By Robert St. John
Recipe inspiration comes from many places. In the early days of our first restaurant, I ended up in the kitchen after our opening chef was fired on the first night. The extent of my cooking ability at that time was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas.
After firing the chef, the choice was clear. My business partner and I better start learning how to cook professionally, or our first venture in the restaurant business would be our last. I dove into every cookbook I owned and travelled to New Orleans on my day off to eat around the city. It’s something I had done all my life, but then I was doing it with “restaurant eyes.”
The early recipes I developed were pretty good coming from someone whose main kitchen chops came from cooking with a 100-watt lightbulb two decades earlier. The first recipe I created was a shrimp bisque. It’s still the same recipe we use in one of our restaurants 34 years later. Though, technically, it’s not a bisque but a chowder. I didn’t know the difference back then, and if our customers did, they never mentioned anything.
I was starting from scratch at making food from scratch. When I look at those early recipes there are typically a lot of ingredients (too many, mostly) and the cooking order is often out of place. But the flavor profiles are typically spot on.
I spent the next four years working 90 hours a week in the kitchen teaching myself how to operate and cook in a professional kitchen. When my schedule started to free up, I began to travel to places farther away from New Orleans to seek inspiration. I was a sponge. I have always been a sponge when it comes to restaurants. I admire a thoughtfully designed and expertly operated restaurant the way many men would admire a rare, classic, priceless automobile.
It was also around that time that I started collecting cookbooks. I don’t know how many I have at this point. The last time we took any kind of inventory was over a decade ago and there were over 2,000. Most are in my office, and yes, I have read them all. I began to read cookbooks like my wife reads novels.
About a dozen years into my recipe journey, I released my first cookbook. It was a coffee table cookbook and the first of four cookbook collaborations with my buddy, the uber talented watercolorist, Wyatt Waters. Most of the recipes in that book were early recipes from the beginning of my career. The shrimp bisque is in there.
My second cookbook was based on recipes I grew up eating in childhood. I updated them with modern ingredients and a few professional cooking methods and techniques, but most of those recipes came from my two grandmothers, my mom and several ladies from my childhood neighborhood. I have written and released several other cookbooks. One was a party-foods cookbook, one dealt with grilling, a couple were southern-themed and another was developed after spending a lot of time eating my way through Italy.
Over the years, recipe development became easier. It didn’t hurt that I surrounded myself with talented chefs who played a major role in helping me develop and test recipes.
When it comes to opening restaurants and developing recipes these days, the process is much the same as my cookbook recipe development. I lay out the plan and the menu items I want to see, and the team does a lot of the work. I have reached a stage in my career where I am the final-word guy. It is a nice place to be, and my job is made easy because of all the talent surrounding me.
Sometimes recipes in the restaurants come from my childhood influences. One of the most popular recipes I’ve developed was for the house salad dressing at our Italian restaurant, Tabella. It came from a childhood inspiration. Our guests love this dressing. It’s tart, it’s light and it tastes like no other dressing out there.
My lifelong friend, Amy— with whom I spent two years of kindergarten, 12 years of school and a few years of college— had an aunt named Tina. I didn’t know Aunt Tina very well, but I do remember her being a chaperone on our senior trip, and for that job she deserves sainthood. I mainly knew Aunt Tina because she was the creator of the aptly named, Aunt Tina’s Dressing.
I began eating salads because of Aunt Tina’s dressing. It was sold at the annual Episcopal church bazaar, and the recipe passed from household to household. Everyone I knew back in the early 1970s in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi knew about— and served— Aunt Tina’s dressing.
These were the days after green goddess and before junior-league salads with the nuts and ramen noodles. Aunt Tina’s salad truly ruled the day.
Aunt Tina’s salad dressing was such a part of my childhood I published the recipe in an early cookbook. In the back of my mind though, I always wanted to use it in a restaurant application.
When I was deep into the recipe-testing process in the weeks before we opened Tabella, I brought the recipe for Aunt Tina’s dressing into the kitchen hoping it might serve as the house salad dressing. I made the salad I had grown up with, and then thought about how it might appeal to customers in an Italian restaurant. It didn’t fit.
I liked the tarragon vinegar and apple cider vinegar aspect of the recipe, but blue cheese and paprika didn’t fit in the flavor profiles of our concept. On my second pass at it, I switched the blue cheese to Parmesan cheese, omitted the paprika, and substituted olive oil for canola oil. That was it. Done deal. A salad was born.
Sometimes it’s as easy as that.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the late, great Aunt Tina, and hopefully she knows that her dressing kicked off my life-long love affair with salads and was the inspiration for one of my most popular recipes, ever.
The focaccia we serve at Tabella is also a heritage recipe with a century old ingredient. We make focaccia twice a day using a sourdough starter that has been continually fed for over 100 years. It started with a lady named Mrs. Gunn. She gave some starter to my longtime neighbor — and baker of the best sourdough sweet rolls, ever — Mary Virginia McKenzie, who shared some with our neighbor Barbara Jane Foote and me. I used the sourdough starter in the focaccia we serve at Tabella and we’ve been feeding it for 12 years.
I have eaten bread in restaurants all over Italy, from the southern tip of Sicily to the Dolemites. The focaccia we bake at Tabella holds up to anything I’ve eaten over there.
People tend to get uptight and nervous about altering recipes. If baking and pastry are involved, then I understand because the measurements must be precise and there is a lot of chemistry involved in the baking process. But when it comes to soups, sauces and salad dressings, it’s been my experience that the more I experiment and get creative, the better the end rewards.
Aunt Tina’s Dressing
1 /3 cup Tarragon Vinegar
4 Tbl Apple cider vinegar
2 tsp Black pepper
1 Tbl Paprika
2 tsp Salt
1 /3 cup Blue cheese crumbles
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1 cup Canola oil
Place all ingredients together in a glass jar and refrigerate. Shake well before using.
Tabella House Salad Dressing
¾ cup Tarragon vinegar
6 TB Apple cider vinegar
6 TB Grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 TB Minced garlic
1 TB Fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 ½ cups Pure olive oil
Blend first 6 ingredients in a mixing bowl using a wire whip. Whisk in olive oil.
Stir well before each use.
It can also be divided into Mason jars and shaken before application.
Yield: 3 cups
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. He lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
To report an issue or typo with this article – CLICK HERE