Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Chef John Besh

Chef John Besh shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.January 2009

Chef John Besh has long been an ambassador for the culinary culture of his native Louisiana, but perhaps never more so than since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005. In addition to his flagship restaurant, August, which opened in 2001, he owns three, soon to be four, restaurants that each uniquely represent the best that the Crescent City has to offer. Chef Besh won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast in 2006 and was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine in 1999, while Gourmet chose August as one of America’s Top 50 Restaurants in 2006. The following year, he was the runner-up in the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition. The Main Course talked to him about his life and work in New Orleans.

How is life in New Orleans today?
Life today resembles life prior to Katrina, with the exception of a vast number of houses that haven't been repaired or rebuilt. Housing opportunities for our staff have become quite limited because of just that. Our restaurant has experienced a record-breaking spring in 08, just as other restaurants have experienced, which is great news.

How do you explain that?
Good question. We had a surprisingly great year, and it was better than even years prior to Katrina. There are probably several different reasons, but one is that last year is really the first year that we’ve had visitors come back into the city. That, coupled with us just really staying out there, staying active in the community, has brought us a lot of goodwill by a lot of the locals. We’ve been able to maintain a great percentage of local clientele, plus capitalizing on visitors coming into the city.

That means that there’s money right now in New Orleans for people to dine out?
Yes. New Orleans is an old city and been here for centuries and will continue to be. There are people that have the ability to dine out with some frequency. Now, it’s not a large number, but we just rely on a very small group in an effort to keep us in business. So it doesn’t require that much of them actually. A small but very vibrant local community is just perfect for us.

How has the city’s food industry changed since Katrina?
Such as life, the restaurant community in the city has evolved in many ways. We learned after the storm that we need to focus on our local clientele and not rely so heavily upon the tourist community. In many ways we've made tremendous strides in preserving our culinary heritage due to our nearly losing it. Most of us recognize the fact that, if we don't maintain our city's food culture, we'll collectively fail, so it's become an important issue.

What makes the culinary heritage of New Orleans so important?
One that it’s one of the few treasures that we have. We’re not especially known for the best educational system in the world. We have oil and gas, and we have our fisheries. But our culture is the only sustainable thing that we really have that we know if we cultivate and protect, we’ll have it for generations to come. And so it’s really important to me, to all of us who have kind of experienced Louisiana briefly that we remain committed to this culture. I think our survival solely rests on it. There are the people who live here only because they want to. Unlike many American cities, where people are forced to live because of jobs they’ve relocated for, everybody who lives in New Orleans, especially New Orleans, pretty much does so only because of their love for it and their family attachments, their heritage. It’s important to play upon these things, and we’ve seen how vibrant a cultural economy can be. So from the perspective of economics, it’s crucial because the hospitality industry, the cultural industry — the music, the food, the festivals — was really the first industry to come back. It’s still taking years for the oil and gas to come back where it was prior to Katrina. When it comes down to it, our human element, our human assets, are the greatest things that we have.

What are some of the strides you mentioned the culinary community has made in preserving that heritage?
I think that today, if you were to look at all of the New Orleans restaurants as a whole, you would notice that a lot of them are probably a little more true to their roots than they were several years ago. If you look at the fine dining community of New Orleans in particular, you’ll notice that there’s much more of a presence of a local flavor than there ever has been before. You have a move from chefs of my generation — myself, Donald Link, Susan Spicer, John Harris — chefs like us who are out there who, like never before, are using just local products. I see much more of an act of sharing. A larger share of all that we do is kept within the community. The way that we cook is also reflected as such.

Before Katrina there were fewer uses of local ingredients?
Certainly we used local ingredients and, to a large degree, the local flavors were similar, but I don’t think as vibrant. I think they were muddled. They were tired. If anything, the hurricane became a shot in the arm for a lot of us to say, okay, this is something worth preserving, because even though I love my country and I love America and blah, blah, blah, so much of America has become too homogenized and too vanilla and too normal. I kind of cling to the fact that we have something indigenous and special. For a lot of us, it took the hurricane just to really wake us up and say, hey, wait a second…we’ve got something real. If August was in any other city in the country, it would be a good restaurant; but how relevant would it really be? Instead it’s really important because it’s in New Orleans, and a lot of us finally realized or were waking up to the fact that we chefs today are riding on the backs of many giants who came before us for centuries in New Orleans. It woke me to a sense of stewardship, that I play a role now in the history of New Orleans. Not that I’m all that important, but I do have a role. And that role is chef of a vibrant restaurant, in one of the most vibrant culinary communities in the country, so it is very important to make sure we preserve the good stuff and we continue to evolve those things that need evolving as well.

