Most of the restaurant concepts I have been a part of have been collaborations between myself and, at least, one other person. Whether it was with menu, atmosphere, concept or culture, I have always found that working with someone else towards a common goal is enjoyable, rewarding – both personally and professionally – and successful.
Nowhere has collaboration – in my personal life and professional career – been more gratifying, fulfilling and outright fun than the working partnership with my best friend and renowned watercolorist, Wyatt Waters.
Waters and I have collaborated on three coffee table cookbooks. We have a fourth in the works. “A Southern Palate” was our first book. It was written and developed shortly after the two of us met in 1999. That book surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams for success, which I believe was due to the fact that the collaboration hit on all cylinders. Its origins were organic and our aim – to produce a beautiful book that told the story of the South through food and art from our respective perspectives – was true.
Waters and I never planned on doing a second book. But we became fast friends during the process of the first book, and after years of traveling together and doing demos and book signings, while our families grew closer, another book project grew organically out of the friendship. “Southern Seasons” told the story of the seasons of food, art, nature and life throughout the South, and once again, included Waters’ amazing watercolors.
Several years later, a casual lunch conversation with Waters turned into a joint-book project that covered the entire Italian peninsula. In a 10-week span, he and I (along with my wife, two kids and another friend) covered Italy from the southernmost tip of Sicily to the Alps. Waters completed 128 paintings in 62 non-travel days – an amazing feat. The resulting book, “An Italian Palate,” might be the best book we will ever publish. The recipes were spot on and Waters’ paintings were Sargentesque in their beauty, intent, overall quality and skillfulness.
It was around the time we were traveling throughout Italy that Waters and I began talking about collaborating on a restaurant project together. A few years ago, during a breakfast in Ocean Springs, we were ready to pull the trigger when another tenant picked up the building before we could start the process. Since then, we have talked about what a restaurant that focused on my food and his art would look and feel like.
Throughout the history of the world, food and art have always made life better. Italy and France are the greatest examples of cultures that put a premium on food and art. A chef/restaurateur collaborating with an artist is probably not a new concept, and had likely been done before Waters and I began working together, but we didn’t know about it, or hadn’t seen any examples, so it was uncharted territory for us.
While talking about collaborating on a restaurant project it struck me one day – why not here? Why not the flagship of all of our restaurants in my hometown? Why not the Purple Parrot? Why save those beautiful watercolors for another concept?
We opened the Purple Parrot Café in my hometown of Hattiesburg in 1987. The original art that hung in the Parrot was by local artist, Beverly Dennis. Within a few years the dining room displayed the beautiful works of my friend, Bill Dunlap. In those days, my mother, Dinny St. John, a local art teacher for 50 years also supplied several paintings that hung in the Purple Parrot bar. After a major re-concepting, followed by a re-working of the theme, we hung the art of neo-cubist artist Max Papart in the mid 1990s. In 2013, Jackson artist William Goodman’s work adorned the Parrot’s walls. Goodman’s work will now move to Branch, our cocktail/small plate concept, and the artwork in the new Purple Parrot Seafood & Steaks concept will be all Waters.
For the past several weeks, Waters has been bunking at our house and driving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast every morning. He is painting the Coast from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs. The new works will hang in Purple Parrot Seafood & Steaks beginning Oct. 3. We have finally been able to collaborate on a restaurant together and it has been a blast.
Food and art are two of life’s greatest pleasures. These past few weeks have reminded me of our time in Italy. Waters, who always chooses to work on location, has been single-minded and focused. It is hot, hard work making beautiful art. Waters has an amazing work ethic to go along with his talent. Most of all, he has a passion for excellence and being true to his craft and true to himself. That is what collaborative process is all about.