The modern chef is used to, even expects, fame. Television channels devoted to shows about rising stars and competitive cooking have eroded our senses to the point we accept every chef needs a trophy room and multiple projects heavily promoted on the air. It’s all about the credentials.
But when you hear the name John Besh it really doesn’t conjure up the image of flash and flare. There’s no catchphrase, bleached hair or crazy sunglasses. Sure, he’s a TV star in an understated way.
His restaurant August was a bit of a renaissance for New Orleans-style dining. He’s a James Beard award winner. The Besh Foundation works to preserve our manner of eating here on the Gulf Coast and in his beloved New Orleans. In short, he has the credentials. But with his Southern charm and laid-back aura, he speaks more than most by saying less. He speaks with flavor.
The week before he headed to Mobile Nov. 11 for the Junior League’s Christmas Jubilee, I caught up with the busy man for a quick few questions.
Andy MacDonald: The new book, “Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes” — first off, I’d like to mention there’s an emphasis on home cooked.
John Besh: Absolutely. These are the dishes I grew up with and many along the Gulf Coast grew up with. You kind of take them for granted. But I feel like, as I matured a little bit, I’m not cooking the same way as I used to. I’m craving those one-pot dishes that inform my palate, that truly told me who I am and where I am, and that’s what I love to share with everybody else.
When chefs write cookbooks we’re making it way too complicated. After four cookbooks I’ve learned what we want to do is focus on recipes where people can obtain ingredients just about anywhere and keep the prep time and cook time as low as possible. If I can shave a few steps off here and there, people might cook at home a little more.
MacDonald: That’s important to me as a single dad. When I get home I need to get these boys fed, and if I’m prepping all night long ….
Besh: How old are they?
MacDonald: I have a 5 and a 10. A nickel and a dime.
Besh: Whooo! Yeah, man, with sports you’re going to be running from place to place. What I find is that I’ll get home every now and then and even at night I’ll throw a couple of these one-pot things on, help with homework, take the pots off and package them up for the refrigerator. The next day everything is done, but it’s home cooking at its best.
A lot of our food we grew up with along the Gulf Coast lends itself to that, and that’s what this is all about.
MacDonald: I love there is a whole jambalaya section of this book. Your last book, “Cooking from the Heart,” was totally different. I loved it as well, but I felt it was maybe an autobiographical tribute to your mentors and a look into what shaped you outside of New Orleans. It’s a great read whether you’re a cook or not. Was this your way of saying thanks?
Besh: Totally. It was all about honoring those mentors and shining light on the fact that through my blunders in all these kitchens I’ve learned so much. Part of learning is making mistakes and the kitchen is no different. I love paying tribute and homage to those greats that came before me and all of us chefs. It all does come down to mentorship.
MacDonald: “Besh Big Easy” is so different. To me it feels like if you live in a town with a halfway decent fishmonger you’re set, but you can still use the book for grocery store fish and be effective.
Besh: You certainly can. Let’s take shrimp, for example. Half the book is about shrimp. Shrimp freezes great. Frozen on the boat are some of the best shrimp you’re going to get. They maintain their texture perfectly. Most people throughout the country don’t have access to fish like you and I, but they can get that wild gulf shrimp. I’ve armed them with a ton of recipes on what to do and how to use them.
MacDonald: Since the book is a lot about the home cook, when you leave a restaurant or event and you’ve been pulled a hundred different ways, how do you decompress? And what does it take to get you into your own kitchen?
Besh: That’s my sanctuary. When I can come home and just cook, me by myself, quiet, that to me is a real rejuvenating time. I do it very often, and these one-pot dishes become a process. Maybe it’s making a roux and you just focus on that. Listening to music. And it depends on the time of the day, but it could be wine or coffee or a whiskey drink. Enjoying the moment and adding one ingredient after the next. That’s what I love to cook and that’s what this book is really trying to tap into.
MacDonald: One of my students sat behind you at a football game during the magical season. He spoke to what a down-to-earth Saints fan you are. I feel this book reinforces his opinion. Please tell me it’s true.
Besh: You know I haven’t made it very far. I’m still just down the bayou from where I started. I’m surrounded by people I grew up with and people I love. Life isn’t going to last forever. We share what we can along the way. Whether it’s cooking shows or cookbooks, it’s that we are generous with each other. I was inspired by great people before me Like Paul Prudhomme. Having the chance to know people like that further the message it’s really about stewardship.
MacDonald: Paul Prudhomme in 1,000 words or less.
Besh: I met him when I was 11 and I think that changed my life. Another guy from the bayou had made it to the pinnacle of chef-dom, bringing our culture to the ends of the Earth. He did it with humility, grace, generosity and certainly delicious food.
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