A Passion for New Orleans

a conversation with Chef John Besh
by Marla Norman-Freytag, Publisher

John Besh: Restauranteur, cook book author, and tireless supporter of New Orleans.

Chef John Besh online at his restaurant August.

It's not an overstatement to say that much of the culinary scene in New Orleans revolves around John Besh. He currently owns eight of the city's best restaurants and a ninth in San Antonio, Texas. He’s written two top-selling cookbooks -- with another due out this fall -- and has just filmed a new PBS show entitled "John Besh's New Orleans." He's also trained many of the city's talented young chefs and has worked particularly hard to support local farmers and fisheries. 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. No longer could we take it for granted that our city was the most spirited in our country, but we were very close to losing it if we didn't act with courage, conviction and love. At August, we were blessed to have not sustained considerable flood damage which allowed us to use our resources to help others, 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 it is a bit of native son intuition, at ten years old we're still fledgling for our neck of the woods. 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 the 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 -- Chef Besh's Mangalitsa Bacon, for example? I'd like to get my order in now!

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 at doing just that, with heritage breeds of hogs raised on family farms at very high standards.

My husband and I were rooting for you during the Iron Chef finals.  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 show on American public broadcasting as well as writing a new book due to be released this fall called My Family Table: A passionate plea for home cooking.

Any trips coming up? Places you're visiting to get fresh ideas for your restaurants?

Soon I'll be leading a group of chefs to Israel, where we'll meet up with some old chef friends. Then off to Istanbul for a few days and then a weekend with other chef friends in Rome, before it's back to reality.

Also supposed to go to Shanghi and Hong Kong on behalf of our Mangalitsa pig breeder. Now we'll be selling heritage beef and pork to China for a change.

Still curious about John Besh? Click here to find out more about Chef Besh's restaurant August and his farm at La Provence.