They complete each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s jokes, agree with each other’s statements — one would think that Wyatt Waters and Robert St. John have known each other all their lives.
“I’m in the restaurant business in Hattiesburg,” said St. John, between bites of pulled pork barbeque at Jackson’s Pig & Pint restaurant. “In the late ‘90s, I started writing a food column for The Hattiesburg American that was picked up by other newspapers. A customer who came into The Purple Parrot Café just about every day constantly told me I needed to do a cookbook. I remember vividly that she came in one day and sat at her usual table, number three, this time with a gentleman she introduced me to as a publisher friend of hers. The man asked me what kind of cookbook I wanted to do.”
St. John said he really hadn’t considered a cookbook, but then said he would focus on recipes developed at The Purple Parrot.
“I told him I would like for it to be illustrated by Wyatt Waters,” St. John said. “The man told me that a book illustrated by Wyatt would be an instant best-seller.”
He had never met Waters, but St. John was quite familiar with the Clinton-based artist’s work.
“I saw some paintings he had done of places around Hattiesburg,” St. John said. “Most people, when painting iconic places in Hattiesburg, would paint the dome on the administration building on Southern Miss’s campus — things like that. But, instead, Wyatt painted the old Beverly Drive-In movie theater and the California Sandwich Shop downtown.
I got what he was doing, and I really liked it.”
St. John set up a meeting with Waters.
“I actually looked up his home phone number and called his house, never dreaming he’d actually be there. His daughter answered, and promptly handed the phone over to Wyatt. We agreed to meet and, when we did, we talked for hours,” St. John said. “We had so much in common — the Beatles and other music, WZZQ radio, that kind of thing. We really connected, and he got my vision for the cookbook.”
After researching publishing, St. John decided to start his own publishing company.
“We started out by ordering 10,000 copies of the book (A Southern Palate: Contemporary Seasonal Southern Cuisine from The Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill, December 2002), which was, in hindsight, very ambitious,” St. John said. “But the book sold out in three weeks and we had to reorder. Because there was no way to get the books in time for Christmas, Wyatt did a print that people would receive when they pre-ordered a cookbook, then they would get their book around February.”
Waters said the book was a sort of coffee table cookbook.
“I think we created a new genre of book! When it came to publishing, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he said.
Waters explained that his artwork in the book was mostly still lifes, “a real departure for me,” based on St. John’s stories. The duo enjoyed time together, book signings and cooking demos, often for fundraising events.
“We decided early on that if we didn’t make any money or sell any books, we’d just have fun together,” he said.
Waters said the one thing that surprised him with the first book was that people would call his gallery and ask him cooking questions.
“I’ve had people call me and ask how much cream was in a recipe, which is funny, because I don’t really cook,” he said.
St. John jumped in: “Well, people don’t call and ask me to paint!”
“We never planned on doing another book,” St. John said.
But they did do another book, then another. And now the duo is working on a fourth. The book that really opened doors to a world of possibilities for both men was An Italian Palate.
“I was preparing to open an Italian restaurant in Hattiesburg,” St. John said. “Every Wednesday, I made a trip to Jackson to learn to cook Italian food in the kitchen of David Trigiani. One day, Wyatt joined us.”
The St. John family was embarking on a several-month European tour, and Trigiani suggested to Waters that he should join them in Italy and paint.
“My favorite painter is from Italy,” Waters said. “That spark of an idea really spoke to me. Doing something I love in a place I’ve never been sounded wonderful.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
“I figured the best-case scenario was that I’d do about 90 paintings,” he said.
Instead, Waters created 128 watercolors.
“I couldn’t help but find something good to paint each day,” he said. “The food, the art, the architecture were all so inspiring.”
That trip culminated with An Italian Palate, which then led to friends asking St. John if he’d take them to Italy. Last fall, Waters and St. John took their first tour group to Italy, with Waters teaching painting classes while St. John took folks on culinary adventures. It was such a success that future trips are being planned.
“From the time folks step off the plane, everything is provided,” St. John said. “From hotels to meals to transportation and more, they don’t have to spend a dime.”
The next book will be out this year, just in time to celebrate Mississippi’s bicentennial. Called A Mississippi Palate, the book will feature “quintessential Mississippi” dishes along with Waters’ artwork, “from the top of the state to the Coast,” St. John said.
“This book will really feel like Mississippi,” he said.
So, what makes the team of Wyatt Waters and Robert St. John work so well?
“I think it’s successful because I am working with my best friend,” Waters said. “I like working with people who are doing something I don’t do, in a most excellent way. Robert has introduced me to the world of food in a way that it’s not something that’s just filling my tank.”
St. John smiled.
“Just look at the sacrament of Communion,” he said. “There’s no mistake that it’s built around food. People come together and really connect over food.”
“Painting can be such a solitary thing. It’s great being around Robert. He has the most sensitive olfactory I’ve ever seen,” he said. “To watch him deconstruct something in a restaurant is amazing! We are both lucky that we ended up doing something we are supposed to do and we are passionate about.”