With a role like that, a lot of responsibilities come along.
Sure. And a lot of people would argue if that role is even valid. There are a lot of old restaurants in New Orleans that have been around for years and years doing the same thing. And they may disagree. They may think that this old way is better. What happened in New Orleans is really interesting. For 50 years, things began to slow down and kind of muddle. We had great food and great chefs, but our passion for what we were cooking had become tired, and we became enslaved to this idea that food can never progress and food can never change. This is my recipe, and I have to cook it like it was cooked before me. And instead maybe looking at, hey, how can I reinvigorate this? I don’t want to deconstruct the gumbo; I don’t want to deconstruct the Oysters Rockefeller. Some things are too important to trivialize by just making a mockery of these dishes. Instead, how do we create new dishes and new flavors using what we have locally and at the same time paying homage to our heritage, to the French who settled here, to the Africans who came, both free and slaves, to the Native Americans that were here, to the Italians, to the Germans, and to all these different communities that really made New Orleans interesting? There’s some responsibility that comes with it, but that’s the fun part.

How do you go about updating traditional dishes while remaining faithful to the culture, or about creating new dishes within the culture?
You have to be careful with this because we all have preconceived notions in our minds, especially those New Orleans chefs who grew up here. I’m from here, and I will forever make a gumbo like my mother’s gumbo because that is the gumbo that I know and that’s the one I think is the true gumbo. Shrimp Creole for instance, we have these beautiful tomatoes now. Maybe things don’t need to be cooked down in this rich, heavy roux, and maybe I can add just a little bit of lemongrass or a little bit of zing or a little extra spice to these beautiful heirloom tomatoes. Maybe I don’t cook them for three days. Maybe I cook them quickly, retaining all the great flavor of this tomato, and at the same time stewing the shrimp and allowing the seafood to really speak. There are numerous ways. There are maybe more responsible ways of cooking some of the classics. But at the same time, what is the gumbo without the roux?

So it can depend on which dish you’re making or on which type of dish?
Yes. And it’s also up for interpretation. I have my own ideas, and I’m sure other chefs have theirs. But to me the interesting thing is coming from a place with culture, and with food culture in particular. I enjoy the fact that this is how my dish is created and this is how my mother did it, this is how my grandmother cooked it, and this is how I’m going to cook it. And at the same time, it’s also fun to balance that with ingenuity and maybe a modern take on local flavors here.

What are common traits and differences between your four restaurants?
All four are steeped in the great culinary traditions of Louisiana, which have been shaped by those colorful cultures that settled here. August is a contemporary French approach to our indigenous food stuffs, inflected with elements of Spanish, African, and Italian flavors that make New Orleans unique. Lüke is a New Orleans version of the Franco-Germanic brasseries that speckled the New Orleans landscape along with its rich brewery history. La Provence is our French farmhouse restaurant, which is the continuation of my mentor's dream of 40 years, and our fun and gregarious Besh Steak builds upon the our rich New Orleans steakhouse tradition.

What prompted you to become a chef?
I love making people happy! Growing up with great food, in a house of great cooks, I realized early on that food makes people happy. My upbringing was one of hunting, fishing, family, and cooking. They all went perfectly together as they still do today.

Is there a moment in your career you can identify as pivotal in deciding of the direction you took?
At a young age, 9 years old, my father became a paraplegic due to a drunk driver hitting him while bicycling. A convalescence followed for a couple of years, during which I took full advantage of cooking for him. I guess he noticed that I had a calling in life to be a chef, so he encouraged it.

Who has had the most influence on your career?
Surely to note just one person wouldn't be truthful. The fact is that I've had various mentors who influenced me in various ways that have made me the chef I am today, some I worked for and others had befriended me later in life. Chef Chris Kerageorgiou of La Provence, in Lacombe, Louisiana taught me how to love and take care of both the staff and the customer, as you can't take care of one without the other. Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs of the Spielweg in the mountains of the Black Forest taught me to be responsible to your community in particular the farmers and what sustainable cooking is all about, Mr. Rudy Baur of the Château de Montcaud in Bagnols-sur-Cèze, in France, taught me the business of the restaurant and Chefs like Michel Richard and Daniel Boulud continue to teach me to have fun while I'm doing all the above.

How would you define your cooking philosophy?
Simply put, my food is an extension of who I am and the life journey that I’ve taken. My food is rooted in indigenous products that are prepared in a contemporary style while pay homage to our beautiful past.

So who are you?
Who am I? It’s interesting. As we grow older, we still think of ourselves as who we were ten years ago, five years ago. You don’t feel any different…I don’t. I still feel like I’m 20 years old. I still have the same outlook. We have this one life, so let’s make the most of it. I’ve had different things that have impacted me; we all have. That kind of shapes who we are. So anyway, I’m Louisiana, because I’m born and raised here, and I live here and hunt here and I fish here, and I create here, I have this big family and I’m raising my four boys to do the same and to appreciate the same. To me it’s really important to kind of continue that. That’s who I am. I’m not thinking that I’m this cutting edge chef and this and that and I’ve got to do this and do that and I need to create things that are smoking. I don’t need to really do anything other than just be myself on a plate and be myself in the dining room because as long as I do that and as long as I still remain faithful in my heart and who I am and let my food reflect how I was raised and how I came about being trained as a chef in Germany, working in Southern France, and then coming back to New Orleans and allowing these influences to shape the way that I cook, then I’m going to be okay.

