By Robert St. John
If I carried a business card, there would be a lot of job titles listed on it— restaurateur, author, producer, columnist, writer, cook, designer, documentarian, show host, travel host, board member, manager, president, CEO, founder, and chairman of the board. But the most important job title I have— or ever will have, and it’s not even close— is “Dad.” Actually, “Dad,” if my son is addressing me, “Daddy,” if it’s my daughter.
Most of those job titles are positions and responsibilities I sought— some I dreamed of as a young man, and others I never expected. I’m embarrassed to say “dad” was never something I thought about.
Though I always wanted to be a father, even as a teenager, I’m not sure why. It probably had something to do with losing my father at an early age. I could probably go sit on a doctor’s couch for an hour a week for a couple of years and figure that out. But to what end? The point is I wanted to be a father but— had you asked me in the mid 1980s when I was in full-restaurant mode— being a father would have been way down on the list behind restaurateur, chef, and/or business owner.
When I met my wife in the summer of 1988 neither of us wanted to get married. She claimed early, and often, that she never wanted to have children. It’s so strange to type that sentence today as she is 100 percent totally devoted to our kids and is the absolute best mother I know. I, on the other hand, wanted a whole litter of kids. I would have had a dozen if it were up to me. But I was super focused on my career and building up the restaurant.
Then my daughter was born, and everything changed in that moment.
I can honestly say that my entire life’s focus, mission, and purpose was transformed in the maternity ward of the Forrest General Hospital at 8:10 a.m. on May 31, 1997.
I knew I would be excited about having a child. I knew I would love and adore a child. But when they put that crying a little girl in my arms it’s as if a box, heretofore hidden inside me for 36 years, opened instantly, and my capacity to love another being amplified exponentially. The degree with which I thought I would love my child paled in comparison to the feeling I had in that moment. It’s the same deep feeling I have today, if not more so.
My son was born four years later to the same sentiment. We stopped at one each. My friend Tracy says, “With two you can play man-to-man. With three you gotta play zone. And zone is never as good as man to man.”
I have loved and enjoyed every phase of their childhoods. Even the early crying-at-night stages. My wife did almost all the late-night rocking, but when it was my turn, I can remember telling myself, “There will be a day when you will miss this and wish you were holding this little infant in your arms. Treasure it.” Those days came, and they came too fast.
Through elementary, junior high, high school, football, soccer, theatre performances, cheerleading, and long trips when no one would be quiet in the back seat, I would do it all over again, tenfold. There’s almost nothing I would skip.
Though of all those phases— even the 10-year-old phase when I was seen as the greatest thing alive in my son’s eyes— I’m not sure I would trade any of it for where we are today. My 25-year-old daughter, just moved back from New Orleans where she was working as an interior designer. She has a house in town and is working with another interior designer. She loves her job. My 21-year-old son has just finished a six-month stint in Florence, Italy cooking in the kitchen of a friend. In another week he will head to culinary school in New York to become a chef.
I never pushed my career on them. The restaurant industry is brutal enough, and if one isn’t totally in love and obsessed with it, he or she will be miserable. My son came to me six years ago and stated his intention to go into the restaurant business. I laid out an eight-year plan for him to follow. He is currently almost halfway through that plan. My daughter never expressed interest in the restaurant business. They both worked for me in their high school years, but we always knew she would be an interior designer. And she is a very good at what she does.
Maybe that’s what makes yesterday so special. I spent two hours in the kitchen of our Italian restaurant with our lead prep cook and kitchen manager at Tabella in Hattiesburg, Joseph Heidelberg, the new executive chef at Enzo in Richland, Justin Ferguson, my business partner, Jarred Patterson, and my son. We were developing recipes for the new Italian restaurant we will open in a matter of weeks. The menu will include American-Italian food such as the food we have been serving at Tabella for the last 11 years, but it will also offer authentic Italian food that I have learned from my yearly trips to Italy, and my son is leading the effort on those dishes as he learned many of them during his most recent stint.
After a full day in the kitchen, I picked my daughter up at her house and we drove to Ridgeland, Mississippi to the new restaurant so she could start moving forward on the design plan. It was just the two of us, which is kind of rare, as she spends most of her family time with her mother or as part of the whole (the four of us). I loved it. The conversation never lulled. We spoke about my vision for the restaurants, and other restaurants that are in the works. She sat in the passenger seat and thumbed through the plans as we discussed colors, coverings, and artwork.
At the restaurant, we walked around and measured and did all the things that an interior designer needs to do to get her job done. Then we had dinner. I have traveled to a lot of places this year. I even spent three months eating my way through Spain and Italy. But no dinner can compare to this one where she and I just sat and talked shop while we ate.
On the ride home, we stopped talking about business and focused on music. I played DJ for a while, and then she took over the car’s sound system. We talked about the music we were listening to these days and shared new songs the other hadn’t heard yet. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.
Thirty-five years ago, when I got in this business, I was at a point in my life where I had no intentions or prospects of marriage. I just wanted to own a restaurant. Just one. That was my dream. Kids were nowhere in my top-20 life goals. Today, my family is at the top of the pyramid. I guess we must be open to new experiences, and always be available for what God has in store. Today I am a happy man. I am in the business I love so much and working with the two human beings on this planet I love the most. My wife understands that last statement, by the way.
2 cups Polenta
6 cups Chicken stock
1 TB Kosher salt
1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
In a 2 quart sauce pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the polenta or cornmeal and reduce to medium-low heat and stir constantly until it begins to thicken, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author from Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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