Mississippi is fortunate to have so many talented and caring people. Being labeled as the “Hospitality State” is not just a catchphrase. It is a way of life in Mississippi, and one man truly exemplifies that – Robert St. John.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably a safe bet that you have eaten at one or maybe even a few of St. John’s restaurants. The Hattiesburg native owns Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and El Rayo Tex-Mex in the Hub City as well as Highball Lanes, The Pearl, The Capri, and Enzo Osteria in the Jackson area.
And he doesn’t plan to stop there.
“New restaurants are definitely in the plans,” St. John said. “It’s what I do. That’s just who I am.”
While owning and running restaurants was always a goal for St. John, being a top chef was never really in his initial plan. That all changed in 1987 when St. John was set to open his first restaurant in Hattiesburg with whom he believed to be a great chef, but things did not go as expected. The chef was fired on night one, and by night two, St. John was in charge of the kitchen and hasn’t looked back since.
“I had no formal training in cooking or the culinary arts,” St. John explained. “I was basically learning under fire, no pun intended. Sometimes, I would be working 90 hours a week, just learning and trying to perfect my skills in the kitchen and keeping everything running as smooth as possible throughout the restaurant.”
Even though that first night might have been enough to make many throw in the towel right then and there, that was not the case for St. John. The hardworking and determined nature of St. John led him to work tirelessly to achieve his goals.
Fast-forward 36 years, St. John has created quite a name for himself as both a restaurateur and a writer. He has authored 11 books and has been writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column for over 20 years.
One of his most impressive literary works, An Italian Palate, came when he and his family took a deep dive into the world of European food and culture. For six months, St. John, his wife Jill, and their two children traveled through 72 cities in 17 countries over two continents and he documented every step of the way.
St. John also worked as the producer of the Southeast Emmy Award-winning film, Walter Anderson: The Extraordinary Life and Art of the Islander, and creator and co-host of Palate to Palette on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. His most recent work, Yonderlust, is a television series yet to premiere that centers around St. John’s international journeys with friends and family.
Circling back to the lede of this article, St. John has used his countless successes to help others. In 2009, he founded Extra Table, which every month, ships out over 200,000 pounds of healthy food to over 60 Mississippi soup kitchens and mission pantries. During the crux of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Extra Table was able to ship out over 5.9 million pounds of food to those in need.
“Mississippi has many people that are undernourished,” St. John said. “It breaks your heart to know that over 120,000 children only get one meal a day at school. Senior citizens are also facing this battle as about 100,000 of these citizens are having to decide between paying their bills, buying medication, or eating. We are working hard to eliminate that crisis for so many of our fellow Mississippians and anyone we can help.”
In his effort to extend a helping hand to fellow Mississippians, St. John is a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition and was a key component in securing $28.6 billion in grants to aid independent restaurants affected by the pandemic. He is also co-chair of the Alzheimer’s Association of Mississippi and serves on the boards of the Mississippi Special Olympics, the Mississippi Book Festival, and the Hattiesburg-Forrest County Public Library.
It is quite easy to see that St. John has a very caring and giving heart geared towards his community, state, and those in need. While he has accomplished so much in his career, he has contributed just as much if not more in aiding and uplifting those going through a tough time. He is truly one of a kind.