It is always my privilege to speak with the chefs I interview for Daily Blender.
Men and women of all ages who have fallen in love with the kitchen, worked hard to hone their craft, worked tirelessly behind the knife through injury, defeat, hardship, on the path to success. It is an industry of trial, a personal choice of many beneath the toque to prepare, to pursue, to persevere. Some remain on the line for years before retiring, content with the ins-and-outs of the daily meal service. Some choose the path of restaurateur, carefully balancing books, staff, and the economic rollercoaster that can ebb and flow with days, seasons, natural disasters.
All, however, begin with the drive to create and execute, design and deliver. To prepare something uniquely their own, be the best they can be. In the kitchen.
Chef John Besh is no different.
Like many before him, the chef from the Big Easy took a winding road to the cutting board. Raised in Louisiana, Besh enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corp after high school as a reservist, spending his days attending classes at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Life, of course, took him on a different journey before graduation, as Besh was called for active duty to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm in the early 90s. Upon his return, and graduation from the CIA, the chef embarked on a series of internships in Europe, working in both Germany and France before returning to his native New Orleans.
Starting with his Restaurant August, Chef Besh has continued to roll out quality restaurants since his early beginnings. Following August, Besh proceeded with Besh Steak, Lüke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica, most recently opening his first location outside New Orleans, Lüke San Antonio, with executive chef Steven McHugh. Along the way, he’s been recognized by everyone from the James Beard Foundation to Gourmet, Food Arts, and Food & Wine for his talent in developing menus and restaurants where both staff and guests are welcomed warmly, thanks his true Southern hospitality.
He’s also somehow managed to build a family and remain a man of integrity and sincerity along the way.
During my visit to the Beaver Creek Master Chef Classic in January, I sat down with Besh to discuss his new space, his culinary inspirations, and what keeps him centered amid the chaos of the kitchen.
Jennifer: So let’s talk about Lüke San Antonio!
John: Just opened, it’s off the charts. Business is great. We haven’t opened up the full dining room yet – keeping it small, about 50%. The menu is inspired by Lüke New Orleans, but all the food is really procured from Texas – the southern part of Hill Country to the coast – so every shrimp served is a Texas shrimp. Every quail served is a Texas quail. It’s really served us well because I had no idea the abundance of the agriculture in that area. I just had no idea about the artisan producers. So it’s been fun!
I’ve always had a lot of friends there, and it’s always felt comfortable, inviting, like home. It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina, when San Antonio really took in so many people, without any regret, without any hoopla, without some of the press that came to other cities.
We had one cook who had been in my kitchen for many years. She had lived in the projects in New Orleans all of her life. When the hurricane hit, she had to relocate to San Antonio – and what a blessing it was for her! It really resonated with all of us, like, “Wow, these people are really special.” There’s a sense of hospitality in that city’s culture that is really similar to what we have in New Orleans. My executive chef, Steve, decided to move there, and he and his wife really loved it there, and it was a great opportunity, and it just made sense.
Jennifer: When I spoke with Steve last spring, the Gulf area was still reeling from the oil spill. How is the area recovering from that?
John: It’s still really ambiguous. Think about it – we’re told one thing, and then we’re told something else. The government says everything’s fine, but you hear this and you hear that. The one thing that’s encouraging is that we had all the freshwater projects that kept the bulk of the oil off the gulf of Louisiana. It could’ve been, should’ve been, much worse. Of course, when these things happen, it’s always doomsday, and I admit, I felt that way too. And I’m still mad at it. But it’s so hard to say how it’s going, because no one has really become the authority on it. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we’re much more aware of where our seafood comes from. Now we’re not only scrutinizing our local food, but also food from across the world. When it arrives to the marketplace, they’re now making damn sure it’s safe.
Jennifer: What’s the impact been like on your food costs?
John: The price of both crabmeat and shrimp went through the roof, the market dropped because people were scared. But we use a lot of inland seafood suppliers, which haven’t really been affected.
Jennifer: What do you feel has really led to the success of your restaurants?
John: People. People like [Chef de Cuisine] Mike Gulotta, [Executive Chef] Steve McHugh. Hiring people who understand that serving others can be a very profound and noble calling. In that, if you enjoy serving others, if you’re of that ilk, then we can teach you the finer things. But whether you’re the hostess or the porter or the dishwasher, you’ve got to understand that it’s all about serving others. If you enjoy that, the giving of your heart, then you’re going to do just fine in my restaurants.
Jennifer: Who would you say are the chefs who influence you?
John: I have a couple of people. Michel Richard, who’s a good friend and a mentor. He inspires me because he still has fun. He still loves making people happy. He still has this joie di vivre to create happy food. Yet, it’s real. And I so appreciate that.
My truest mentor would be my chef from my apprenticeship in Germany, Karl-Josef Fuchs. He’s a Michelin-starred chef, an incredible man, but also a husband, a father. Everything I wanted to be in life. He and I are still today the best of friends. Just coming up the line, watching him, I was like, “Wow. You can still do it all. You don’t have to get caught up in it all. You can still be a gentleman.”
Jennifer: How do you manage the to keep your personal and professional life in balance?
John: It was really hard in the early days, especially. I think it was opening the second restaurant, Besh Steak, that really helped me value mentoring others, and giving myself to them, so by the time we got to three and four restaurants, I had a great supportive team around me. It allowed me to have the family time I needed, as well as allowing them to have the family time they needed.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m in this dream world because even though twenty years seems like yesterday, I was a Marine back then. I was off in the desert, living in holes for a year in Kuwait and all over southern Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I think about my Dad, who was this great man who was one day hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed. I have to keep it all in perspective and do the best that I can every day. Give my heart and soul to customers, to my chefs, to inspire them to be good people. If I’ve done that, then I’ve achieved what I want to achieve in life. It’s not about “Does this little piece of lettuce stand up straight?” Nobody really cares about that. It’s still noble to cook great food and create these great dishes and make people happy, but not to the point where we take ourselves too seriously. As long as I can raise my boys to be proper men, and make my wife happy, I’m doing good.
Jennifer: So what’s next for you? Another restaurant? Another cookbook?
John: I want to see how this expansion outside of New Orleans goes. I have a charity foundation that I just started – the John Besh Foundation – where we’re giving scholarships to low-income students in New Orleans. We’re giving microloans to struggling local farmers and mentoring them with business school courses from Tulane. We’re doing a number of cool things that are really worthy. And that’s what I want to do. If I can use my talents to help somebody else, then my life is complete.
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender