had I gone the eight-year route my son is on.

So, I get where he is in his professional thinking and his desire to be in the fine-dining realm. He wants to open a white-tablecloth restaurant one day, and when that happens, I’ll be his biggest cheerleader. Maybe he’ll do it in Hattiesburg. In the meantime, he’s got his nose to the grindstone and is doing what it takes to set a good foundation for his future.

As far as the Purple Parrot goes. It never went away. During Covid— and immediately after I closed that restaurant— I built a half-scale model of the dining room in a back corner of our building that housed the original prep area and dry storage that had become a storage room. We are now hosting Purple Parrot pop-up dinners on the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of every month. Maybe we’ll turn one of those dinners over to my son during a break from school and he can keep the flame alive.

These days it’s simple things such as my son creating a menu and preparing a few dinners for our guests that keep me moving forward and ever…

Onward.

This week’s recipe: Shrimp Harrison

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