Recipe inspiration comes from many places. At the start of our first restaurant, I found myself in the kitchen after our opening chef was fired on the first night. The extent of my culinary abilities at that time was that I had requested and received an Easy Bake oven for Christmas.
After firing the chef, the choice was clear. My business partner and I had better start learning how to cook professionally or our first venture into the restaurant business would be our last. I dove into all the cookbooks I owned and drove to New Orleans on my day off to eat in the city. It was something I had done all my life, but then I did it with “restaurant eyes”.
The first recipes I developed were pretty good coming from someone whose main cooking chops came from cooking with a 100 watt light bulb two decades earlier. The first recipe I created was a shrimp bisque. It’s still the same recipe we use in one of our restaurants 34 years later. Although, technically, it’s not a bisque but a chowder. I didn’t know the difference at the time, and if our customers did, they never mentioned anything.
I was starting from scratch to make food from scratch. When I look at these first recipes, there are usually a lot of ingredients (too many, most of the time) and the order of cooking is often moved. But the flavor profiles are generally perfect.
I spent the next four years working 90 hours a week in the kitchen teaching myself how to operate and cook in a professional kitchen. When my schedule started to free up, I started traveling to places farther from New Orleans to seek inspiration. I was a sponge. I’ve always been a sponge when it comes to restaurants. I admire a carefully designed and expertly run restaurant the way many men would admire a rare, classic and priceless automobile.
It was also around this time that I started collecting cookbooks. I don’t know how many I have at this point. The last time we did any inventory was over ten years ago and there were over 2,000. Most are in my office, and yes, I have read them all. I started reading cookbooks like my wife reads novels.
About a dozen years into my recipe journey, I published my first cookbook. It was a coffee table cookbook and the first of four cookbook collaborations with my buddy, the super talented watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters. Most of the recipes in this book were first recipes from the beginning of my career. The shrimp bisque is in there.
My second cookbook was based on recipes I grew up eating as a child. I’ve updated them with modern ingredients and a few professional cooking methods and techniques, but most of these recipes came from my two grandmothers, my mother, and several neighborhood ladies from my childhood. I have written and published several other cookbooks. One was a cookbook about party foods, one was about grilling, a couple were southern-themed, and another was developed after spending a lot of time dining across Italy.
Over the years, recipe development has gotten easier. It didn’t hurt to surround myself with talented chefs who played a major role in helping me develop and test recipes.
When it comes to opening restaurants and developing recipes these days, the process is pretty much the same as developing recipes from my cookbook. I lay out the plan and the menu items I want to see, and the team does a lot of the work. I have reached a stage in my career where I am the last word. It’s a nice place and my work is made easier thanks to all the talent that surrounds me.
Sometimes restaurant recipes come from my childhood influences. One of the most popular recipes I developed was for the house dressing from our Italian restaurant, Tabella. It came from a childhood inspiration. Our guests love this dressing. It’s tangy, it’s light, and it’s unlike any other dressing.
My lifelong friend, Amy – with whom I spent two years in kindergarten, 12 years in school and a few years in university – had an aunt named Tina. I didn’t know Aunt Tina very well, but I remember she was a chaperone on our senior trip, and for that job she deserves sainthood. I mostly knew Aunt Tina because she was the creator of the aptly named Aunt Tina’s Dressing Room.
I started eating salads because of Aunt Tina’s salad dressing. It was sold at the Episcopal Church’s annual bazaar, and the recipe passed from household to household. Everyone I knew in the early 1970s in my hometown of Hattiesburg knew about — and served — Aunt Tina’s dressing.
It was the days after green goddess and before junior salads with nuts and ramen noodles. Aunt Tina’s salad really topped the day.
Aunt Tina’s dressing was such a part of my childhood that I published the recipe in one of the first cookbooks. Deep down I always wanted to use it in a restaurant app.
When I was deep in the recipe testing process in the weeks before Tabella opened, I brought Aunt Tina’s salad dressing recipe into the kitchen hoping it could serve as a homemade salad dressing. I made the salad I grew up with, then thought about how it might appeal to customers at an Italian restaurant. It didn’t fit.
I liked the tarragon vinegar and apple cider vinegar aspect of the recipe, but the blue cheese and paprika didn’t fit our concept’s flavor profiles. On my second pass, I replaced the blue cheese with parmesan, omitted the paprika and replaced the olive oil with canola oil. That was it. Deal done. A salad was born.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the late Great Aunt Tina, and I hope she knows that her salad dressing started my lifelong love affair with salads and was the inspiration for one of my most popular recipes, ever.
The focaccia we serve at Tabella is also an ancestral recipe with a century-old ingredient. We’ve been making focaccia twice a day using a continuously fed sourdough starter for over 100 years. It all started with a lady named Mrs. Gunn. She gave a starter to my longtime neighbor – and baker of the best sourdough buns ever – Mary Virginia McKenzie, who shared some with our neighbor Barbara Jane Foote and me. I’ve used sourdough starter in the focaccia we serve at Tabella and have been feeding it for 12 years.
I’ve eaten bread in restaurants all over Italy, from the southern tip of Sicily to the Dolemites. The focaccia we make at Tabella stands up to anything I’ve eaten there.
People tend to get tense and nervous about changing recipes. If baking and pastry is involved then I understand because the measurements need to be precise and there is a lot of chemistry involved in the baking process. But when it comes to soups, sauces, and dressings, in my experience, the more I experiment and get creative, the better the end rewards.
Hailing from Hattiesburg, Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He wrote a column for a weekly syndicated newspaper for over 20 years.
Aunt Tina’s dressing
Yield: 2 cups
• 1/3 cup of tarragon vinegar
• 4 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
• 2 teaspoons of black pepper
• 1 tablespoon of paprika
• 2 teaspoons of salt
• 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese
• 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
• 1 cup of rapeseed oil
1. Place all ingredients together in a glass jar and refrigerate. Shake well before use.
Tabella House Vinaigrette
Yield: 3 cups
• 3/4 cup of tarragon vinegar
• 6 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
• 6 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 teaspoons of kosher salt
• 1 ½ cups of pure olive oil
1. Combine first 6 ingredients in a mixing bowl using a wire whisk. Whisk the olive oil.
2. Shake well before each use.
3. It can also be divided into mason jars and shaken before application.