By Robert St. John
Inspiration for recipes can come from a wide array of places. Part of my job is to travel and get ideas to bring back to our restaurants. Sometimes I find things in little dive bars and joints when I wasn’t looking for inspiration or ideas. Other times some of the most sought after, and upscale, locales offer nothing tangible other than inspiration to keep going and growing. Many times I am so excited about a recipe or concept that I write about it, and then work it up for one of the restaurants.
The key is getting out there and seeing what is going on. The most inspired I’ve been in the past decade was during the 10 weeks I spent in Italy and the month I spent in Spain. The Italian food culture intrigued me – the freshness, the simplicity, and, most of all, the taste of the cuisine. In Spain I fell in love with the tapas mindset and the beauty of operating a full-scale restaurant with a very limited staff.
One of the most popular recipes I’ve developed in the past year was the house salad dressing at our new Italian concept, Tabella. People love this dressing. It’s tart, it’s light, and it tastes like no other dressing out there. People come in just to buy the dressing and take it home. In the past year we have sold well over 20,000 salads tossed in Tabella house dressing.
The interesting thing about that recipe is I didn’t have to travel anywhere for inspiration. I had been eating a version of it my entire life.
I love salads today. I have enjoyed them all over the world, but I grew up with a severe disdain for salad. I had a fairly sophisticated palate for a Mississippi kid in the late 1960s, but lettuce wasn’t in my culinary repertoire. In my pre-teen years I would only eat the hard white core of iceberg lettuce, dry. In my early teens I only ate salad if it had bottled creamy Italian dressing on it.
My salad days and lifelong love affair with all types of salads began with a recipe from a friend’s aunt.
My lifelong friend, Amy – with whom I spent two years of kindergarten, 12 years of school, and a few years of college – had an aunt named Tina. I didn’t know Aunt Tina very well, but I do remember her being a chaperone on our senior trip, and for that job, she deserves sainthood. I mainly knew Aunt Tina because she was the creator of the aptly named, Aunt Tina’s Dressing.
I began eating salads because of Aunt Tina’s dressing. It was sold at the annual Episcopal church bazaar, and the recipe passed from household to household. Everyone I knew back in the early 1970s in my small hamlet of Hattiesburg knew about – and served – Aunt Tina’s dressing.
These were the days after green goddess and before the junior league salad with the walnuts and ramen noodles. Aunt Tina’s salad truly ruled the day.
Aunt Tina’s salad dressing was such a part of my childhood I published the recipe in my first cookbook. In the back of my mind though, I always wanted to use it in a restaurant application.
When I was deep in the recipe-testing process in the weeks before we opened Tabella, I brought the recipe for Aunt Tina’s dressing in the kitchen hoping it might serve as our house salad dressing. I made the salad I had grown up with, and then thought about how it might appeal to customers in an Italian restaurant. It didn’t fit.
I liked the tarragon vinegar and apple cider vinegar aspect of the recipe, but blue cheese and paprika didn’t fit in the flavor components of our concept.
On my second pass at it, I switched the blue cheese to Parmesan cheese, omitted the paprika, and substituted olive oil for canola oil. That was it. Done deal. A salad was born.
Sometimes it’s as easy as that.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the late, great Aunt Tina, and hopefully she knows that her dressing kicked off my life-long love affair with salads and was the inspiration for one of my most popular recipes, ever.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.