“Our food and our culture is much bigger than a celebrity chef,” says chef John Besh. The irony isn’t lost on him — he of 12 restaurants, a James Beard award, countless television engagements, a philanthropic foundation, and four cookbooks — but he continues: “I’ve always said that our food is the only indigenous urban cuisine left in America, and it’s that way for a reason. Our gumbo, it has all the indelible ingredients from all the various cultures that came before us to create what we know as Creole culture. And you don’t deconstruct that,” he says. “You honor that.”
Still, there’s room for creativity, which is what his latest cookbook, Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes is all about. More than explicit, step-by-step recipes, Besh provides readers with the ethos behind each dish, presenting accessible recipes that, at their core, provide a taste of New Orleans.
“It’s, like, the anti-cheffy book,” he says, also noting the fact it’s published in paperback (bend it back, dog-ear the pages, do what you will). “Once you cook and you get it, that allows for a world of improv,” he says. “If you don’t have that special catfish but you have another fish? Fine. Anything works here.”
As a chef and, before that, a United States marine, Besh traveled far from his childhood home on Bayou Liberty in Slidell – to France, Germany, and other parts of the world. Even as his career gained momentum and his palate developed, he craved the same things: catfish courtbouillon, jambalaya, a po-boy dressed with extra mayo. “For years, I got to be known as the fancy chef, but deep inside of me, it’s the soul of these dishes that tug at my heart the most.”
He came back to New Orleans, opening his flagship restaurant, August, in the Central Business District in 2001. The neighborhood has seen an influx of activity recently, perhaps in part owed to Besh choosing it as the locale for so many of his restaurants, including Luke, Domenica, Willa Jean, and Johnny Sanchez. It’s also his favorite part of the city — though not for the reason you might think.
“It’s coming from the eyes of a boy who still lives in Bayou Liberty,” he says. “Downtown is where the big buildings were, and the Whitney Bank; we got dressed up to go there. I had always hoped that people would start moving downtown again, that we’d start living up instead of living out.”
Whether he’s downtown or back on the bayou, his focus on home extends to his wife and children, for whom he cooks for as often as he can (check out his Instagram for homemade breakfast envy). I ask if his boys appreciate the effort, or simply consider it a precondition of their dad’s career.
“They won’t get it until they leave home, and I know this because I just went to visit my son who’s at Notre Dame. He’s asking for gumbo, bisque, jambalaya, so we packed up a bunch of food, and I froze it, and we took it to him, and he just couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I think the younger ones take it for granted, but once they’re on their own, the seed will have already been planted. They’ll know and love and appreciate this great culture.”
We finish up with perhaps the toughest question: can he choose a favorite from his book’s 101 recipes? After consideration, yes, settling on his “momma’s seafood gumbo.”
“She hates it when I call her momma. ‘I’m not your momma, I am your mother,’” he says, laughing. “But it never grows old to me. I love that gumbo, and I cook it as often as I can.”
20 Questions with John Besh
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
Chef Leah Chase. She has used her talents to bring people together and lift us up!
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
My parents, in a Dodge Dart from the North Shore.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
I would have to say the CBD. It has it all. There are a ton of great restaurants next to each other and close to the best venues for music and fun. I love it that I can park the car and walk wherever, whether it be to the best restaurants in the country or to music [venues] or to go shopping. And did I mention all of those Besh restaurants in the CBD?
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
I will go to either City Park or Bayou St. John or the lakefront or West End. Also, a boat or a bike is needed!
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
Fitzgerald’s on the lake is where I had one of the best meals in New Orleans, and I went with my father. It was the best fried oyster po-boy and nearly as big as me. And that was after daddy had me eat about a dozen raw ones! Coming from a big family, it’s easy to remember those moments with dad; we were always eating!
Note: Fitzgerald’s is no longer open.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
For birthdays, we always celebrate over brunch at Commander’s Palace. The music, the fun, and the hospitality make it.
7. What’s your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
My favorite po-boy is a softshell crab po-boy from R&O’s, dressed with extra Blue Plate and Tabasco. I’ll never forget thinking I’d die in combat wishing I could have one more of those.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
We would go to lunch at The Bon Ton and have dinner at Frankie & Johnny’s.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
Cure. I love what Neal [Bodenheimer] has done to use his talents to make his neighborhood a better place.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Anything from my favorite girls at Willa Jean.
12. Best spot to see live music?
I grew up on Tip’s!
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
There are too many to pick just one. I love the way all of our people represent! Allen Toussaint, Wynton and Branford [Marsalis], Harry [Connick, Jr.], Trombone Shorty, Better Than Ezra, Kermit [Ruffins], Big Sam [Williams], Mia Borders, and too many to mention do such a great job of inspiring the next generation of great musicians.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
I think the perfect date night in New Orleans would be going to Galatoire’s for dinner followed by a show at the Saenger.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
I like to shop on Magazine Street when I’m looking for Christmas gifts. For clothes, I shop at George Bass, Rubinstein’s, and Billy Reid.
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
I can’t pick just one. I really love the Ogden, NOMA, Southern Food and Beverage Museum, and, of course, the National WWII museum!
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
The Superdome or home are my go-to spots to watch the game.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
Every day. I am so blessed to live, work, and play in a place that I love.