John Besh: A Passion for New Orleans
a conversation with Chef John Besh
by Marla Norman, Publisher
It’s not an overstatement to say that much of the culinary scene in New Orleans revolves around John Besh. He currently owns ten of the city’s best restaurants and two restaurants outside of New Orleans. (August, Besh Steak, Lüke, Lüke San Antonio, La Provence, Domenica, Pizza Domenica, Borgne, Johnny Sánchez New Orleans, Johnny Sánchez Baltimore, Shaya and Willa Jean)
In 2014, Besh was inducted into the James Beard Foundation “Who’s Who in Food & Beverage.” He had previously been named a James Beard “Nominee for Outstanding National Restaurant” in both 2012 and 2013. His flagship restaurant, August, is a Gayot “Top 40 Restaurant” and a Wine Enthusiast “Top 100 Restaurant.” Besh appears regularly on The Food Network and PBS. He’s also written four top-selling cookbooks, including his newest release, Besh Big Easy: 101 Home-Cooked New Orleans Recipes.
Travel Curious Often asked the busy chef to comment on his city, future plans, and cooking competitions. As always, he responded generously:
New Orleans has rebounded so amazingly since Katrina, after many people wrote the city off entirely. How do you see yourself in the New Orleans comeback story?
The storm and what was left for us to deal with in its wake, truly evoked a sense of stewardship for my beloved New Orleans. We couldn’t take for granted that our city was the most spirited in the country. We knew we might possibly lose it if we didn’t act with courage, conviction and love. At my restaurant August, we were blessed to have not sustained considerable flood damage – that allowed us to use our resources to help others and to do good works for our less fortunate neighbors. This ignited passions within our staff and soon August became the incubator that spurred not only a sense of stewardship but also growth with a purpose among our company.
Your restaurant August manages to pay homage to the great New Orleans traditions and yet feel vibrant and fresh. Is this a difficult balance? Have there ever been any dishes that were so beyond tradition that you opted not to use them?
Some of what I do is a bit of native-son intuition. However it’s easy to let our guard down and become comfortable. That’s when my inner marine surfaces knowing that if we become complacent, we risk losing it all. I believe in hiring people who have a passion for pleasing others, whether hostess or dishwasher. It is extremely important for us to stay the course evolving both food and service on a constant basis. I believe in making a classic mine; the good ones find places on the carte, the not-so-good will never see the light of day. We focus on creating ever-evolving menus based on what’s in season here, cooked and served by those that love what they do.
You’ve done so much to create sustainable food sources for your restaurant with your farm and by supporting local suppliers. Do you think that message is getting through to the general public?
Any chef worth their salt is doing likewise, we’ve no choice. I hope and pray that localism will again become common place — so much so that diners demand it.
Your restaurant chain has grown incredibly over the past few years. Any plans to add additional restaurants or to market products nationally.
Chains?!?! I hate that word. Truth is everything that we do is quite distinct from the other places we have. No cookie cutter here. I am working on a program through The John Besh Foundation that offers low-interest loans to area farmers and through this program I’m looking to support heritage breed hogs, raised on family farms at very high standards.
I was rooting for you during the Iron Chef finals back in 2007. Are there new competitions in your future?
For the most part, I’ve sworn off the competitions in part due to the fact that this is not why I cook. The foods I enjoy take considerable time, effort and love to pull off. Couple that with the fact that we now have masses of folks watching food competitions as entertainment only, and fewer and fewer folks are rolling up theirs sleeves and doing it themselves. I want to be part of the solution, which is why I decided to create my own shows on national public television. (Besh hosts two cooking shows, based on his cookbooks: Chef John Besh’s New Orleans and Chef John Besh’s Family Table.)
