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.
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"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."
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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."
A Communal Aspect to Our Food
Apart from the tastes of the city or the dishes he may have gravitated to as a result, Besh said one of the most important lessons he learned in New Orleans about cooking didn't really have to do with cooking at all.
"Food in my family and food in my city, my region, my New Orleans, is something that's very social," Besh said. "You know, you don't make two portions of gumbo in a small little pot. You make a big pot of gumbo and you invite lots of family over. And if you don't have the family there, you invite your friends, and if you have a little something left over for the lady across the street, you take her some. And consequently when she, you know, somebody brings her some shrimp and she'll share some of that shrimp etouffee or the shrimp creole with you. And so there's a communal aspect to our food which is really, really important."
Reflecting on New Orleans residents' sense of community leads Besh inevitably to the great disaster that befell the city starting in late August 2005.
"That human aspect is the only reason why New Orleans came back as quickly as it did after Katrina, for that matter," said Besh. "And food happened to be that common thread that we could all share in.
"You know every inner city in this country suffers from something. New Orleans was hit with this disaster and without wanting to get into the politics of it, it was a disaster, and that I think everybody can agree with. Now we have the opportunity to rebuild a city. Now when does that ever happen? It takes something like this being the catalyst of tremendous change where all of us, even from different sides of the political aisle, have to come together to become more conscious to make a better city out of it. And we all love it and that we can agree on, and that food again, becomes the common thread that brings us together -- and so black, white, rich, poor, red, yellow it doesn't matter. We all come from the same food. And we all come and have a similar love for the same city."
Amid the suffering of the Katrina catastrophe, Besh did have one light moment.
"I will never forget, two or three days after the storm, in a flat boat, run by a good friend of mine, we were, he was wanting to rescue people and I was wanting to feed people because there were plenty people out rescuing and I was wanting to take food around to those who needed it," Besh said. "And I thought, God has given me this mission. I'm a cook, I know how to make people happy, I can offer them some food and if nothing else, it will give them a little bit of sustenance and know that people care about them.
"Well the first person I fed red beans and rice to -- well you have to figure like, OK, everything, everybody has lost almost everything. And if you didn't lose it, you thought you'd lost it. So we are all in this similar state of mind and I have all of these red beans that I've cooked and it's put into this big igloo ice chest and it's I don't know, 50 gallons of the stuff, and we are going around and we are serving it out of whatever Styrofoam container we had.
"The first person that gets it, looks at me and says, 'Now what kind of red beans are those? My mother's red beans are much better. She does this, she does that, and blah, blah, blah.'
"And he gives me this lecture on how to make red beans and I'm like, 'Damn, one, you are ungrateful, but two, this city is going to be OK, because just that alone, that passion that we all have and that passion that we share for food and the way that -- that does bring people together.'
"I think that was a great example of the passion of the people, the resiliency of the people that would see that the city is not just rebuilt, but rebuilt better."
Four Sisters, Five Mothers
Family life for Besh has always meant cooking. He has a wife, Jennifer, and four children of his own now, and says "dinnertime at my house is absolutely nuts."
But it was never exactly a sea of calm, by his telling. Growing up he had one brother -- and four sisters.
"I loved it," he said. "I had four sisters but I really had five mothers. And between my mother and the four sisters, I didn't stand a chance, and my only complaint was that you had to wake up real early if you wanted to use the restroom in my family. You know, all of the girls and their doing their hair and doing this, and so I started waking up crazy early in the morning. And when I was about nine I started cooking breakfast so that when everybody woke up they'd have breakfast.
"I was awful in school. I wasn't the best student and I wasn't, you know, half the family, they're all brains in the family. So I figured out early that I could make people happy through food and that kept me out of trouble and even if I was in trouble I would put a smile on somebody's face and I would get away with murder just by making my family happy and making mom and dad happy. So one thing led to another, and I think if I had come from a smaller family I don't know if that dynamic would have existed.
Some of Besh's early practice in the kitchen grew out of a family tragedy.
"You know my dad was hit by a drunk driver," he said. "He was a great Santini at one time, crazed fighter pilot and avid adventurer and outdoorsman. And bicycling one day, hit by a drunk driver, and that led to basically two- to three-year convalescence where he bounced around from hospital to hospital and ... we all started doing different things. ... And I found like, my niche was food, and I could do that well, and then when Dad came home and finally started living at home again, he was my guinea pig.
"By that, I was pulling down "Au Bon Creole," one of the cookbooks, or maybe it was the "Times-Picayune Creole Cooking" -- or could have been "River Roads" cookbook. And I would just go through and, you know, things I had never experimented with before I would experiment. And he was the guinea pig and he couldn't get away from me. And I would just torture him with food and one thing led to another and here I am talking to you."
You're Offering Hospitality
Besh said his love of food has not waned with his exposure to the cooking life.
"I love the industry, because, um, it's given me an opportunity to follow my passions, doing something that I love, every single day, never really having to go to work," Besh said. "To get to make people happy -- so you're around lots of people smiling. The hospitality industry is that, you're offering hospitality. Sometimes, even when it hurts, even when can't be home with your own family, you need to still be out there offering hospitality."
Thomas Wolfe, who grew up in the South himself, famously wrote a novel called "You Can't Go Home Again." Besh might be one of the lucky few for whom that aphorism is not valid.
"Like most people, I never really appreciated what I had growing up," he said. "Always dreamed of joining the French foreign legion and going off and seeing the world and doing crazy things that I read about as a kid. And then after having the chance to do some of that, coming back home is really special, and, um, truly, if you marry a girl from New Orleans, then you can never really leave New Orleans.
"So the truth is I might not have much say in it. I married Jennifer, who I grew up with just down the street, and hadn't made it very far. We are just down the street from where we started."