Over the course of my 38-year restaurant career I have been a part of 21 restaurant and bar openings. Three of those openings – the first three – were while working in other people’s restaurants. The remaining 18 openings were restaurants that were my concepts.
Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful endeavors one will ever undertake. There are so many moving parts. It doesn’t matter how many times one has been through the process, or how experienced the key players are, it’s always a challenge.
I love developing restaurant concepts – from the opening sketches on a cocktail napkin, to the final kitchen equipment package and construction drawings from the architects. It’s a very creative and collaborative process, and those have always been the most fun projects in my professional career and personal life.
I have always done the overall theme, interior design and menu development. I usually work with a graphic artist to create logos, and these days we have a team of chefs who help develop the recipes.
Every opening has been a challenge. These days the stress level is the same, but I am enjoying the process more. Maybe it’s just that I have just entered my 60th year on this planet, and I am feeling my mortality … and I know there are a limited number of restaurant concepts left to open in my future, and so I am going to milk every minute of it.
I have never spent as much time in research and development of a concept as I have with this new Tex-Mex restaurant we are about to open. I started two years ago when it was going to be mainly an outdoor project on a piece of land I was going to purchase.
In March, when it became apparent that our 32-year-old fine dining concept was not a viable concern going forward, I made the decision to use that space – and the space that housed our cocktail bar concept – for the Tex-Mex restaurant. I own the building, so it made perfect sense to use the space I already owned. At this point in the development stage, it’s hard to imagine this concept being anywhere else in any other space.
I have been a huge fan of Mexican food since I was a little kid. I fell in love with Tex-Mex cuisine in 1988 on a trip to Dallas when I ate at a restaurant called Sam’s. All through the 1990s and 2000s I spent a lot of time in Houston hopping from one Tex-Mex joint to the next. Over the past two years I have really stepped up the research and development and have dined in over 50 Tex-Mex concepts and – just this past year – have added about 20 additional pounds!
We have also never done as much recipe testing as we have for this concept. Chefs Jessica and Craig Shields have been working tirelessly in the recipe development department, and I have never been more pleased with the organization or the final results in the pre-opening stage of a restaurant concept.
One of the greatest joys of this process has been that my wife, 23-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son have joined me for the recipe-testing sessions. We are all fans of Tex-Mex cuisine.
The process has been a fun one. The staff sets a large table in a room that has been closed off while we are remodeling, and the four of us have been joined by COO Jarred Patterson and the Shields’ chef team for some fun, productive tasting sessions. Having my family join the process has truly been a treat, and they have given good feedback.
As soon as we sit down the dishes start to come out of the kitchen. Plates are passed, and opinions are delivered. This is the first time in my 18 openings that many of the dishes are almost perfect the first time out of the chute. I think we went back to the drawing board three or four times on the salsa, but almost half of the menu has been perfect at the first tasting.
The menu is heavy on queso. There are five separate quesos, and hundreds of combinations that can be created when those quesos are ordered. We are making our own flour tortillas in house, and that process was surprisingly complicated. One would think something with four simple ingredients – flour, water, salt and lard – would be easy, but it took several tries to get it right.
We probably spent the most time on the crown jewel of all Tex-Mex cuisine, fajitas, specifically the steak fajitas. The key is the cut of beef. Almost everyone in our area uses a low-end cut of beef called flap. It’s cheap, but when it cooks up it looks a lot like stew meat. True Tex-Mex concepts use inside skirt or outside skirt, with outside skirt being the king daddy of all fajita cuts of meat. We initially tested the inside skirt and thought that might suffice since it is so much better than flap. But then we tested the outside skirt, and our decision was made for us. It is perfect. It may cost a little more, but the difference is well worth it.
At this point, we are only weeks away. It’s been a slow, measured and sometimes arduous process as we transform a room that served as a white tablecloth restaurant for over three decades into a fun and festive Tex-Mex joint.
When I am old and sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch, looking back at my career, I believe one of my favorite and most unforgettable memories will be the times I sat around a table, surrounded by unpacked boxes and construction materials, with my wife, kids, two chefs and a general manager, and ate, and laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company in the calm before the storm that is another restaurant opening. What a blessing.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
Grouper with Black Bean, Corn and Tomato Salsa
• 6 grouper filets, 6–8 ounces each.
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt.
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.
Season the fish with the kosher salt and black pepper.
Prepare the grill. Place the fish on direct high heat and cook until opaque in the center (about 8-10 minutes). Turn the fish once while cooking. Do not overcook.
Serve with the salsa.
Black Bean, Corn and Tomato Salsa
• 1 tablespoon olive oil.
• 1/4 cup yellow onion, minced.
• 2 teaspoons garlic, minced.
• 1/2 teaspoon salt.
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin.
• 1/4 teaspoon coriander.
• 1/8 teaspoon dry oregano.
• 1 can Rotel tomatoes (10 ounces).
• 1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed.
• 1 cup fresh sweet corn, cut from the cob.
• 1/4 cup green onions, thinly sliced.
• 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice.
Place the olive oil in a small stainless steel sauce pot over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, salt, cumin, coriander and oregano to the warm oil and cook 5 minutes, stirring often. Do not brown. Add the Rotel tomatoes and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add the black beans and corn and cook five minutes more. Stir in the thinly sliced green onions and lime juice and remove from the heat.
This recipe is best if made at least one day in advance. Allow salsa to reach room temperature before serving.
The yield is 3 cups.