by Cheryl Baehr
Chef John Perkins likens his foray into the restaurant business to a frog boiling in a pot of water.
"You know the story -- there's a frog swimming in a pot of water. At first it's just warm, but someone turns up the heat. It's so gradual that he doesn't realize it. The next thing he knows, he's cooked."
This isn't to say that success is killing Perkins -- far from it. With the launch of his first restaurant, Juniper (360 North Boyle Avenue; 314-329-7696), under his belt, a successful catering company and a cult following for his underground dinners, Perkins is thrilled with how far he has come. He just hasn't had the time to realize it.
"I've been so busy that I don't realize all that's happened. Then, sometimes I will just stop and have a 'Holy shit. This is amazing' moment."
Indeed, Perkins has come quite a way since he first broke onto the St. Louis food scene, first at Harvest, then at Acero and eventually at Veruca, the Gerard Craft bakeshop that eventually became Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue; 314-361-120). It was during his time at Veruca that Perkins started doing the underground dinners that made him a local legend.
"I had no intention of opening my own restaurant," Perkins says. "I was in school for theology. I was doing underground dinners out of my home kitchen because I thought it would be fun. Then came the pop-ups. Eventually, I was so far in that I couldn't turn back."
When asked how things have changed now that he has, in Juniper, a permanent space, Perkins turns thoughtful. "When I was doing the pop-ups, I was asked if I was treated differently than other restaurants. At that time, I had no point of reference to know," he recalls. "Now that I have a permanent restaurant, I realize that I was treated differently. People didn't take us as seriously as other places. It's nice to see that change."
He's not getting away from his roots, though.
"This year, we will do some underground dinners," Perkins says. "I really enjoy doing them. It's fun for the regulars who have been with me from the start. They supported me personally, and it's fun for them to see our growth and how we will continue to evolve. This is just the beginning of a long story."