Today I enjoyed an open and inviting conversation with Chef John Besh about his third and newest cookbook, Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way (Andrews McMeel Publishing). Recently sent to me for a review, the book is an engaging read and an ode to his mentors, and his experiences as a young chef including his mistakes. With nine acclaimed restaurants, James Beard Awards, an Iron Chef title under his belt, and a cooking show on PBS, Besh says, “The new book is more personal and goes deeper. It argues the importance of mentors and making mistakes along the way. It is how we learn why food is important.”
While Besh’s other two cookbooks, My New Orleans and My Family Table lean toward the practical, Cooking From The Heart elevates food and allows the home chef to prepare easy to follow soulful European recipes that Besh shares from his early culinary travels. From Germany’s Black Forest to Provence each chapter captures heartfelt memories that shaped Beash’s career and passion for food.
30AEATS: First, with Veterans Day upon us this week, I want to thank you for your service in the Marines and your tours in Operation Desert Storm.
Besh: Thank you. I joined knowing that I wanted to be a chef, but I also really wanted to be in the infantry and repel out of a helicopter! I switched to the Marine Reserve to attend culinary school, but got called back in, so I was back and forth between the Gulf War and culinary school until I graduated.
30AEATS: What influenced you to attend culinary school?
Besh: At a young age I fell in love with cooking and making people happy through food. Growing up in Slidell, Paul Prudhomme and his first cookbook influenced me greatly. He was a Louisiana country boy on the cover of Time Magazine, and a person I wanted to emulate. I thought to myself, okay, this is what I want to do, and I was fortunate to have great parents that could give me the opportunity.
30AEATS: This book is really a very personal journey. What inspired you to want to share it?
Besh: This was a formative time in my life. I have shared these great lessons with my own staff and they are shaping the ways my chefs are cooking. I am able to talk about my mentors without talking about me. Not everyone has the ability to travel, but they can smell and taste through my recipes. Cooking is cerebral. We talk and watch television food shows but we cook less than ever before in history. These are foods close to my heart, outside my native Louisiana. Essays to transport people and entice them to spend a Saturday at home cooking with fresh locally sourced ingredients.
30AEATS: What was one of the most important things you learned from your apprenticeship in Germany and Provence?
Besh: In Germany I learned how to respect and elevate food and ingredients. Not to be heavy-handed or to over season. Create simplistic food done well. Provence made me fall in love. I got lost in the seduction of France, the farmers markets, and found freedom. Having beautiful products at my fingertips and knowing how to cook was fantastic.
30AEATS: In Cooking from the Heart, you had me at Pate and Pots de Crème. Since this book is an ode to your experiences, mentors and mistakes, how does it all play into to your current cooking style?
Besh: I am relatively unevolved. These are the foods I love and where my passion for cooking began. I cooked every recipe in this book, most shot on location where I used to live. This time of year is my favorite. All I need is a big enamel pot and wooden spoon. I am trying to pass on my soul through food other than trying to get a great review. (Laugh) Though a good review isn’t bad! I’ll still take it!
30AEATS: Do you have a signature dish or one that is a holiday family favorite?
Besh: ‘My Thanksgiving Feast’ documented in My New Orleans cookbook is it and does not change. However, I enjoy Black Forest German pates and terrines, gnocchi, spaetzle, braised venison, and wild game. I am the unevolved hunter.
30AEATS: You currently have nine accomplished restaurants with Borgne being the most recent. Are there any future plans for expansion?
Besh: I am having fun with it. Chef Aarón Sanchez has always been a good friend and we have worked and traveled together .We are planning to open Johnny Sanchez in Vegas- a farm to table traditional Mexican restaurant and tequila bar with foods from the Guadalajara region. I want to do things that are fun and spread the message that food equals happiness and not to be too serious.
30AEATS: Tell me more about what moved you to start the John Besh Foundation?
Besh: The vulnerability of our culture. I’m popular for cooking, but New Orleans is bigger and more important than a book, chef or cooking. I import chefs from around the country and am teaching them to cook. What about the inner city kids? They can’t afford the cost of culinary school. I am a bleeding heart Catholic that wants to make the world a better place and I wanted to create a culinary school scholarship program. So I am raise money, and giving my own money, my tenacity and smarts to make my work valid. Also, with this economy, farmers could not get financing to build up their businesses. We decided to create a no interest micro loan program working with the MBA program at Tulane, to lend money ensuring it is paid back so it can be used for other farmers. We are culturally making sure we focus on the most vulnerable.
30AEATS: What restaurants other than your own excite you now in New Orleans?
Besh: I am excited about the Vietnamese restaurants on the West Bank and Ba Mien in the East. I want to eat food I cook the least , like rice noodle dumplings. I still enjoy Bon Ton Café that has been in business for years with the same red and white check table clothes and crawfish bisque, and Chef Donald Link’s Cochon. It’s exciting to see all of the new eateries sprouting up and down Magazine like the Rum House to Bouligny Tavern that didn’t exist before the storm, and Coquette is doing great things. I’m also enjoying Toups Meatery Mid City and Roux that is owned by one of my former sous chefs.
30AEATS: Is there any other news to share?
Besh: Yes! I am really excited to announce the launch today of beshbox.com! It takes interactive to a whole new level. I get emails, tweets and questions all the time about what happens if? Asking what kind of utensils I like to use. The box is a tool to stay in touch with everyone. I can share the importance of a home cooked meal, and each month fill a box with hand-picked items to inspire and spark creativity to get people cooking. A portion of the proceeds will go to different charities, and December will go to the Wounded Warriors Project. I will be announcing The BeshBox tonight on “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen at 10 p.m. CST.
Join John Besh on Sunday, November 17, 2013 from 1:00-2:30 p.m. at DUH- for Garden and Home as he signs cookbooks on his “Cooking From The Heart Book Tour.”
The event is free, open to the public and is sponsored by DUH – for Garden and Home and Restaurant, and TYPE!. All proceeds benefit the mission of WSRE, PBS for the Gulf Coast.
DUH is located at 501 N. 9th Avenue. Visit WSRE.org for more information.