By Robert St. John
I am a fan of first lines in books. But I also like last lines in movies. In the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s, “Cannery Row,” John Huston— in one of the greatest film narrations this side of Morgan Freeman states that, “The world was once again spinning in greased grooves.” I don’t know if that line is in Steinbeck’s novel because I probably only read the Cliff’s Notes in high school, and hat was well over 40 years ago, but I know exactly what he was talking about.
My son wants to make the restaurant business a career. It’s nothing that I pushed or encouraged. The restaurant business is brutal enough for people who are passionate about our industry, it is miserable for people who are only halfway dedicated (or those who are in it just for the money). So, I set up an eight-year plan, that he— for the most part— has been following for the past couple of years.
He was to get a degree in business first. That four-year stretch of the plan is still in place, though we have called an audible. His second semester of college coincided with the onset of Covid. His college career for the next three semesters was filled with Zoom classes and challenges. This fall he seemed to be floundering a little and he kept expressing his desire to get out and start working in the industry. “We are going to stick to the plan we agreed upon,” I kept telling him. But around Christmas, he convinced me that taking a break for a bit and working in a kitchen for a while might serve to recharge his batteries.
That’s when Tuscany came into the picture.
In 2011, I took my family over to Europe for six months. We all loved it, our lives changed during that time, and none of us have been the same since. Though I think it affected the boy the most. He was struck with a severe case of wanderlust and has traveled back to Tuscany, often. We all love that area. He probably loves at the most. So, I made a deal with him that we would skip his last year of college, if he promised that he would finish one day. I couldn’t say much because I had done the same thing (though I graduated high school in 1979, and finally walked at my college graduation ceremony as a part of the class of 2000).
He could work for a friend of mine in Tuscany for a few months before heading off to culinary school which would put him back on the eight-year plan.
He got a one-bedroom, third-floor, walk-up apartment in the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence and took a 45-minute bus ride every day to the small town of Tavernelle to work for my friend Paolo and with his mother Giuliana, in the kitchen. That was five months ago.
My wife and I spent six weeks over there in the spring while I was working hosting tours, and we got to see him often. He seemed to be thriving in that environment. He knew the area better than I, and I have spent a couple of months of every year there for the past several years. It was so refreshing to have him take us to his favorite places in Florence and introduced us to the new friends that he had made over there.
He seems to have matured five years in five months. It was definitely the right decision, and he is now ready to go off to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in September. There, he will resume the plan that we agreed-upon several years ago, and spend two years becoming a chef. After that, he will get out and work for friends of mine in the business for two years— first, in Chicago, then in New Orleans. Then, and only then, I told him he could come back to one of our restaurants. But he will start at the bottom just like everyone else. It won’t matter what his title is, where he has worked, or what his abilities are. He will start at the bottom and work his way up.
The beautiful part about the plan is that, if— anywhere along the way— he becomes disenchanted with the industry, or frustrated with the restaurant business, he will have weeded himself out early and saved everyone a lot of misery. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. He seems to be very enthusiastic and excited about his potential future working in restaurants, and even more so than five months ago.
I picked him up at the airport two days ago. His flight was delayed in Washington DC, and he arrived late on Sunday night. He wanted American food. The plan was to go to my friend Susan Spicer‘s restaurant, Rosedale, where one can find the absolute best barbecue shrimp on the planet. But I had to cancel the reservation when the flight got delayed. So, we just spent the night at our apartment. I had Popeyes spicy fried chicken waiting for him when he came through the door. It’s a tradition I have always done. As soon as I land back in America after a long lengthy Italian tour, I hit the Popeyes in the Atlanta airport before coming home.
The next morning he was up early since his internal clock was still getting adjusted to a new time zone. That was great for me because it afforded us the opportunity to go to breakfast. Our favorite breakfast place in New Orleans is La Boulangerie bakery. We got in the car and drove from the Marigny to Magazine Street. We caught up with news from home and abroad and talked about what he had learned and what he had experienced. We talked about the recipes he gathered while he was there, and the things he cooked in Giuliana‘s kitchen. We will be putting many of those to use in the coming days.
He was excited to come home and spend the night in his own bed and to see his mother. This morning we got up and ate breakfast at The Midtowner. He and I have eaten breakfast together all over the world. When we took the long trip, the girls always slept late, but he and I always got up and ate breakfast together. We have so many good memories of breakfast in 72 European cities over that wonderful six-month period.
Though none of those breakfasts can compare to what he and I enjoyed this morning at our breakfast joint. He wanted eggs and bacon cooked the American way. He hadn’t eaten hashbrowns in almost a half a year and was looking forward to those. He also wanted a biscuit. He typically doesn’t eat bread, or at least much of it, but he tore that cathead biscuit up in one sitting.
A couple of friends showed up and we told stories. My son spoke about his journeys in Italy and throughout Europe. I pushed away from the counter and took in the scene as he spoke. He seems as if he has matured five years in the past five months. The audible was the correct call.
Today’s breakfast was one that I will never forget. And, once again, the world is spinning in greased grooves.
I love pesto. It is one of my favorite flavor profiles— not only in Italian cooking, but— of all cuisines. It’s fresh tasting and clean. But it’s also light and extremely versatile.
I keep pesto portioned into small batches in the freezer. It thaws quickly and is perfect for a quick supper. Just place the pesto in a bowl and add a little extra virgin olive oil. Remove your favorite noodle from the boiling water and toss in the pesto. Finish with some grated pecorino and call it dinner.
1/3 cup Toasted pine nuts or almonds
2 cups Fresh basil leaves (2 oz. by weight)
1 TB Minced garlic
pinch Kosher salt
¼ cup Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
3 TB Grated Pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
Combine nuts, basil, garlic and salt in a food processor. Slowly add olive oil.
Remove and fold in cheese.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)