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Not your typical, run-of-the-mill...

Not your typical, run-of-the-mill Christmas message

By: Robert St. John - December 18, 2023

Columnist and Restaurateur Robert St. John shares an inspiring personal Christmas message and a recipe for Italian cream cake.

Let’s talk about failures. The holiday season may seem like a peculiar time to air personal disappointments but stick with me.

My father died when I was a small child. An even more unorthodox way to begin an inspirational pre-Christmas column, but that event still holds as the worst thing that ever happened to me. I’m putting that aside for the sake of this narrative and focusing on three of the worst things that happened to me in within a short, six-year period in my twenties.

Worst thing #1: I flunked out of college. 1981.

Worst thing #2: I got a DUI and ended up in alcohol and drug rehab. May 25th 1983

Worst thing #3: We fired our chef on opening night of my first restaurant. 1987.

In college I’d been majoring in communications because that’s all I knew from my work experience as a disc jockey in high school. I wasn’t interested in communications; I was interested in partying. Embarrassed and ashamed after flunking out, I moved back home to my hometown of Hattiesburg MS looking for a job. There were two ladies who were opening a delicatessen. They didn’t know much about the restaurant business, which is evident, because they hired me as the manager. I fell in love with the restaurant business instantly and set a new course for my future: To open a restaurant of my own one day. Had I not flunked out of college I would have never gotten into what I believe is the career that I was born to do— the restaurant business.

The DUI saved my life. Seriously. I’ve been clean and sober ever since. I am 100% convinced that, at that point, I wouldn’t have lived much longer. At 21 years old I had resigned myself that I wasn’t going to live to see 30, and sadly, I was OK with that. The truth is— the way I was living, and the amount of alcohol and drugs I was consuming daily— I probably wouldn’t have made 25.

In 1987 I sold the only thing of value I owned: a landlocked piece of land in rural Perry County that my grandfather left me in his will. That $25,000.00 was my stake in opening the first restaurant. My mother begged me not to open a restaurant. “You’ll ruin the family name,” she said. At that point I couldn’t have done much more harm the family name than I had already done in my misspent youth.

We hired a chef from the Florida Panhandle. He was a legend. He was a legend for two reasons: 1.) His food was excellent, and 2.) He was a binge drinker who could start drinking on Wednesday and not be seen again until Sunday. We hired him on the promise that he would not drink. On the opening night of the first restaurant, I learned my first business lesson: Lock the beer cooler. The chef drank a case of beer out of the walk-in cooler and a bottle of Dr. Tischner’s from across the street at the gas station. We fired our chef open opening night which forced me back into the kitchen. The extent of my cooking experience at that point was that I had asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas when I was six years old. Had we not fired our chef that night I wouldn’t have spent the next four years working 90 hours a week in the kitchen which gave me the valuable foundation to succeed going forward.

It is said that missing a bus could change one’s entire life going forward. My story doesn’t start with a bus. It starts with The Beatles and their 45rpm single of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It was one of the first records I ever owned. It had been out several years by the time my babysitter gave me her copy. That scratched up, worn out record opened up whole new world as I not only fell in love with The Beatles, I fell in love with all music.

Music became my friend and constant companion from that day forward.

I was raised by a single mom who raised my brother and me on a public school art teacher’s salary. My brother and I had no choice but to work as soon as we could. At 15, after a couple of years of mowing yards and working as a janitor in my school, I needed a full time job. My mother approached the owner of a local radio station and told him that her son loved music and would love a job at his radio station. I was hired.

For expediency’s sake I will put this narrative on the fast track going forward. If my babysitter hadn’t given me that Beatles record, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with music as hard as I did, and never would have gotten a job at the radio station which led me to major in communications in college, which led me to flunk out of college because I wasn’t interested in communications.

