Chef John Besh
Recipes in this Story:
Basic Sweet Tart Dough
Walter’s Cheesecake with Raspberry Compote
There’s beauty in taking some flour, butter, and a little sugar and watching the simplest of ingredients become something elegant,” says chef John Besh, a New Orleans native son and the owner of nine restaurants. “If you pay attention to the little details, you’ll have the best pie dough.”
That trenchant observation stems from a time early in Besh’s career, when he interned at hotels and restaurants in Germany’s Black Forest and France’s Provence.
Besh studied pastry while working at the Michelin-starred Spielweg restaurant in the Black Forest. His mentors there could not have been more diverse: Edel, a soft-spoken Irish woman with a deft, graceful hand at dessert-making, and Walter, a gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold German pastry chef. Each taught Besh an important lesson: Strip away the layers and embellishments of cooking, and respect the recipe’s basic ingredients and traditions.
“I wanted to learn the gutsiness of Walter’s cakes and breads and the elegance of Edel’s refined pastries,” Besh remembers.
Nine restaurants later, including the award-winning August in New Orleans, which showcases his European training and Louisiana roots, Besh today is known for more than just cooking. Although he has been honored by the James Beard Foundation with nominations and awards, he is equally proud of the 2009 Food Arts Silver Spoon award for his work revitalizing New Orleans’ culinary legacy after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Besh used his experience as a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War to respond to the plight of those left behind and hungry.
“The war prepared me to operate in an environment that you can’t control,” Besh says. “I wasn’t given these talents just to win awards. I was able to marshal resources to feed people who were truly hungry. My marine buddies pitched in to rescue people who couldn’t get away. We cooked gallons and gallons of red beans and rice and sent them out in ice chests loaded onto boats. Later, we fed the oil and construction workers who were rebuilding the city.”
In 2011, he founded the John Besh Foundation to promote New Orleans’ culinary history and provide scholarships for aspiring young chefs and loans to local farmers. Can this work be built on lessons learned years ago in the far-off Black Forest? “Yes,” Besh says. “That time of my life shaped me forever. It led me to appreciate localism and preserve its culinary tradition. New Orleans, similarly, is the only city with its own indigenous urban cuisine. All of us need to work to perpetuate it.”
For more information on John Besh’s resturants and foundation, visit chefjohnbesh.com.
Photography: Peter Krumhardt