Friends on the level and restaurants off the track

Everyone has “that” friend. He or she is the friend that doesn’t sugar coat his or her comments. It’s a straight talking friend who will tell you exactly what he or she thinks. Tact is sometimes involved, but other times not. I rank my straight talking friends by degrees.

A level one straight talking friend is a basic friend. They may tell you if you have something foreign in your nose. They won’t tell you outright, but they’ll start fiddling with their nose in the hopes that you start fiddling with yours. A level two straight talking friend is the kind that lets you know you probably shouldn’t be driving so fast through the neighborhood, and you need to fasten your seat belt.

The level three straight talking friend is when it starts to get interesting. My mother was— at a minimum— a level three straight talker. She would ride through our neighborhood and slam on brakes immediately if she saw kids in a yard doing something she thought they shouldn’t be doing. She had no problem yelling out of the window to tell a group of kids she didn’t know to, “Stop that! You’ll get hurt.” It embarrassed my brother and me every time she did it and we sunk down in the back seat of the old yellow Plymouth to not be seen.

A level four straight talking friend comes right out and tells you what he or she thinks about a certain situation. A level four friend will tell you that your shoes are untied but will also make a comment on your bad haircut and tell you that you have bad breath. There may be a little bit of hesitation in delivering the comment but not much.

A level five straight talking friend can take great delight in pointing something out or mentioning a fault or a mistake. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have a few level-five straight talkers in my friend group. They typically come at you from a place of love, concern, and friendship. But again, most times it’s something you need to hear.

My friend Chris Bowen is a level four straight talker. There’s a filter there, but not much of one. He’s the guy who’s not afraid to say or do anything in public for a laugh, and at the same time doesn’t hold back when his opinion is sought.

My friend, David Trigiani is a level five straight talker. We were having lunch in a diner once and the waitress— who was a little unkempt— asked if we’d like to hear about the daily specials, to which Trigiani replied, “Why don’t you just scrape some of that food off of your apron, put it on a plate, and serve it to us.” Cringeworthy in the moment? Absolutely. Pretty funny, with a good story to tell in the following years? You bet.

Everyone needs level four and level five friends, and I am grateful for the two mentioned in the previous paragraphs. I love them like brothers and value their opinions (whether solicited, or not).

A restaurateur values those types of friendships. When most friends have visited one of your restaurants and something went wrong, they’ll hem and haw a little but not go into detail about the subpar experience. A level four will let you know when you’ve dropped the ball. A level five will go into detail. This is important. Every business needs to know when mistakes are made. It’s the only way to correct the problem.

This is especially important in the post- COVID restaurant world as I am the idiot who opened three restaurants in the immediate months following COVID. One was opened 10 months after the pandemic hit when there were no employees available to work. We opened 25 positions short. It took us a year to finally get fully staffed.

My most recent opening was Enzo, our Italian concept, in Ridgeland, Mississippi. We opened it 18 months after the pandemic hit and it turned out to be the greatest business challenge of my career. Frankly it was abysmal, and I am to blame.

Let me repeat, I AM TO BLAME.

The Metro Jackson hiring market was challenging before the pandemic. After the pandemic it was almost impossible to find quality labor. At Enzo, we took over an existing Italian restaurant. I thought this would be the perfect scenario in the current labor environment. I was wrong. Very wrong.

The previous restaurant closed one day and we took over the next. Our team spent a very busy two weeks completing the changeover. During that two weeks we paid all the employees of the previous restaurant their full pay so we could keep the staff. Sounds like a great idea, right? We learned a big lesson.

The original front-of-the-house service staff was pretty good. There were several superstars in that group and most of them were conscientious servers. The cooks on the kitchen line were about 50/50. It was a challenge implementing new recipes and practices but most of them eventually caught on after a few months.

The prep area was a nightmare. In my 40+ years in this business, I’ve never seen anything like it. I learned a big lesson while taking over that restaurant— one can take another company’s employees, but when you do, you are going to also going to take over their culture.

The culture in the prep area was rotten. People took breaks when they wanted. They showed up if they wanted. They would work for 15 minutes and then take a 30 minute break every other hour. I have no idea how that restaurant was operating in the final days.

In typical times those folks would be shown the door a few days into the opening. The problem is there were no available applicants to replace them. None.

I brought our prep manager up from our Italian restaurant in Hattiesburg. He has 11 years of experience cooking our recipes. He was totally ignored. Seriously, they turned their backs on him and wouldn’t listen. I’d never seen anything like it.

It was the first time in four decades that I wasn’t proud of one of my restaurants. And the buck stops with me. Again, I am ultimately to blame.

