On the Road Again

Jill and Harrison St. John

ORLANDO— Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll be opening a new restaurant, bar, and tiki bar in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. Those are all very familiar concepts to me. I have worked in the restaurant business for 40+ years, and over 33 years have been as an owner.

The restaurant menu will be very similar to the menu at Crescent City Grill, our Hattiesburg concept that opened in 1990. The bar will take a lot from our Mahogany Bar, also a 31-year proven concept. We have a lot of experience in the tiki bar field as we used to host tiki takeovers in our cocktail bar concept, Branch.

To add to the bona fides, our Jackson management team has all worked together for over 12 years. In many ways we are opening on third base when it comes to management and experience in the restaurant and bar side of things. The textbooks might advise, “Location, location, location.” But it my book the key to success in the restaurant business is, “Management, management, management.”

So, when it comes to menu development, production, concept design, mixology, and experience, we have all those bases covered.

Though we are also opening a bowling alley and a movie theatre. I have zero years’ experience operating a theatre or a bowling alley. Granted I am a movie nut and usually go to at least two or three movies on an average week. But attending over 100 movies a year does not make me a theatre operator. That would be akin to all the people I have heard over the past four decades who say things like, “I know the restaurant business. I eat in a lot of restaurants. So, I am going to open a restaurant.” Experience eating in restaurants will give one about 5% of what one needs to know about operating a restaurant.

The same goes for bowling, and I have never bowled three times a week.

So, for the past three years, my partners and I have hired the industry’s top consultants in those fields who will be guiding us along the way. We have also been attending conferences and conventions submerging ourselves in the movie theatre and bowling business. That is why I am writing this column from a hotel in Orlando, Florida.

I am down here for a trade show that covers a lot of ground in the family entertainment center field. It just so happens that my son was down here attending a music festival over the weekend, so he has joined his mother and me for a few days and will attend the convention with me.

He has chosen the restaurant business for a career and is currently working towards an undergraduate degree in business. Two years from now, when that phase is complete, he will go to culinary school to become a chef. Then he will spend two years working for other people in six-month stints (stages). It’s a plan that I laid out for him several years ago when he told me he wanted to get into the business. It’s actually the route I wished I would have taken.

Once he has completed the two-year period of staging with other chefs and restaurant owners, I told him he can go to work in one of our restaurant concepts, but he’s going to start at the bottom. No matter what his college degree states, or what his chef title is, or where he has worked, he’ll jump back on the line and work like everyone else. The degree to which he works his way up into management— or not— will depend solely upon him and his commitment, effort, and passion.

Either way it is nice to have him with us for a couple of days. We used to come down here and visit the various parks when he and his sister were younger. There was even one time when he was too young to come, and we came with his sister and left him home with the grandparents. This makes up for that, I guess.

There is something about hanging out with your adult kids that is very special. Granted, I loved every minute of their childhood years, and especially that period when he was around 10 years old, and I was like some kind of superhero in his eyes. That was special. But this is special too, and an entirely different kind of special.

It’s nice to just sit and share a meal and have adult conversations. Last night at dinner I was sitting across from the two of them and several times during the meal I just paused and did my best to talk a mental snapshot of the moment. These are the times that I don’t ever want to forget.

It took me a long time to finally figure out what life is all about and how to prioritize the things that truly matter. In my thirties and early forties life was mostly about material and monetary things. Once those two children came into our lives all of that changed. Life became about the relational and spiritual things. That is where true joy lies— with family and friends.

Onward.

Eggplant Casserole

2                      Eggplant, medium size

1 /4 cup           Bacon grease (or canola oil)

1 cup               Onion, small dice

2 cups              Red bell pepper, small dice

1 cup               Tomatoes, diced, peeled and seeded

1 /2 cup           Celery, small dice

1 Tbl               Garlic, minced

1 tsp                Dried basil

1 /2 tsp            Dried oregano

2 cups              Mushroom Béchamel Sauce

2 cups              Corn flake crumbs

1 /4 cup           Butter, melted

                            

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place eggplant on baking sheet and bake 20 minutes. Rotate and continue baking 20 minutes more. Remove and allow to cool.

Using a paring knife peel the skin from the eggplant. Cut eggplant into two-inch cubes.

Place the bacon grease in a large skillet over high heat. When oil is very hot add eggplant to brown. Add onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, celery, garlic, basil and oregano. Cook for five to six minutes. Stir in Mushroom Béchamel Sauce and pour into two-quart baking dish.

Bake uncovered 40 minutes. Combine the corn flake crumbs and melted butter. Spread evenly over top of casserole and bake 10 minutes more. Remove casserole from oven and serve. Yield: 10 – 12 servings

Mushroom Béchamel Sauce

1 Tbl               Olive oil, light

1 /2 cup           Onion, minced

1 /4 cup           Shallot, minced

1 /4 cup           Celery, minced

2 tsp                Salt

1 tsp                Garlic, granulated

1 /2 tsp             Thyme, dry

10 oz              Mushrooms, cleaned, sliced (4 cups)

3 cups              Chicken broth

1 /2 cup           Butter

3 /4 cup           Flour

1 cup               Whipping cream

Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery, and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.

In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well. Yield: two quarts


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