By Robert St. John
Over the course of the past 20 years, I have written 11 books. Four were collaborations with my friend and watercolorist, Wyatt Waters. Four were non-fiction works— two were compilations of my writings, one was a nationally published book on the South, and the most recent release was last fall’s comprehensive tome on the Mississippi artist, Walter Anderson, with friend and collaborator on several fronts, Anthony Thaxton. Three were solo cookbooks. The second book I ever wrote was a solo cookbook that took the heritage recipes I grew up eating in the South and updated them and modernized them for the new century.
Based on that cookbook, “Deep South Staples or How to Survive a Southern Kitchen Without a Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup,” I was asked by my agent to fly to New York and sign a three-book deal with Hyperion, an imprint now folded into the Walt Disney Company. The good thing about that book deal is that they liked the “Deep South Staples” content and design so much they re-released it on a national scale. Great news for me because a three-book deal turned into a situation that I would only have to write two books to fulfill the contract.
At our first new-projects meeting I told them I wanted to release a party cookbook with full-color photography. There were long discussions in their New York headquarters about what that book would look like. Ultimately, they wanted to take the retro design of the first book and bundle it into a three-book package with the same retro theme throughout. I argued against that point telling them that there would be a disconnect putting the modern party recipes into a retro package. “The first cookbook used old recipes that were updated so it made sense to be in a retro-feeling package,” I said. “This party book contains modern recipes. I believe there will be a disconnect.”
“Trust us. We know what we’re doing.”
I looked around the boardroom and figured, “I’m here in a national publisher’s office on the Upper West Side, they are in the book business, they are successful, they obviously know what they’re doing.” Two weeks into the release of the party book the publicist in New York called and said, “Robert, we have a disconnect here.”
Luckily the third book I released with Hyperion was the book wanted to do with them all along. It was a very successful grilling cookbook with full photography. They sent a very talented photographer down from New York and we shot the book in 10 days on my front porch. He did a great job. The shots were beautiful. The publisher didn’t add a food stylist to the budget, so I ended up being the de facto food stylist. The first couple of days were rough, but after a rocky start I began to get the hang of it and enjoyed food styling. I haven’t done much of it since, other than some of the food shots we do for social media. But I have always hoped to get back to a cookbook photo session for one of my books.
That is happening today.
As I type, we have a small army of people at my house— a different house than the last time—cooking, composing, styling, and photographing breakfast recipes for my new book, “Mississippi Mornings,” which will be released around Thanksgiving this fall.
I have wanted to do a breakfast cookbook for the last 15 years. I originally pitched my New York publisher a Christmas book and a breakfast book as the two books to fulfill the contract. They weren’t interested in a Christmas book— and wanted to change the name to “holiday cooking,” so I moved on from that idea quickly— knowing that I could release a Christmas cookbook under my own publishing imprint one day. The second pitch I threw out for discussion was a breakfast cookbook. I can’t remember exactly what their reasoning was for not wanting to release a breakfast cookbook, but at the time, I deferred to them because I assumed they knew best. Ultimately, that was a great experience, because I learned that I had a way better idea what works best for me and the people who follow my work and purchase my books.
After the party cookbook disconnect, I started going with my own instincts. And after the grilling book I went back to using my own imprint which gives me 100% autonomy, 100% creativity, and allows me to make sure that my books are only sold in local, independent bookstores, and no big-box mega national chains. I’m blessed to have a loyal following in this region and even more blessed that I don’t need a national publisher to share my work with those who are interested.
Back to the small army currently in my kitchen and backyard. I have worked with Chefs Linda Nance and Scott Strickland for over 20 years, each. They are both alumni of the Purple Parrot, Crescent City Grill, and several cookbook tours and demos. The three of us started recipe testing this book back in February. They are here in my kitchen preparing all the food for the photo shoot.
Longtime friend, Chef Martha Foose, and I have been working on a project that I am extremely excited about and will announce in the coming days. As we prepare to get that ball rolling, she is here taking charge of food styling and design, while putting to good use everything she’s learned while working on her four cookbooks and dozens of other people’s cookbooks.
Nashville photographer, Kate Dearman is the eye behind the lens, and— so far— that eye is proving to be spot-on perfect. She’s the newbie to the crew as this is the first time we have worked together, but her mother and I grew up together and I have known her family all my life. Based on the early results, we will definitely work together again.
My wife, and our friend Justin Jordan, have been on prop duty and my assistant, Simeon is handling logistics, as always. Anthony Thaxton is designing the book, after doing such a great job on the Anderson book. It’s a true team effort. I am in the middle of the three rings bouncing back and forth while finishing writing all the stories, front matter, and headnotes under a deadline that has long since passed.
A lot of planning goes into coordinating an effort such as this. There are groceries to be purchased, food to be ordered, plates and props to be gathered, schedules to be coordinated, dishes to be prepared— and prepared again, and again— recipes to be tweaked, lighting to be set, weather to consider, and it all must come together in an instant as dishes need to be photographed within minutes of being cooked. It sounds complicated, and maybe it is, but I love every minute of it. I love the creative process. But mostly I love creating with other people, whether it is one person, a team on a cookbook photo shoot, or hundreds of people who get up every day and allow our restaurants to spin in greased grooves.
I am a blessed man. I love what I do. I have surrounded myself with talented people— much more talented than I— my entire career, and I get so much joy from the collaborative process (especially when the creative control is based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and not the Upper West Side of Manhattan). When this breakfast cookbook is released in November, it will have my name on the cover, but it will be the result of a lot of hard work and passion of many, many people.
Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread
1 /3 cup Butter, melted
3 /4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tbl Honey
2 Tbl Pecans, chopped (optional)
2 Tbl Almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)
8 French bread croutons, cut into 1-inch thick rounds
2 /3 cup Milk
1 /4 cup Heavy cream
1 /8 tsp Cinnamon
1 /8 tsp Nutmeg
1 Tbl Vanilla
1 Tbl Amaretto
French bread croutons should be cut out of a baguette-style French bread loaf. Slices should be one inch thick.
In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the French bread croutons.
In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the croutons. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until French bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
To report an issue or typo with this article – CLICK HERE