301 Tchoupitoulas St.
Central Business District
Later, I visit Besh’s flagship restaurant, August. The place has an old world, Belle Epoque feel. With its heavy polished wood, chandeliers, and brocade, it’s difficult to imagine that the place was once a cigar factory. I’m greeted by Emery Whalen, Besh Restaurants Director of Communication, who looks as if she’s a double for Audrey Hepburn. Emery gives me a tour of the large, three-story building. Gorgeous glassed-in wine shelves line the upper walls of the main dining area. There are a number of alcoves, and nooks for semi-private tables. The large kitchen exudes knee-weakening whiffs of truffle oil. Upstairs are banquet and conference areas and a pastry kitchen.
Back at the table, the evening degustation begins with an amuse bouche: Bullfin Caviar lightly garnished with truffle infused foam. A Spanish cava adds nice acidity and celebratory fizz. Next up, a yellowtail tail crudo with blood orange and white asparagus. The fish is clean and sweet, a flawless bite.
Gumbo Z’herb – Smoked turkey neck consommé with a poached egg and greens is served. So much savory goodness and a perfect example of Besh’s ability to reinvent traditional Creole dishes. A Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley is light and spicy.
I’m wondering how anything could possibly top the gumbo, when a Mangalitsa pork belly with Atchafalaya crawfish tails arrives. Heaven on a plate. I’m somewhat suspicious of the wine pairing, however, a Chateau Miraval Cinsault and Grenache called “Pink Floyd Rosé .” I sip hesitantly at first, but quickly realize the pairing works perfectly.
Emery stops by to see how I’m doing. I ask about the Mangalitsa pigs. She explains that they’re originally from Hungary, very wooly and tend to be fatter than the average pig — better bacon in other words. Musician Dave Matthews introduced Besh to the chubby pigs, and he now raises them on his farm in Lacombe. I’m wondering if I could meet the pigs in person. Emery promises to arrange a visit to the farm.
A chance to see the place that inspires many of the dishes for August seems better than dessert, but of course I don’t pass up the Créme au Chocolat.
PROVENCE RESTAURANT & BESH FARM
25020 Highway 190
I’m somewhere in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain. The 630 square miles of salt water are flat calm today. The 26-mile causeway that spans this gigantic body of water seems like a tiny gray ribbon floating on nothing but blue — endless blue water, blue sky.
The countryside on the way to John Besh’s farm in Lacombe is picturesque and wooded. La Provence is nestled under tall shade trees, a pretty terrace extends off one side. Executive Chef Erick Loos joins me to show off the luscious herb and vegetable gardens. There’s also a small orchard with pomegranate, figs, and pears. Loos is very much involved in the garden upkeep and spends many of his off-hours planting and weeding.
Our next stop is the pig pens, where a group of young Mangalitsas are chasing each other around the yard. They are adorable. Their wooly fur is thick and fuzzy. They look like something from a children’s nursery rhyme. When offered food scraps, the piglets run like puppies to be first in line.
Chef Loos explains that the scraps are from the Besh restaurants. Sustainable food production is a fundamental principal in the management of all the Besh properties. Leftover food is used either to make compost or to feed the pigs. Oyster shells are given to the chickens.
We watch the pigs frolic a bit longer. I’m imagining their ultimate fate. “Do you get attached to the pigs?” I ask.
Loos grins. “Not really. They’re not nearly this cute when they hit 300 pounds. They have a wonderful life here. Plus we’re very conscientious about using every bit of them — from the ears, to the nose, to the trotters. To waste anything would be wrong.”
To prove his point, Chef Loos leads the way to the large smokehouse. “We produced 400 pounds of bacon here in the past few months,” he says. “Enough for August and La Provence.” I recall the rich little bacon garni on many of the platings at August. No doubt. The Mangalitsas are yummy!
I follow Loos into the restaurant itself. La Provence, as the name suggests, instantly transports diners to southern France. A large fireplace separates the two dining rooms. Provençal landscape paintings decorate the walls. Significantly, the property holds a special place in the Besh family of restaurants, since its original owner was Besh’s own mentor, Chef Chris Keragiorgiou. The menu is traditional French food with some signature culinary styling from Loos and Besh — and the Mangalitsas, of course.