J. R. Rolf
Sunday suppers. Maybe the featured food or location always changes, or maybe you know the place, and it’s going to be pasta, grilled eats, or the staple of many Southern and Midwestern tables: fried chicken.
Sunday suppers. Maybe the featured food or location always changes, or maybe you know the place, and it’s going to be pasta, grilled eats, or the staple of many Southern and Midwestern tables: fried chicken. Add side dishes, drinks and dessert, and it makes for a perfect denouement to the weekend.
Juniper, located in the Central West End at 4101 Laclede Ave. (at N. Sarah St.), is all about the nostalgia of a good meal on Sundays (and Wednesdays through Saturdays), and does so with genuine hospitality and a modern vibe. So, what does this noteworthy restaurant—with its Southern fare, mouthwatering sides, delectable brunches, seafood specials and crafted cocktails—have to do with music?
Ironically, it’s all about Monday, a day the restaurant is dark. That’s when proprietor and former head chef, John Perkins, sends out his weekly newsletter featuring the Monday Mixtape. It’s a bright spot on a day that produces anxiety in many; a link to a playlist that Perkins and, on occasion, a guest contributor, curates for the restaurant’s newsletter subscribers. As with the mixes in the ‘80s and ‘90s that one would carefully create on cassette tapes as an act of friendship, love or heartbreak, there’s always a story behind the songs. You’ll have to sign up for Juniper’s newsletter to truly understand (go to https://www.junipereats.com/ and scroll to the bottom to opt in).
We connected with Perkins to learn more about what inspired him to establish Juniper, his pandemic pivot, and the impact that music—and a mixtape—has had along the way.
Bands Through Town: I’ve read that you did not go to culinary school; what inspired you and when did you know that you wanted to dive into a career in food?
John Perkins: I did not go to culinary school, you are correct! I grew up in a family that was very oriented toward hospitality, it seemed we always had folks in the house. As for when did I want to make it a career?! Lol. I don’t know that there was a moment, I think I was the proverbial frog in the pot of water. Before I knew it the water was boiling and at that point it was too late for me. I started cooking in my last years of seminary, when I put on underground dinners. One thing led to another, and after 5 years of stumbling along I opened a restaurant. Cuz, why not?!
BTT: The pandemic was an especially hard time for restaurants. You are known for taking care of your staff during these tough times and for spearheading the Meals for Meds program locally, which provides meals to frontline workers. How have these experiences shaped your view of what you do at Juniper and the restaurant industry as a whole?
JP: I take no real credit for the meals for meds program, I saw something similar in other cities and it seemed an opportunity to me to offer a lifeline to local restaurants and provide a service to beleaguered hospital workers. It worked for a few months, and then I think the appetite (no pun intended) went away for funding that kind of thing. I think in the few months it operated it did good all the way around though, and I am grateful that it helped.
As for the broader question of how all that shaped how I view my restaurant and the industry as a whole, I would say that I am constantly being shaped by external realities in some form or fashion. I only own one restaurant but I am a participant in a broader restaurant culture. The healthier that culture is as a whole the better it is for the individual restaurants that make up that culture.
BTT: Fried chicken is a staple menu item and a strong draw for your Sunday Suppers. Did any particular recipe, Southern restaurant, travels or experience influence your desire to make fried chicken front and center on the menu?
JP: Fried chicken was a favorite of mine growing up. I mean, doesn’t everyone love it? I remember my grandmother, affectionately known in her neck of the woods as “Ozark Annie,” cooking me fried chicken in a cast iron Dutch oven, bubbling with lard, for my 6th birthday. A chilled 2-liter of Squirt soda—the best grapefruit soda ever—was waiting in the fridge. On Sundays after church down in the Bootheel we would inevitably find ourselves at the local gas station chowing down on fried chicken and washing it all down with sweet tea. Those formative moments never left me, and have played a significant part in what Juniper is but also in what my next venture will be.
BTT: Juniper’s email newsletter now includes a feature called “Monday Mixtape,” which links to a playlist you curate each week. What was the inspiration for creating the tape?
JP: I love music, always have. When real mixtapes were a thing, I was known among my circle of college friends for putting mixes together along with the necessary art in the cassette case. I first thought of doing a Spotify mix tape a few years ago when I wanted to publish an online magazine called the fugitive. I never got around to doing that and only just now started doing the mix tapes at the beginning of this year. It’s been fun. I just wanted another way to communicate with friends of the restaurant that didn’t feel like direct pleas for business—
it’s asymmetric marketing!
BTT: Based on your mixes, your taste in music is eclectic, spanning indie rock, classic rock, blues, soul, alt-country, country…I could go on. Did you have any notable musical influences growing up?
JP: Funny, my musical choices were a bit restricted growing up. It was mainly classical music or jazz. By the time I got into high school though, grunge was exploding on the scene and I secreted away and listened to whatever I could. I am an omnivore when it comes to music, much like I am when it comes to food. If it’s good, I’ll like it.
BTT: What kind of music is on in the restaurant kitchen when you and the staff are prepping for the day?
JP: I am not in the kitchen anymore these days, haven’t been for a long time. But, the kitchen is definitely a great place for music, and everything from Queens of the Stone Age to old school hip hop like The Pharcyde.
BTT: What are a few of your favorite musical artists/bands, local or otherwise?
Favorite bands include The National, Red House Painters, Radiohead, Joseph, Phoebe Bridgers, Digable Planets, [A] Tribe [Called Quest], I could go on. Locally, Uncle Tupelo, of course! I loved a band called Nadine back in my college days that hailed from here. I have too many favorites to list. If you really want to know my favorites, just sign up for the mix tapes.
BTT: Do you get out to see live music in St. Louis? Any favorite venues, present and/or past? Any concerts on your radar this summer?
JP: I used to! Kids, restaurant life, etc., pretty much mean there isn’t much time anymore, but I hope to start getting back out again soon. I saw some shows back in the day at Mississippi Nights, including the final shows of the original Son Volt lineup, Sufjan Stevens on the Illinois tour. I saw Bon Iver at the Billiken Club. I saw the National at the Duck Room. Of course, going further back, I saw some great shows at Off Broadway—Bright Eyes when he was 16 at the Side Door; Neko Case played there as well. I even enjoyed some open mic nights at Freddie Friction’s old lounge [Frederick’s] on Chippewa. I always kick myself that I missed Radiohead back in ‘97 when they played at the Galaxy.
BTT: Do you play any instruments?
JP: I took piano as a kid. But I don’t currently play anything; my son plays four instruments, so he makes up for what I lack.
Sign up for Juniper’s emails to receive the Monday Mixtape here: https://www.junipereats.com/