Where I cook will be from the heart, and it will be true. And so that’s kind of where I’m coming from as far as that goes. It’s just all about me trying to, in my cooking, paint a picture of my heritage and my training without being boastful. As a chef it’s all I really want to do. And then at the same time, pay homage to this location that I’m in.

Do you think you would ever be able to do what you’re doing in another part of the country?
I’ve had opportunities to go to New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City. One, the timing wasn’t right; and, two, what I truly enjoy the most I couldn’t replicate outside of New Orleans. It just wouldn’t be the same. But I have a restaurant named Lüke, on St. Charles Avenue. There have been a lot of opportunities, a lot of people from other parts of the country who like that real casual style. I think I would do that. I’ll never make another August, because August to me is just too personal. A restaurant like this, like Daniel, like French Laundry, in places that really reflect the person, it’s impossible to take it to any other location without losing something. It’s too important to me to try to replicate it.

But Lüke would be an easier one? Is it less rooted in the place, in New Orleans?
It’s rooted in the same things, but it’s maybe a little more approachable. It would work in other places. The way that I’ve decided to grow my business is investing in the people that made it successful to begin with. In other words, I have these chefs who have been with me for years and years and years, many of them returning to New Orleans just after the storm after losing everything, just gambling on making August a great restaurant again. They want to grow and have their own restaurants one day. I would make that a possibility for them. I offer them financial support, administrative support, marketing support. That’s allowing the cook to do what a cook does best. I see myself growing through these wonderful people that have helped me grow over the years.

We’re about to open an Italian restaurant called Dominica, and in part because of my time I spent in Germany and making Deutschmarks at the time, I was very, very poor; so on the weekends I’d travel to Italy, where I’d convert the Deutschmarks to lira and I could live like an Italian on Sundays. I fell in love with the attitude and the style of just eating and relaxing on Sunday in the Italian way. I always wanted a very approachable restaurant that really exemplified just that, just simple things, artisan pastas and good pizzas. Simple foods.

When you first opened August, did you think you’d open other places?
No. I thought that just one restaurant for me would be my dream in life. But the truth is that as an artist I feel the need to create things. In a way, as a chef, automatically you must have some sort of attention deficit disorder, because it’s very hard for us just to, one, follow a recipe, and two, remain focused at all times. So we do better when we’re really, really busy. I love August, but then there’s a large segment of the population especially down here that can never afford to go to August. So I’ve always wanted in the back of my mind to create something for the common person, and that’s where Lüke comes in. We can have great food, really approachable, and relatively cheap. That will be our model again for Dominica. It will be the Italian version of that. Then I have the steakhouse, which is across the street. I was approached by casinos to go to Las Vegas and do this and do that. Why do that, when I can have my restaurant across the street, and then I can maintain a certain level of quality because I’m there? I can oversee it, and I’m just not selling my name or selling my soul. To me that was really important. But I never in a million years thought that I would have five different restaurants. It’s been so much fun, because now it’s providing opportunities for people who may not have had that opportunity if it weren’t for me. I feel almost responsible to help. They’re not just employees — so many of them become friends and family of mine. So I’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue to grow, but I for one would like to stay really focused on what I’m doing here in New Orleans.

You focus on local ingredients — why is that important to you?
It goes hand in hand with being responsible to our guests, to our farmers and fishermen, to our economy, to our region and our culture. What would my New Orleans be without our strawberries, crawfish, shrimp, crabs, trout, creole tomatoes and satsumas?

What are some of your favorite ingredients to use?
The season dictates what my favorites are, but I'd have to say the meat of our Jumbo Blue Crabs, nothing better than that. I like to say our crab meat is to our Lake Pontchartrain what caviar is to the Black Sea.

You’ve been appearing a lot on television recently. What is your relationship with the media, and what do you get out of these appearances?
I've been blessed to have a good bit of media attention over the past several years. It certainly isn't bad for business nor is it a bad thing for our region, which had suffered such a big blow after not only the physical disaster but the major public relations blunder by our city, state, and federal governments in the slow response following Katrina. I would also say that I've got a pretty good relationship with the media as so many of us had been through this together. Each of us taking on certain roles in an effort to see that we all do our share in this recovery.

What keeps you challenged?
Balancing being a father of four boys and a husband of one wonderful wife with the everyday needs of the restaurants and the 300 employees that support them. Working with a couple of grandmothers in Parma further learning the heart and soul of Italian cooking.

What advice would you have for young chefs?
Spend the next 10 years working for three chefs that you'd like to emulate one day without any regard for pay. Dedicate this time to perfecting your craft, while developing an understanding for the business of being a chef.