Platelist: New Orleans Chef John Besh

Photo: Recipes from New Orleans? August Restaurant Chef John Besh

Chef John Besh grew up knowing that he wanted to leave home. His boyhood haunts were the estuaries and marshes surrounding New Orleans. It was not that he wasn't attracted to the city. The sights and sounds -- and, even more importantly, the smells and tastes -- of the Big Easy had entranced him since his earliest forays there from his family's home on the outskirts of town.

It was just that Besh felt he had to see the world a bit before settling down. And so he joined the Marines Corps.

Southern Hospitality

Click HERE for John Besh's favorite recipes.

"One day I just went up and signed off and left, because I thought that being a chef would be a little too boring," Besh said. "Just to jump right into that, I needed to go and see the world and do different things. And so I did that, and boy did I miss home, and boy did I miss my New Orleans. And so, that led me all over the world and eventually [I] found myself in war, in the first Persian Gulf war, and really thinking about food more and more.

"We would always be briefed on, you know, this impending chemical attack and blah, blah, blah. And one of the chemicals, I forget which one it is, but one of them smelled like -- they said it smelled like brown butter or toasted almonds. And I thought, 'Great, that's mom's trout almondine. ... If dad would fish, she would make trout, which if you add the almonds to it and you toast those and the brown butter then, that's wafting through the house.

"And I'm thinking the next time I smell mom's trout almondine I'll be dead."

Click HERE for John Besh's favorite recipes.

Luckily for Besh, and for the thousands of happy clients who have eaten or will eat at one of his five (soon to be six) Louisiana restaurants, death by chemical warfare was not in the cards. He would live to fight another day, and go on to have the kind of career most chefs would kill for.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., his gaze turned again to the South. It seems to have gone as planned: In addition to launching all those restaurants -- August, a fine-dining outpost in downtown New Orleans, is the flagship -- Besh won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast in 2006 and the Food Arts' Silver Spoon Award in 2009. He has launched a catering enterprise and a line of gourmet products. He published his first cookbook, "My New Orleans", just last month.

The story of how Besh came to cooking is inextricably tied to the story of his hometown.

"We have the melting pot, so to speak, or this gumbo pot of culture and flavor in New Orleans," he said. "And the food is just an expression of that culture ... and it's really rich and it's really deep and really complex.

"My earliest food memory really goes back to whatever we happened to catch that day, or maybe I was too young to fish or I went with my father, and if he would come back with speckled trout. Or if we caught a flounder than that was a stuffed flounder. If it was a red fish than mom would make her red fish ... and that dictated how we ate. It was certain foods you prepared certain ways and you ate on certain days, you know. On Fridays, whether you are Catholic or not, you eat fish on Fridays. And everybody eats red beans and rice on Mondays.

"And growing up with that food culture and a sense of who you are through the foods that you eat was hugely important, I think, in the formation of myself becoming a chef, and just I think in the formation of my palate."

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