By Robert St. John
Forty years ago, I worked my first shift in a restaurant. It was almost the first hour, of the first shift of the first day that I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life— open a restaurant. That is not an exaggeration or oversimplification. The restaurant bug hit me instantly. Within a matter of days my life goal was set.
At 20-years-old I had just flunked out of college and had returned to my hometown of Hattiesburg, tail tucked between my legs, and embarrassed because most of my friends were exceling in college and getting closer to their future goals. At that time, I had no goals. I had worked as a disc jockey at a radio station all through high school. When my college advisor asked what I wanted to major in I unenthusiastically and hesitantly replied, “communications?” At 17-years-old, it was all I knew. That was my skillset. That, and how to play football, mow yards, and drink beer.
Flunking out of college ended up being a blessing because it drove me into the restaurant business. From that day forward I set my sights on one goal— opening my own restaurant.
It took six years, but I eventually did it. I went back to college and worked full time in two restaurants while taking 18 and 21 hours a semester, and full loads in summer school. I was all-consumed with the restaurant business and spent my spare time between classes in the library reading the restaurant trade magazines trying to absorb everything I could from the industry. After dinner shifts as a server, I stayed up many nights until 3:00 AM designing potential future kitchens and menus and complete concepts, even. I couldn’t get enough.
I was 26-years-old when I opened the first restaurant. That’s all I really wanted. Just one. My life’s goal was to own my own restaurant so I could wear T-shirts and shorts to work every day. I didn’t want much out of life. Though I can tell you sitting here at 60, I still wear shorts and/or T-shirts to work almost every day. Goal achieved.
The restaurant business brings with it many subsets, genres, and talent skills. Early on I was a working chef in the kitchen. Again, one of the seemingly worst things that ever happened was that my business partner and I fired our chef opening night. It, too, was a blessing. It forced me to get back into the kitchen. I spent the next four years working 90 hours a week learning how to cook and run a professional kitchen. I paid myself $250.00 a week, but the dirty secret is that— if I would have had any money— I would have paid someone to let me do it. I look back at those times as my halcyon days in this business. I didn’t need much, just that restaurant. I had a blast. I lived in a one-room garage apartment behind my grandmother’s house until I was 30 years old. It was all about the restaurant.
After four years, I started working out my way out of the kitchen and into overall management of the company. We had opened a couple of more restaurants at that point and— even though I still consider myself a pretty good cook— I’m not formally trained and almost anyone on the line at any of our restaurants can cook circles around me. My talents lie in food development, décor, concept design, imaging, branding, and marketing. And that’s pretty much what I do today.
As a matter of fact that’s exactly what I am doing today because my business partner, Jarred Patterson, COO of New South Restaurant Group, and I are in the process of opening an Italian restaurant in Ridgeland MS. It’s a very interesting and unique deal for me as in four decades and over two dozen restaurants opened, I have never encountered a situation such as this. We are taking over a restaurant— Biaggi’s— currently in operation, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, glasses, forks, and silverware all intact, even the employees and the management are in place. Our job is to oversee the complete and total overhaul of the menu, food development, service standards, and design of our “new” restaurant.
From the second I touched down in Tuscany in 2011 I knew I wanted to open an Italian restaurant in the Jackson, MS area. I had opened in Italian restaurant in Hattiesburg before I ever set foot on Italian soil. Six months later I was covering the Italian countryside from the southernmost tip of Sicily to the Dolomites. It was during that period that I started thinking about what to do in the Jackson area.
These days I spend approximately three months a year working in Italy, touring people through different parts of that country and turning them on to authentic Italian food in locals-only, out-of-the-way places that tourists typically never visit.
Our new restaurant, Enzo, will be named after my good friend in Tuscany, Enzo Corti, who bottles olive oil and wine and owns the villas in which we stay. Enzo Osteria (pronounced Oh-stir-ee-uh, basically a casual Italian tavern) will feature the American-Italian food we are used to over here. But half of the menu will be filled with many of the authentic Italian dishes I’ve learned over the last 11 years in Italian restaurant kitchens and Tuscan home kitchens throughout the country. There are some physical changes we will make to the building— mainly creating a stand-alone bar and cocktail lounge separate from the dining room— after we take possession of the building on September 7th.
We are blessed to have an already staffed restaurant. This will be my third restaurant to open in the post COVID period. The first two were such challenges that we are still trying to hire enough personnel to cover basic shifts. At Enzo the staff is in place. We just need to train them to our service standards and teach the kitchen crew our recipes.
The location is perfect. When the Renaissance center was being developed, I was approached to open a Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar on the exact spot Enzo will be located. A company was formed, the plans were drawn up, and then the 2008 financial crisis hit. My partner was still ready to go ahead with the project. But I wanted my entree into Jackson area to be the best it could be. So, I decided to wait.
We opened the Fondren project back in February and Enzo will open around the first of October.
I am knee deep into what I do best— concept design, décor, menu development, imaging, and branding. I love this business. I love that I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I can focus on the things that I do best.
A bonus is that my daughter— an interior designer— is working alongside me on the changeover. My son, who spent the first six months of this year cooking in Italy is bringing many of the recipes he learned over there before he heads off to the Culinary Institute of America, where he will study to become a chef. He will eventually come back into the fold, but he leaves us with a great legacy of authentic Italian recipes that I will add to the ones I have learned over the years. Working with my children in the business that I love so dearly is a singular and unique joy to me, and one I never expected.
Here we go!
Roasted Tomato Soup
Perfect on a cold day with a soft-cheese Panini.
10 lbs. Roma tomatoes
¼ c. Bacon fat
3 c. Onion, diced
¼ c. Minced garlic
1 TB Dried basil
1 TB Dried oregano
1 TB Kosher salt
2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
1 ea 6 oz. can tomato paste
4 c. Chicken stock
1 ea. Bay leaf
1 c. Heavy cream
1 TB Sherry vinegar
Preheat oven to 400.
Lightly coat the tomatoes with vegetable oil and place on a baking sheet in the oven for 30-45 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes. Remove from oven when the skin begins to crack and the tomatoes are soft. Allow to cool just enough to handle and remove and discard the skins.
In a stockpot, sauté onions in the bacon fat for 8-10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Add garlic, basil, oregano, salt and pepper and continue stirring for another 4-5 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir constantly for 5-6 minutes until caramelized, being careful not to burn.
Add Chicken stock, roasted tomatoes and bay leaf and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and add cream and sherry vinegar and simmer for 10 more minutes.
Puree until smooth using an immersion blender or in small batches in a countertop blender.
Yield: 1 gallon
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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