Talkin' Family Cookin' with John Besh
The famed New Orleans chef stumps for home cookin'
For my money, John Besh published the most intriguing cookbook of late last year. Not because it was filled with razzle-dazzle recipes that call for sous vide preparations and multi-part sauce reductions and pan-fried lemon zest demi-glazes. But because its main intention is to get people to feel comfortable whipping up a meal for their family that's delicious without being pretentious. My Family Table — A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking is also unusual because the main premise, as stated in the title, is to encourage people not to go to restaurants — an odd message coming from a guy on the verge of opening his ninth restaurant.
But then that's John Besh. The Louisiana native with seven successful New Orleans restaurants including the perennially acclaimed August, and an eighth, Borgne, that is about to open (he also has a branch of his Alsatian restaurant Lüke in San Antonio), is more of a sharer than a taker. When Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown, he stood firm and helped in the recovery, feeding anyone who dared step foot in New Orleans. Now, besides advocating for people to spend time at home cooking for and with their families, he also supports numerous charitable causes and a growing restaurant group that rewards longtime employees to the extent that Besh's business partner has likened his generosity, albeit jokingly, to communism.
The charming father of four boys stopped by Food Republic's Test Kitchen in November and took an hour to talk about the cookbook, his restaurants, food politics, New Orleans and why he'll (probably) never open a restaurant in New York City.
Your business advisors must not be happy that you're encouraging people to cook at home. What's the idea here?
The genesis of the book was my personal discovery of making the transition from restaurant chef to home cook. I would always cook these Sunday suppers, but it was something I cooked for myself. In some ways that’s my own therapy of jumping in my own kitchen without any distractions, where I can connect with food. But I was still cooking like a restaurant chef. And one day I questioned my wife about what she was feeding the boys — with four boys and the restaurants, our lives are insane. And she’d quickly pointed out that I’d go to the ends of the earth to find that special something to serve our restaurant guests, but I’d neglected my family in the process. That really hit home.
So it’s the one time that nagging has paid off?
[Nervous laughter.] No, It made me really reflect. It’s a maturing process in my life, where my responsibility is first to my family, and how am I going to change my ways? Really simply put, the first couple of chapters of the book focus on kitchen logic—taking two decades of professional [experience] and applying it to the way I’d run my own home kitchen. One comment I hear about my first cookbook, My New Orleans, was that the recipes were so long, that it takes so much time to go out and shop just to get the ingredients. That made me think—you should have a lot of these things in your pantry. The average home cook shops for the recipe. They don’t keep this parstock of things in the pantry.
A lot of people don’t necessarily have access to great ingredients, so they take the easy way out.
As I was going through this I read a Michael Pollan article in the Times that spoke to the tragedy of people not cooking their own food, and the further we get away from that, we’re losing something critical to every part of our culture, our society, our being. We need to commune at a table — not only for sustenance, but I think our souls crave sitting down and breaking bread.
How do you do it?
My mission is one day a week I will find that one time where we can all sit down—and I will cancel whatever to make it happen. From that day I can parlay it into a couple of meals that [my wife] Jennifer can reheat with them. My personal time with the boys is every morning. I’m a chef; I’m not there every night when the boys come home from school, so I wake up in the morning and I cook them breakfast, and that’s our morning tradition.
I’ve tried the breakfast recipes in the book, and they do seem designed for efficiency.
I choose my messes wisely. If I’m already in the kitchen, and I’m making a mess, I’ll throw in an extra chicken, or an extra pork shoulder, and I’ll cook that down to be used later throughout the week. Planning is really a big part of it. Don’t just cook for that meal. A lot of us have this idea in our mind, as far as home cooks go, that we don’t have the time that it requires, and I’m saying, well we do; you just have to carve it out of other things you’re doing. Instead of cooking one chicken, cook two. That chicken salad will be great and those chicken carcasses will be great, so you’ll always have chicken stock.
The recipes in the book are also surprisingly not intimidating—
That was the one thing that worried more than anything when creating this book. I didn’t want it to be vanilla, to not have any personality. But the purpose of creating this book was to remove all the mystique from good cooking and simplify it. There’s nothing better than finding a really good egg and scrambling it perfectly. The frittata or the omelet are the most underrated of all the things we could possibly eat, and yet they’re the simplest. There’s a return to simplicity when I cook at home. Home-cooked foods don’t sound all that flashy, but if I’ve lured somebody into the kitchen then I have made the world a better place.
Let's talk food politics for a minute. What's your take on food deserts, especially coming from a place like New Orleans?
There’s a growing disparity between those who are educated to the point of knowing where the food comes from and how to source it and everybody else just trying to get by. First and foremost, I don’t wanna [say] it has to be this specific chickcn from this specific breeder, because that will keep people out of the kitchen. I see the problem of food deserts and I see the even bigger problem of people just eating overly processed foods [and] not even cooking. If you can make it to the farmer’s market, great. If you can’t, I forgive you. It’s really about choosing your battles.
You oversee the John Besh Foundation. What are some of the other organizations that you support?
Marketumbrella.org, The Crescent City Farmers Market, I'm working with several schools. We’re making huge headway. New Orleans had a chance to start from scratch again and re-think the way we’re living our lives. And in some of those forsaken neighborhoods they’re actually producing food now. Urban farms are on the rise like never before. I see it as one day becoming a model for other parts of the country.
What about the Gulf of Mexico? Is it back to where it needs to be since the BP oil spill?
Who the heck knows? I do know that the seafood that gets to the market is more scrutinized than any other food in the marketplace. So I’m confident in Gulf seafood. There are still large sections of the Gulf that can’t be fished yet. And that worries me.
Does it give you pride that you’re creating jobs in a down economy?
If you operate your business responsibly, you can not only sustain business but you can make money. It requires doing things a little differently. It requires constant investment in the staff. You have to be a hands-on manager to give the staff the support they need. Over the years, I have seen our ability to grow in the worst economic times. And in New Orleans, in my time of being in business, I’ve never known a good economy. But we’ve been successful because of the people I have around me. And we’re achieving our dreams together.
I made a commitment years ago that whatever we made, we would divide it up and share it with the staff. My business partner Octavio [Mantilla], who had once been the maitre’d years ago and I was the cook, calls it my little dabble with communism. [Laughs.] I didn’t see it that way. Especially after Hurricane Katrina, we started catering to the oil companies that were rebuilding their refineries, and when we would make money we would split it all up, and that gesture went a long way. In all that we had been through after the storm, resurrecting one restaurant led to an esprit de corps that is still generating more restaurants today.
A chef of your stature must get offers to come to New York and Vegas, but you’ve remained committed to New Orleans. Why is that, and will it ever change?
I’m a major hypocrite, but I hope it doesn’t change! I’ve created this great life in [New Orleans]. I’m from there, I’m gonna die there and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. I love coming to New York, but I don’t know if I want to come here with the hassles of trying to operate a business. We do well enough and I think I’m at peace living my life and trying to perfect the restaurants each day and trying to devote more hours to our philanthropic organizations. There’s so much good that we need to do in New Orleans. And there’s potential to change people’s lives and change the whole culture. I can't do that and operate restaurants around the country.
So you swear that you’re not in New York right now to look at opening a restaurant here?
[Laughs.] Oh I swear. It's so tempting. New York deserves chefs that live there. In New Orleans, we demand that the chef is present and part of the community. And I believe that.