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Robert St. John

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

Burgers I Have Known

March 6, 2024

There are long stretches in my life when I dedicated all my culinary focus, research, development, and meals to fine dining restaurants and fine dining principles. The first restaurant I opened in 1987 was a white-tablecloth concept, The Purple Parrot Café.

The Parrot had a great 33-year run in my hometown of Hattiesburg. We garnered a lot of awards and created countless memories while employing thousands of people. I ate, slept, and breathed fine dining for the first three decades of my career.

In the early days I worked as the executive chef of most of our concepts and pulled 90-hour work weeks behind the line cooking and developing recipes. It was a blast and a great way to start my culinary journey. Though my true strengths don’t lie behind the cook line manning the stoves. I haven’t worked as— what I would consider— a true chef in a couple of decades. I have a good palate, a deep knowledge of food and cooking, and mostly work in food development these days, whether it be with the menus in our restaurants or for cookbooks.

In the early days I had been so deeply ensconced in the fine dining world for so long that I began to crave simple, casual foods. For a while it was fried chicken. On Sundays— my only day off back then— I would drive a couple of hours to hit a favorite fried chicken haunt. I love simple foods and what I consider heritage cuisine and the foods of my youth.

The one food item that has remained a constant throughout my life is the modest, unassuming hamburger. The other day, while visiting a friend, the discussion— as it almost always does with me— turned to food, and then eventually to burgers. I began recalling the memorable burgers throughout my life (these are the things I do with my spare time).

The first burger I can remember was at the Frostop restaurant in Hattiesburg. The Frostop was a burger franchise owned by the Ward brothers. My mother took me there almost every day after kindergarten. My friend Stan and I would have a burger, fries, and an orange drink. They served chili-cheeseburgers, but my go-to in those days was a hamburger with only mayonnaise and ketchup.

I don’t think there was anything too memorable about the Frostop burger itself. It was the experience of eating outside of the home and playing the jukebox. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” was popular but my mom wouldn’t let me play it because of the subject matter of the movie, which— as a five-year old— I had no clue. The fries were great and when I am feeling nostalgic these days I go to my local Ward’s restaurant, grab the same burger, and reminisce.

There were many burgers consumed in the following years, but the next most memorable burgers I can remember came from the Hattiesburg Country Club. We weren’t members of the country club— my mother was a single-mom, public-school art teacher— but my grandmother was a member and Tuesdays were visitor’s day. The 19th Hole dining room had a hamburger buffet that served an excellent burger.

The 19th Hole burgers were served buffet style. They were seven or eight ounce patties that sat in a chafing dish in a pool of burger drippings (grease, basically) that kept them moist. An attendant would add cheese and then melt the cheese— bun and all— in a pump steamer that not only melted the cheese but made the bun soft and warm. I guess it was around that time that I started adding cheese to burgers, no more mayo, but mustard and ketchup.

During my heavy drinking days, I rarely ate traditional breakfasts. The aforementioned Ward’s restaurants served burgers alongside breakfast items, and I would have a burger before working the early shift at restaurants.

Due to those heavy drinking days, I ended up in a rehab center at 21-years old. The rehab folks sent me to a halfway house in Omaha, Nebraska. That one move saved my life. One Saturday afternoon the fellas at the halfway house and I went to a park somewhere in Omaha and cooked burgers out on a grill. One would typically think that a burger under those circumstances was memorable because Omaha is such a mecca for quality beef. But I don’t think that was it at all.

I love a burger cooked on a charcoal grill. But it was the environment under which the burger was consumed. There was a certain freedom in the park that day, freedom from a recent past of self-destruction, and a positive outlook at what the future might hold in a life free of alcohol and drugs, and the communion of friends.

Probably the best burger I have ever enjoyed was at Au Cheval in Chicago. The first time I ate there with one of my restaurant managers I was in awe of the entire concept. It was a small, dark, converted bar with the cooking line situated where the back bar used to be. The atmosphere was great, but the burger itself was next level. Not because it had a lot of foreign or fancy toppings on it. It was just a simple, well-prepared, double-patty smash burger using a freshly baked bun, quality beef, and expert preparation. I have been back often and the process with which the Au Cheval team uses— from letting the burgers rest for a few minutes, to the thick slabs of bacon they use when one chooses to add bacon to their burger— is next level. It is probably the best burger I have ever eaten.

Our burger concept, Ed’s Burger Joint, has been voted “Best Burger in Mississippi” several times in national and local publications. I am proud of that accomplishment. But our burger stands on the shoulders of all those burgers I grew up eating.

It took a while, but I finally came to the realization that creating good memories has nothing to do with the fanciness of the food. It’s the experience. And so many factors go into creating that memorable experience. I have fond memories of those early meals at the Frostop because I was with my friend Stan. The burgers at the country club were good, but my friends were there, and the environment was one that seemed foreign and exotic to an outsider. The burger in the park in Omaha was eaten with a group of guys who were trying to make positive changes in their lives with brighter days on the horizon.

Fine dining was my life for many years. But it’s been the burger joints of the world that have given me so many of life’s lessons and pleasures.

Onward.

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