As a graduate of the International Culinary Institute in Manhattan, I’ve studied alongside André Soltner, Jacques Pépin and Daniel Bouloud. When any of these living legends would visit the kitchen, heads would turn, chopping would stop and reducing cream would boil over. To say they intimidated the class with their kitchen prowess, multi-starred restaurants, or just their French accent would be an understatement. So, when we were contacted by WYES to interview John Besh—equivalent culinary royalty here in New Orleans—the “awe” factor returned in full force, but we were in for a pleasant surprise. Whether it’s his Southern upbringing or just natural charm, this accomplished chef, successful restauranteur, husband and father of four boys, doesn’t intimidate, but instead comes off extremely approachable and friendly. He’s like the neighbor who loves to cook and regularly invites you over to his home on the bayou for dinner.
When John Besh decided to switch careers in the late 80’s from Marine to chef, many would have called him foolish. “It wasn’t commonplace to say hey, change of plans, I’m going off to culinary school to become a chef. It was somewhat of a humdinger for people to hear I was going to change,” he explained. Besh had to work his way through school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, waiting tables and working as a prep cook before finally making it big.
However, Besh explained that the experience of working his way through culinary school was worth all the sweat and tears. “I wasn’t there to party it up. I was there to really learn my craft. It gave me some great exposure to some phenomenal chefs in a great institution.” Though at first he felt that his love of food and cooking wouldn’t be enough to help him keep up with his fast-talking classmates, he believes that his initial insecurity pushed him to really hustle and learn. “I wanted to get out there and do my part of perfecting the every-day, to learn something and become more proficient. It instilled a fire in me.”
In retrospect, it’s clear that following his dreams and his love for food was the right choice. With nine critically acclaimed restaurants, multiple published cookbooks, and Chef John Besh's Family Table airing on WYES, Besh has never been more successful. His many restaurants feature several different cooking styles that originate from his time in culinary school, his travels in Germany and France, and his family life and heritage.
Though he learned the basics of his craft in school, he came to really appreciate the beauty and simplicity of food in France and Germany. Besh said, “I had to go Germany to learn respect for food. Most of the food would come from one valley near Basel, Switzerland right on the French/German border. I had to go there to learn how to cook fresh. I learned how to taste my own neighborhood. I learned respect for food there and fell in love with food in Provence.”
When Besh talks about eating fresh, he means it literally. At the restaurant he worked at in Germany, they kept a tank of live fish. “The fish came from two fishermen that would bring the fish live to the restaurant where they’d swim in this tank underneath the floor. The whole thing is crazy,” he explained, laughing. “You got an order for fish, you’d catch it, bang it upside its head, and clean it right then, and cook it while it’s still flopping around.”
This fresh take on ingredients influenced the chef’s own cooking. Besh explained that he learned to deconstruct food down to its most simple ingredients and to elevate these ingredients based on their natural flavors. “Coming from the early 90’s where everything is more 'cover it, add truffle oil to it, add foie gras to it and that’s grand cuisine,' and going there, it was anything but that. It was about stripping away layers to get to the essence of the food. I brought that experience back here; that’s what inspired me to cook our types of food.”
Besh believes that cooking great food with the people you love is an integral part of family life. He thinks that modern families often get too caught up in the hustle and bustle to sit down and have a meal together. The goal of his current show is to demonstrate to families that it is possible to make quick, easy, healthy meals on their own schedule. He focuses on inviting people into his own home and showing them tips and tricks to save time and make great Louisiana food.
His shows concentrate on traditional Southern home-style cooking with a twist, and he makes food for the family and for the heart. All recipes are relatively uncomplicated, but some do require a minimum knowledge of cooking terms, so the show appeals to both the novice cook as well as those with some experience under their apron. What truly draws you in is that the show is filmed in his home—you almost feel as if you’re actually standing across the counter from him as he prepares his signature dishes.
Besh stated that his favorite part about the show was becoming a better home cook. "I had to learn how to do this. I was not always the perfect husband and father because I was so concerned with running the restaurants and winning awards that I was failing the people that I loved the most," he admitted, surprisingly humble. "So, I had to learn how to cook from home in a way that I didn’t make a huge mess, destroying every pot and pan and making it a chore. Now when I cook, I cook smart, and I cook like a chef that cooks at home.”
“I want people to take away that cooking at home can be simple. Most of us don’t have 30 minutes or an hour to prepare a meal, but if we think about it, plan, and shop for it, it’s completely doable. There are all these dishes I can create with what I have in the kitchen if I’m smart about it. Then it becomes a means for people to cook a little more often,” he said.
Besh also has a new cookbook coming out this fall titled Cooking from the Heart. “It’s one of the most personal because it’s coming from how I learned to cook and all the blunders that I learned from,” he explained. “Cooks are really smart these days, and cooking now has become so cerebral, with memorizing terms, etc. Through my travels, you learn the stories behind the food that make them so delicious. It’s cooking from the heart instead of just cooking from the mind.”
Besh certainly does have a lot of heart despite that he often has to work nights and weekends for WYES, the restaurants and The John Besh Foundation. Not only does this exceptional non-profit support local farmers and fishermen, but it also sends those interested in culinary arts (but who lack the funds) to his former alma mater in NY and then involves two months of working with him at one of his restaurants before moving on to a position with other prestigious chefs in the area, such as Susan Spicer. Overall, it’s clear that his family is deeply important to him and greatly influences his professional culinary style. In the end, Besh’s passion for cooking, his inspiration for his restaurants, and the basis of his new show all come from one place: his very own family table. To pre-order his new book from Amazon.com, click here.