By Robert St. John
It doesn’t take much to make me happy these days. My wife might argue with that statement, but it’s true. It’s not that I have reached some state of self-actualization and have rocketed up to the summit of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or anything like that. It’s just that— surprisingly— monetary and material things have taken a backseat to the spiritual and relational things in my life over the past several years. It’s a good place to be.
There was a time in my life in which I was a major consumer of everything and the race to achieve more things— money, power, and stuff— was a very high priority. I really don’t need much of anything these days. If I have my family, friends, work relationships, and a creative outlet to let me do the things I enjoy most— such as open and operate restaurants and travel with others turning them on to things I have discovered over the years— I’m good to go.
That makes today all that more special. This morning I received one of the greatest gifts I have received in years.
But first, a little back story is warranted. Linda Nance Roderick is the former executive chef of the Purple Parrot Cafe. She and I have worked together in various capacities over the last 20 years. For many of those years we worked together creating exciting menus and experiences in a fine-dining environment. We have also worked together on several cookbooks. If you look in the front section of the first four or five cookbooks I wrote you will see that the very first name listed under the thank-you section is Linda. She has been a chief recipe tester from day one.
The recipe testing process is a joint effort between the cookbook author and the team assigned to help with the recipe testing. I have a new breakfast cookbook coming out this fall. The recipe testing for that book started several weeks ago. I sat down with Linda and former Purple Parrot Sous Chef Scott Strickland, passed out recipes, and talked them through the required ingredients, and the processes needed for those recipes. We also covered the recipe testing schedule. All the testing for this cookbook will be done at the Midtowner, our breakfast-lunch restaurant, because we can go in after hours and do everything that needs to be done without getting in the way of a fully operating and busy restaurant.
There is a drawer in my desk that holds all my original recipes from as far back as 1987. It includes the very first recipe I ever developed, and all the recipes created in the first 10 years of my restaurant career. Most of the recipes were handwritten on yellow legal pads or typed out on the typewriter we used to keep in the office. All those early recipes were created before I owned a computer. Some were on notecards. Many are the paper copies that our prep cooks used that are almost stained beyond legibility. After three or four years I was able to afford a laminating machine and after that all our recipes were laminated.
That drawer has basically been my recipe junk drawer for over three decades. I knew enough to hold on to those recipes. But there was no rhyme, reason, or organization. I just kept throwing recipes in on top of other recipes. They have long since been entered into the computer in the restaurant office and on a separate hard drive for safekeeping. But the originals are still in my drawer. Some are typed but most are in my handwriting which in my late twenties was much better than it is today.
As Linda and I were discussing various recipes she was also doing some side work costing out the menus at all the restaurants. She needed a few original recipes before they had been tweaked over the years. I looked down in the drawer that holds all those original recipes and grabbed several handfuls and put them in a box. I hated to add to her workload, but it would have to be done if a detailed costing of the menu was going to be completed. Then we moved on to recipe testing for the breakfast cookbook.
This morning I got a call from Linda, and she said, “Are you going to be in the office today?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I have something for you,” she said.
As I pulled up to the office, she got out of her car carrying a massive three-binder notebook probably five-inches thick. She handed it to me, and it included all the recipes I had given her from the early days out of the recipe junk drawer. They were all categorized by salads, seasonings, sauces, lamb, pork, soup, veggies, bread, desserts, etc., all laminated and all notated.
Linda’s mother, Bernice, had spent the last several weeks doing this. I can’t think when I have received a more meaningful gift. It is my early career organized, and in one place. Many of the recipes are still stained from those early days before we could afford a laminator. Most people would throw something like that away. To me they are precious documents and a reminder of those days when I was working 90 hours a week in the kitchen, paying myself $250 a week before taxes, and loving every minute of it.
I love creating and developing restaurants there’s nothing more exciting, exhilarating, tiring, and stressful than opening a new restaurant. I just completed the 22nd opening of my career. As with the rest it was exciting and stressful. Though there is something about that first restaurant. I’ve had this discussion with several restaurateurs. Over the years budgets grow larger, equipment is more extensive, menu items are more complicated and creative, but there is something unique about that first time.
When I opened that first restaurant in 1987 the people who were hired were all around my age. We were a tight group of friends and coworkers. These days I am older than most of our team members parents. It doesn’t make them any less important or less special, every one of the 400 people who work for New South Restaurant Group are vital to our daily survival. But that original group— when I opened a restaurant along with two other guys with a $25,000 stake I gained from selling a piece of land my grandfather left me— were the most unique. There’s only one first time, ever.
So, I now have a notebook that memorializes those days. That initial restaurant started out at 6000 square feet. We just wanted to open one white tablecloth restaurant. Eventually we opened a New Orleans-themed restaurant, and a neighborhood bar next to each other in the same building. Today those entities have grown into a 15,000 square foot building, and— at the core— there is little of the original restaurant that remains. The one thing that does remain are the recipes and memories in this notebook that a special lady took the time, under her own volition, to organize and document. It is a physical embodiment of how I got started in this career that has given me so much pleasure, enjoyment, and fulfillment. If there’s ever a fire in my office, I will grab a few legal documents in my desk drawer, a couple of photographs of my kids, and this notebook. I don’t know if my children or grandchildren or great grandchildren will ever be interested in it. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but to me, it is priceless.
Dirty Rice Cakes with Crawfish Mardi Gras Mix
The rice cakes can be made two days in advance, the topping one day in advance. After you have browned the dirt rice cakes, you can hold them in the refrigerator for up to two days.
3 cups dirty rice, cooled
1 /4 cup green onion, chopped
2 Tbl parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1 /4 cup coarse bread crumbs
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 /4 cup unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350.
In a food processor, pulse 1 1 /2 cups of the dirty rice (Do not make a paste, the rice should just begin to resemble coarse bread crumbs).
Place pureed rice in a mixing bowl with the remaining rice, green onions, parsley, eggs and plain bread crumbs crumbs. Mix well.
Form into 1 1 /2-inch round patties approximately 3 /4-inch thick. Gently bread the cakes using the Italian bread crumbs.
In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat and brown cakes on both sides. Place browned cakes on a baking sheet.
Bake the cakes for 8-10 minutes.
Top warm rice cakes with crawfish mixture and heat for 5 more minutes.
Place on serving dish and top with a small dollop of red-pepper aioli.
Yield: 20 cakes
Crawfish Mardi Gras Mix
1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup red onion, minced
1 /4 cup red pepper, diced
1 /4 cup green pepper, diced
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp creole seasoning
1 /4 pound cleaned crawfish tails, chopped fine
2 Tbl sour cream
1 Tbl parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat> Add onion, peppers, garlic, salt, and creole seasoning and cook 4-5 minutes. Let cool. Combine cooled vegetables, crawfish, sour cream and parmesan cheese.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. He lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)