Breakfast, routines and bacon

Table 19

Many of the business books I am familiar with go into great detail about how successful people commit to a rigid routine in their workday. A specific time is set aside for checking emails, another period is devoted to text responses. Some of these experts allot time— down to the minute— for phone calls, meetings, lunch and even the small tasks associated with a day’s work. I am not one of those devotees. Good or bad, I am not one that adheres to a tight schedule. I am always on-time and fairly organized but have no desire to lead such a structured existence, whether in my business, or personal, life.

One quick look at my phone shows 3,652 unanswered emails. I also have a backlog of voicemail messages that haven’t been answered. To be fair though, my outgoing voice message states, “I never check my voicemail messages, so please send a text.” I currently have zero text messages that need to be responded to because I communicate best that way, or through regular phone conversations.

I have never thought of myself as one who abides by routines and schedules, but one look at my daily patterns and I am most certainly a creature of habit when it comes to breakfast.

If I am in town, I am at The Midtowner, sitting in the same seat, at the same table, at 7:00 a.m. every morning. Whether I spent the night a few blocks away at my house, or 25 miles away at the lake, I am sitting at table 19 at 7:00 a.m. It’s almost a compulsion. I could probably count on one hand the times I have been in town and not eaten breakfast at The Midtowner since we opened, and those were probably four or five times when I was sick.

The routine is a carbon copy of the day before, and the day before that. I park in the same spot, enter the same kitchen door, say “good morning,” to the team members in the prep station and pot sink area, then say “good morning” as I pass the crew on the hot line getting ready for service, before walking out into the dining room to say, “good morning,” to the front-of-the-house crew. I take my usual seat at table 19 and start out with a glass of unsweetened iced tea and a glass of water.

From there it depends on what I have scheduled. I schedule most of the meeting requests I receive for 7:15 a.m. at table 19. I love knocking out business meetings over breakfast. The day is young, my brain is rested, and there is bacon. Occasionally friends will show up during the week. I love it when that happens because I enjoy visiting while sharing a meal. And, again, there’s bacon.

My friend Steve is a radiologist and occasionally must work the overnight shift at the hospital three blocks away. He gets off at 7 a.m. on those shifts and we get a nice visit in— usually talking about music or family… and eating bacon— before he heads home to get some rest. He also checks the quality level of our grits that day as we use his recipe, and his name is on the menu as the creator of those grits.

On alternating Saturdays and Sundays my childhood friends Carolyn and Mike join me. That is often the highlight of my week at table 19. My two children join me, occasionally. It doesn’t get any better than that. Sometimes I’ll have a surprise visit by a friend from out of town who happens to be visiting home for a couple of days. Those are always a treat as they are usually a surprise.

I also have a standing Friday morning breakfast meeting with the men’s accountability group I’ve been a member of for over 20 years.

I love mornings in a restaurant, whether the restaurant is opened or closed. Many times, I’ll spend time in the dining room of one of our restaurants that doesn’t open until lunch. I do some of my best, and most creative, thinking— alone— in that environment. There is a certain energy in the stillness of an unopened restaurant. It’s filled with the anticipation of a new day. Every day is different in the restaurant business. The guest make up is different, the menu offerings are different, and the shift unfolds in a different manner every time.

I think the ever-changing environment and guest interaction is what initially lured me into this industry during my first restaurant job on the opening crew of a small delicatessen over 40 years ago. I have never been cut out for a coat-and-tie nine-to-five gig. The ups and downs and highs and lows of the typical restaurant workday fit my style and taste.

There were dreams of opening a breakfast restaurant and a place that serves meat-and-three southern home cooking at least 10 years before I opened The Midtowner. One of my greatest concerns was finding a workforce that would be consistent and timely in getting to work to open a restaurant in the early morning hours. It’s been such a pleasant surprise that we rarely have any issues with people being late to work or calling in. I would venture to say that we have less of that in the breakfast place than we do with our concepts that are open for lunch and dinner.

There is so much that goes on behind the scenes in restaurants before they open and while they’re open. It takes a team, and we’ve been blessed with talented team members for over 35 years.

The routineness of my morning schedule continues even when I am out of town. Wherever I am I ask the front desk at the hotel where the best local breakfast joint is located? “I want to go where the old men are talking sports and politics over coffee and wheat toast.” One can learn a lot sitting in a breakfast café listening to the regulars as they solve the world’s problems. And there’s also bacon.

Onward.

Andouille Cheese Grits

1 tablespoon bacon fat or clarified butter

1/2 pound andouille sausage, medium dice

2 teaspoons garlic

4 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons Hot Sauce

2 tablespoons Creole Seasoning

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 cup white grits, quick cooking (stone ground or regular grits can be used- adjust cooking time)

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

In a large skillet, heat clarified butter until hot. Add andouille and garlic and sauté for 4–5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain off excess fat using a fine mesh strainer. Set the andouille and garlic aside.

In a large saucepan, bring the milk, seasonings, and butter to a boil. Slowly pour in grits while stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low. Continue to stir for 15 minutes. Add the sautéed andouille and garlic mix, and cheese. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8-10 servings

(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)


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