After I flunked out of college, I ended up getting the only job I could find which was in a restaurant. Had I not gotten that job I would have never fallen in love with the restaurant business. Had I not gotten into the restaurant business I never would have employed over 10,000 people over the past 37 years, and never would have founded Extra Table which is feeding hungry Mississippians over 6,000,000 free meals a year. The restaurant business also led me to writing this column which led me to authoring books and producing and hosting television shows, which led me to taking my family on an extended six month trip to Europe.

From that Europe trip came a new career of hosting tours. But without hosting tours Anthony Thaxton and I never would have spent time with John Anderson at the Walter Anderson Museum one night which led to the idea of a documentary on Walter Anderson, and had that documentary not been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, for over 1,100 airings on over 325 public broadcasting stations, and won two Southeastern Emmy Awards we wouldn’t have been approached by Mississippi College to open the Institute for Southern Storytelling.

In the end, things that seem like the worst things that could happen in the moment can turn out to be great blessings given time. A large portion of the 670,000 Mississippians who suffer from food insecurity are eating today, and the positive stories of Mississippians are being spread across the country. All because of a silly pop song that was released in 1964.

So, the Christmas message here is that one never knows what influence one is going to have on another. Take time with young people. Be caring. Be giving. Be patient in those youthful days. Give them second and third chances. You never know when you’re giving a little kid their version of a spark that could be as simple as a Beatles record.

That Easy Bake Oven is now on display in the culinary wing of the Max Museum in Meridian, the Beatles record is on my office bookshelf. It keeps me ever grateful and is a constant reminder that I am blessed way beyond what I deserve.

I still fail, almost daily. But I do my best to keep moving forward and try to get just a little bit better each day.

I’m not a winner, far from it. I’m just a loser who refuses to give up.

Onward.

#####

This Week’s Recipe: RJ’s Italian Cream Cake

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup ​Butter, softened
  • 2 cups ​Sugar
  • 5 large ​Eggs, separated
  • 2 1/2 cups ​All-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp ​Baking soda
  • 1 cup ​Buttermilk
  • 2/3 cup ​pecans, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ​Vanilla extract
  • 1 can ​Flaked coconut (3 1/2 oz.)
  • 1/2 tsp ​Cream of Tartar
  • 3 Tbl ​Grand Marnier
  • 1 recipe ​Cream Cheese Frosting

INSTRUCTIONS

Grease and flour three nine-inch round cake pans.  Line pans with wax paper; grease paper and set aside.  

Beat butter at medium speed of an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugar, beating well.  Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition.  Combine flour and baking soda.  Add buttermilk and flour alternately, beginning and ending with flour mixture.  Stir in pecans, vanilla, and coconut.  

Beat egg whites at high speed in a large bowl until foamy.  Add cream of tartar; beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold beaten egg whites into batter. Pour batter into prepared pans.  

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 or 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.  Let cool in pans 10 minutes, remove from pans; peel off wax paper; and let cool completely on wire racks.  Brush each cake layer with 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier.  Let stand 10 minutes.  Spread cream cheese frosting between layers and on sides and top of cake.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1 (8 oz.) pkg ​Cream cheese, softened
  • 1 (3 oz.) pkg ​Cream cheese, softened
  • 3 /4 cup ​Butter, softened
  • 1  1 /2  ​Powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 1 /2 cups ​Pecans, chopped
  • 1 Tbl ​Vanilla extract

Beat first three ingredients at medium speed of electric mixer until smooth.

Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy; stir in pecans
and vanilla.

About the Author(s)
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Robert St. John

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler and world-class eater. He has spent four decades in the restaurant business, thirty-three of those as the owner of the Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and El Rayo Tex-Mex in Hattiesburg, as well as Highball Lanes, The Pearl, The Capri, and Enzo Osteria in the Jackson area. Robert has written eleven books including An Italian Palate, written in Europe while traveling through 72 cities in 17 countries in six months with his wife and two children. Robert has written his syndicated newspaper column for twenty years. Read more about Robert at robertstjohn.com.
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