In Italian restaurants the prep station is key. If someone messes up the marinara sauce that’s half the menu. If they mess up the Alfredo there’s the other half. If they mess up the bread that’s the entire restaurant. I had two options. One, see what we could do to turn the ship around and work on attitudes and training and give those team members the benefit of the doubt and try to train them up. Typically option two would be firing all of them and hiring new staff. But in the post COVID labor market there were no applications on file, and no one was applying, no matter how much we advertised and sought help. I went with the former.

I’ll be the first to admit that the first six months of that restaurant were unacceptable. I’ve never dealt with anything like it. I knew we were running a bad restaurant and we were working on making changes, but the changes weren’t coming as quick as we are accustomed to in the past. The reviews were mostly awful, and they were mostly deserved.

A couple of months ago things started looking up. We cleaned house and were able to hire several A+ candidates. We made wholesale changes in the prep area. A few line cooks were switched out for more talented and dedicated team members. The core crew who were with us from the start, are still there and knocking it out of the park daily. They stuck with us, bought into our vision, and we are so grateful. God bless everyone who stuck with us during those early months.

I had been avoiding my level five friend David Trigiani for months. Not only is he well versed and knowledgeable in restaurants and food, but he’s also a dual citizen Italian and has taught me much about Italian food and culture. For months I prayed he wouldn’t come in and dine with us.

I certainly wasn’t going to invite him until I felt we had righted the ship and were hitting on all cylinders.  Last week, Trigiani and I sat down for lunch at Enzo. I knew we had made major strides in the past several months, and I knew how hard the team had been working to get things right. I invited him to join me because I trust his taste, and because he’s a level five and— thankfully— won’t hold back criticism (as I am sure he’d been doing for the past six months). We had a great lunch. We ate several of the new features Chef Justin Ferguson learned on his recent trip to Tuscany. The service was spot on. The marinara and bread were perfect (Thanks a ton, prep crew!). The new prep crew, the line cooks, and all the front-of-the-house team were hitting on all cylinders.

I am proud of the team that stuck with us and has been battling through adversity from day one. They deserve all the credit. Our goal is to be the absolute best Italian restaurant in the state of Mississippi, and we won’t be satisfied until we have achieved that goal. We are improving daily. Fortunately, we are at a point in which we have a baseline with which to grow and improve. Thanks to the entire team— old and new— and our level four and five straight talking friends for sticking with us.



When making marinara the quality of the tomatoes is key. Use the best imported Italian tomatoes you can buy. Hopefully your local grocer sells San Marzano tomatoes

San Marzano tomatoes are the best sauce tomatoes in the world. Period. Even canned, they are better than 95% of fresh tomatoes for a sauce application. Let that sink in for a minute— canned tomatoes better than fresh— it’s true, especially for this sauce.

Tomatoes are a fruit, and factors such as soil and climate have a huge impact on the quality of the fruit. The reason grapes do so well in the Napa Valley or Loire Valley is because of the soil, climate, and local topography. It’s the same for San Marzano tomatoes in their specific corner of the world. The Campanga region of Italy is to tomatoes, what the Cote d’Or region of France is to grapes.

This specific variety of Italian plum tomato is grown in the rich volcanic soil of a large, flat valley at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, just the exact distance from the Mediterranean Sea needed to produce the sweetest sauce tomato in the world.

The valley’s soil is covered in deep, soft volcanic material with high amounts of potassium, phosphorus, and organic material. This leads to a sweeter, less acidic tomato— which ultimately leads to a richer, less acidic sauce.

All one has to do is open a can of regular tomatoes and place it next to a can of San Marzano tomatoes to tell the difference. The San Marzanos almost look as if they were packed in a heavy, crimson tomato paste, whereas the standard, run-of-the-mill tomatoes are packed in a weak liquid full of water.

Ultimately, it’s the taste test that won me over. San Marzanos just taste better. If you want to make the best tomato sauce at home, you need to buy San Marzano tomatoes at your local grocery store. Make sure they are “true” San Marzano tomatoes grown and packed in Italy and not “San Marzano style.” There are even companies that claim to can “true” San Marzanos, and some are doing it in other parts of Italy, but to make sure you are getting the real deal look for a D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) certification on the can.

 ¼ cup Extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups Diced yellow onion
1 cup Shredded carrot
2 Tbl Minced garlic
1 TB Dried basil
½ TB Dried oregano
3 ea. Bay leaf
2 TB Kosher salt
1 TB Fresh ground black pepper
¾ tsp Crushed red pepper
1 – 6 oz. can Tomato paste
2 – 28 oz. cans San Marzano Italian whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 cups  Vegetable stock
1 TB Balsamic vinegar
Heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and garlic. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often.

Add basil, oregano, salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and tomato paste. Cook 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently, to caramelize tomato paste.

Add canned tomatoes, stock and bay leaves. Simmer on low heat for 1 hour, stirring often.

Add balsamic vinegar and remove heat.

Yield: 1 gallon

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

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