Cooking From the Heart With John Besh
The New Orleans chef talks about the importance of localism, while promoting a new cookbook and launching the Besh Box.
With nine restaurants to his name, you’d think John Besh might be a little too busy to put out a new cookbook just two years after his last one and develop the first in what could be a line of products under his name. But this New Orleans chef continues to share his time and knowledge with home cooks around the world. Whether we’re seeing him on television as a guest judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef” (or bartending on Andy Cohen’s “Watch What Happens: Live”) or talking with diners at Luke in New Orleans, there’s no doubt that Besh is accessible.
His new cookbook, Cooking from the Heart and a new product called the Besh Box will bring him even further into home kitchens though. Sharing stories and tips learned throughout his long career, Cooking from the Heart takes readers on a worldwide tour of the locations where Besh picked up some valuable culinary lessons and met some of the mentors that made him the chef he is today. Besh says he grew up eating the country cooking of Bayou Liberty, located between Slidell and Lacombe, Louisiana, but he didn’t really understand where some of those food roots came from until he traveled around Europe after culinary school.
“That drive to understand all those influences gave me a foundation that would really serve me well,” he says. “Back in the ’80s, even in the early ’90s, it was all about flying food in from as far away as possible. Importing it made it good. It wasn’t about the food, it wasn’t about the ingredients and it wasn’t about localism at all. It took me experiencing this little town of Germany in the Black Forest, which is right smack on the border of France and Switzerland, to understand how important localism is and what it can do for a culture and the economy.”
Besh’s cookbook opens with a chapter called “Lessons of the Hunt” in which Besh details hunting, killing and cooking a deer in Germany with Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs. “How, I think, could meager venison liver be so memorable?” Besh writes. The recipe follows, and Besh goes on to describe other spiritual culinary experiences in the South of France that give new meaning to his French restaurant La Provence in Lacombe.
It was here that young chefs gathered on a recent episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” for a challenge that required them to cook locally and seasonally. Many of the chefs had a difficult time showcasing Louisiana’s fresh summer vegetables and while Besh says some of that can be chalked up to creating drama on the show, “I don’t think there’s been a firm grasp of what Louisiana is and what our culture is in South Louisiana,” he says. He cites episode 2, where the chefs were tasked with making a gumbo for legendary chef Leah Chase. “That gumbo challenge just hurt me to even watch, because there wasn’t a proper gumbo made,” he says. “I’m a purist when it comes to recipes that we all grew up with.”
Fans who’ve watched Besh’s television shows on PBS or own his other two cookbooks can attest to this. His gumbo is full of flavor but simple to make, as are his other recipes for classic Louisiana dishes like jambalaya, duck confit and bread pudding.
“Cooking with restraint and honoring the ingredients, these were all little things that were kind of implanted in me during this time,” says Besh about his early days as a chef. “It’s more about this philosophical idea of taking what’s local, doing what you can to elevate it and making people happy at the same time.”
When you eat at one of Besh’s restaurants, you can rest assured that he grew the produce at one of his partner farms, and every duck, chicken and rabbit he purchases is local. Beef and pork come from a slaughterhouse he owns with restauranteur Dickie Brennan.
Besh says that his cookbooks and television shows have created a sort of dialogue with amateur chefs and home cooks, but he wanted to take that relationship a step further by actually going into people’s homes. Well, he won’t necessarily be there in the flesh, but with his new product the Besh Box, fans can have the recipes, ingredients and tools Besh uses himself delivered to their doorstep each month. The Besh Box is a culinary box of goodies that Besh says he hopes will make cooking more enjoyable, effortless and successful for people at home. (Get a peek inside the Besh Box here.)
“These are essentially cooking lessons each month with me, where I’m in your house and we roll up the sleeves,” he says. “I think a lot of home cooks are daunted by maybe their lack of culinary prowess or they’re just afraid to make a mistake. Just get in there and have fun with it. With the Besh Box, slowly over the course of a year, you’re developing a repertoire and a kitchen collection that will make you a better chef.”
John Besh’s Cooking from the Heart is on our list of 10 Southern Cookbooks for Gifting and also available for giveaway. The Besh Box is available here. Cost is $55 for one month, $160 for three months, $330 for six months and $660 for a year subscription.