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Robert St. John

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

It’s A Tough Job but Somebody’s Got To Chew It

June 14, 2023

“No one trusts a skinny chef.” In my business— if you posess the body style I walk around with every day— that comment is often heard. I think most times it comes from a place of love. But when broken down to its raw meaning, it’s someone saying, “Dude, you’re fat.”

I’ve heard that comment often over the years. Though, ultimately, I don’t consider myself a chef. Technically I worked as one in the early years of my restaurant career, and I logged a lot of hours behind the line cooking and developing recipes. But circumstances beyond my control took me out of the kitchen and I have mainly focused on food development and recipe creation since the mid 1990s, hence the ever expanding waistline. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

I opened my first restaurant back in the days I was purchasing pants with a 30-inch waist. I am typing this column in a pair of pants with a 38-inch tag that are pulling at the seams. No one forced me to overeat in the past 36 years. I willingly consumed all the food that led to that eight-inch plus increase on my own. In a way I’m a little proud of it. That’s a big investment hanging over my belt.

Here’s how I look at it: 40 years ago, I gave up drinking. At the same time I gave up recreational drug use. A few years later I quit smoking. I don’t gamble. I got married and basically gave up sex. So, I’m going to eat whatever in the hell I want, whenever I want.

My waistline is a yo-yo. I’m up and down. When working overseas, I typically lose weight. None of the guests who travel with me believe that. But I typically lose two to three pounds a week while hosting tours in Italy. I eat copious amounts of food over there, the difference is most of the food is healthier than the offerings that are available in the Deep South. Plus, I walk three to five miles a day. In the Mississippi summer heat, it’s not easy to walk three to five miles a day unless it’s in the middle of the night. At least that is my juicy rationalization/justification.

I returned from this last European work session four weeks and 15 pounds ago. It’s been puzzling how I could put on so much weight in such a quick period, and then it hit me. I am opening a bakery. Trust me, if you ever want to lose weight don’t open a bakery. Especially if you’re a guy like me who loves bread. Seriously, I absolutely love bread.

I often play a game with my friends in which I ask a question, “Which would you rather give up, potatoes or bread?” As much as I love potatoes, and I love potatoes— and consider French fries their own food group— the answer to that would be potatoes. I don’t ever want to live in a world without bread. Even if I’m one of those guys that has to get carried out of the house on a forklift and buried in a piano box, I don’t’ want to give up bread. I’m a glutton for gluten

I am in the middle of recipe testing for a bakery that should open in three weeks. Martha Foose and Donald Bender have been hard at work. She is the pastry chef he is the baker. The opening of the bakery has been challenging as we have dealt with a lot of supply chain issues and city ordinances. But we have been pressing forward.

I had been trying to get the married couple of Foose and Bender to open a bakery with me for six years. Over 18 months ago I finally succeeded. We started working in earnest on this bakery a year ago. I signed the lease last July. In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea to have them stage at a couple of bakeries I admire. It’s been 10 years since they owned a bakery. Martha has been writing cookbooks and winning awards and Donald has had a couple of jobs outside of the bakery business. I knew they were talented, but I thought they might need to freshen up on their skills.

Every time I brought up the fact that I could arrange for them to work at a bakery in New Orleans for a couple of weeks they very politely declined. I even sent Martha to Italy last year and took her to my favorite bakery in Tuscany to show her some of the items I hoped we would offer in our bakery. To be honest, I wanted her to see a few things that might refresh her memory since it had been a while since she operated a bakery. We stepped in the kitchen of Bagnoli Bakery in Barberino-Tavernelle one early morning to watch the Italians bake. The language barrier was tough, but Martha was able to point out to me exactly what they were doing, while they were doing it, and why they were doing it. I was impressed she knew so much, but was even more impressed an hour later as she was back there showing them things they could do.

Last week we finally got the ovens turned on in the bakery and Donald began baking breads. His first breads, on the very first day, were knock-it-out-of-the-park good, and as good as any breads in a New Orleans bakery they may have worked in temporarily. I asked him if he had been baking over the past 10 years and he humbly said, “No.” It’s been a decade since that guy baked breads, but you would never know it. The breads that came out of our oven looked as if he’d been baking every day since the Reagan administration. They were perfect. They continue to be perfect.

That’s what impresses me about Foose and Bender. They have the skill and they have the knowledge but they’re not going to throw it out there in anyone’s face. They quietly, calmly, and knowingly waited until things were ready and let their talent do the talking.

That talent is going to be my waistline’s demise. We are currently at the stage where we are test baking products. In the coming days we will be recipe testing classic butter croissants, almond croissants, chocolate croissants, pecan sticky buns, plumped croissants (filled with Nutella, chocolate, or other fruit fillings), cinnamon rolls, orange sweet rolls, ham and cheese croissants, spinach, mushroom and cheese croissants, pain aux raisins, blueberry muffins, seasonal streusels, topped fruit muffins, orange bran muffins, chocolate banana muffins, quichettes (individual ham, mushroom, and Swiss quiches), dozens of cookie varieties, cheese straws, candied ginger scones, blueberry lemon scones, white loaves, sourdough loaves, whole wheat loaves, cinnamon-raisin loaves, ciabatta, French bread, several styles of bagels, several quiches, dozens of casseroles for the freezer case, several layer cakes, lots of pies, pretzels, egg pies, bake-at-home croissants, bake-at-home biscuits, bake-at-home rolls, several sandwiches and soups for lunch, and several beverages. And those are the daily offerings. We’ll be doing other items on a weekly basis.

Looks like I picked a bad month to lose weight.

If I ever were asked to pen an autobiography, the title would be easy. It’s one I’ve lived for the past 36+ years— “It’s A Tough Job, but Somebody’s Got To Chew It.”

Onward.

This week’s recipe: Donald Bender’s Ciabatta

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