John Besh is a good-looking dude. He’s charming. He’s on. It’s clear he’s practiced in the art of finessing —flashing a grin, raising his voice commandingly to punctuate a thought, emitting a halo of unpretentious Southern hospitality. And despite his immense success (nine restaurants, two cookbooks and a James Beard award), he is genuinely modest.
When I met up with him at his most-lauded venture, August, he wore a perfectly rumpled chambray shirt and jeans. Tanned face and white teeth glowing, he insisted that he cuts his own hair and was in need of a shave. Neither was apparent. He might have made a good politician, toeing a line between rough and refined — the farmer gent who could bro down with the blue collar while playing to the swooning of socialites.
Besh is also a philanthropist. His current initiative, Chefs Move!, a program that bestows International Culinary Center scholarships to aspiring, young New Orleanean cooks, requires only that recipients return to work in the kitchens of New Orleans — ensuring an eventual contingent of Besh dauphins. Not looking in the least bit threatened, Besh says, grinning, “They’ll probably put me out of business one day.” With a progressive local seafood restaurant, Borgne, recently opened and new blood in mind, Besh offers up his advice on his work ethic, how to open a restaurant and who inspired him on the way up.
Live What You Love
“What I do for a living, I don’t separate from who I am as a person. Taking the ultra successful restaurants and using those resources to do good is what I’m most passionate about today.”
“I think too often people go into any profession, culinary in particular, with an ambiguous idea, of Okay, I want to be a chef. Well so do many other people. So what are you going to do? Make some goals. In the next 5 to 7 years, you won’t be making much money at all. You need to be learning, and stop thinking about money in the short term, and start thinking about where you want to be 10 years from now. What sort of a difference do you want to make 20 years from now? Start managing the way that you go to school, the way that you attend class, where you work, as if you want to build your own brand. I want the student and the young professional to think about, ‘Am I making this move for the right reasons?’ Is it bringing you closer to your goal?”
Eat Humble Pie
“You have to have humility to be successful. The wages are so low to begin. The hours are just as bad. Unless you’re enjoying it every step along the way, it’s not worth it. Find something else. You have to have the humility and the patience to learn and serve others. You’re not very far removed from servants. I earn my living by serving and making you happy and understanding that’s the part that we play in this world. You need to learn to take your time and work for the right people so that you can achieve your goals.”
A Man’s Gotta Eat
“Something they don’t teach you in school is how to eat and how to taste. Too often I have these young chefs who go to the best culinary schools in the country come in on low wages, and they want to learn. They do everything textbook as it pertains to cooking. But they haven’t eaten. They haven’t dined. They haven’t enjoyed the chance to taste. They really have inexperienced palates, and they tend to come in cooking, not with heart, but with a cerebral sense. One needs to have a soul warming understanding of what food is.”
You Can’t be Everything to Everyone
“Know exactly who your customer is. Create a mission. Write it. Live it. Everything you do within that restaurant has to be in line with that mission. A mistake that people make is trying to be everything to everybody. Creating such a broad approach to opening a restaurant results in collapse.”
Money, Money Money
“When opening a restaurant, you can’t have enough money. Rest on the fact that you won’t make money for the first year. The finer the restaurant, the more years it will be before you start turning profits. Undercapitalization is probably the biggest cause of restaurant failure. You can tweak food. You can tweak service. A business plan is necessary — who you’re targeting, how many people you have to serve a night — because if the numbers don’t add up, you’re not going to make money. If your menu doesn’t match, if the design doesn’t play a part, it won’t work, it won’t be successful.”
Worship the Ground Someone Walks On
“You need to figure out who you want to emulate in life and go work with those people when you graduate. This is such a diverse business. You won’t learn it all in school.
“I had three great mentors. One was this beautiful, old Frenchman, Constantin Kerageorgiou from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. He actually grew up one bayou away from where I did. I started working for him and he sent me to France. He taught me how to cook from the soul and how important it is to really get to know people. He had a grandmother persona. I had my apprenticeship with Karl Fuchs in Germany near Basel, Switzerland. He was this big, jolly man with two Michelin stars in the mountains of the Black Forest. He had a love for understanding the source and treating all ingredients with respect. The third was Rudy Baur in Provence. He has a beautiful small Relais & Châteaux hotel just north of Avignon. He taught me how to dine, how to think of the diner, the progression of the dinner, meeting expectations and surpassing them. I try to tie all of the things I learned from them together. Maybe I’ll make a living at it one day.”
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