Executive Chef John Besh
Besh Restaurant Group
Acclaimed chef John Besh grew up hunting and fishing in Southern Louisiana, learning at an early age the essentials of Louisiana’s rich culinary traditions. “With all the cultural influences in Louisiana,” he says, “it’s an exciting place to learn about food.” And he should know: years later, fortunate enough to have traveled and studied the world over, Besh has set the benchmark for fine dining in New Orleans, one of the world’s most esteemed restaurant cities – and he is still learning, growing, and refining his work at the forefront of his industry.
His talent and drive have earned Besh critical kudos from the outset of his career: in 1999, Food & Wine named him one of the “Top 10 Best New Chefs in America.” In 2003, Gourmet magazine included August in its “Guide to America’s Best Restaurants,” and in 2006, it cited August as one of America’s Top 50 Restaurants. In 2005, Chef Besh received a nomination for a James Beard Award, and in 2006, he won the Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast. Also that year, he defeated Chef Mario Batali on Iron Chef America on The Food Network, scoring a victory in the andouille sausage battle. The 2007 Zagat Guide rated August #1 in New Orleans for both Food and Service. Also in 2007, Chef Besh was selected to compete in Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, succeeding in every challenge, and finishing as runner-up in Kitchen Stadium. Rounding out the year, he and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis were selected portraits of creative visionaries whose passion for what they do has transformed our culture in the third season of the original series Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel. June 2010 will mark the premiere of chef Besh’s new TLC series, Inedible to Incredible, in which he will take “problem recipes” and fix them. He is also working on a PBS series to debut next fall.
In 2009, chef Besh published his first cookbook, My New Orleans: The Cookbook for which he won the “Best American Cookbook” award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation book award. My New Orleans is a culinary odyssey which explores the rich traditions that make dining in New Orleans such a treasured experience.
Besh received his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America. His love of classical cooking styles, together with his “born on the Bayou” Creole heritage, drew him to Europe for further culinary exploration and training. In the Black Forest region of Germany, Besh experienced his first exposure to truly localized cuisine, a concept that remains essential to his cooking and menu development. Local farmers and artisans would bring their choicest goods directly to the Michelin-starred restaurant where he worked; brook trout were caught live and kept fresh in the cold stream running deep below the centuries-old building. He also spent time in the south of France refining his classical sensibilities, while the flavorful stews and roasts of the region informed his understanding of his own native cuisine, the Creole cooking of southern Louisiana. The young chef’s early career was interrupted when, as a noncommissioned officer of the United States Marine Corps Reserves, he was called upon to lead a squad of infantry Marines in combat during Operation Desert Storm.
Besh’s appreciation for local ingredients and local cuisine has only increased since Hurricane Katrina, as he considers these essential to the survival of the peoples and cultural heritage of New Orleans. No one is more keenly aware of the fragility of the region’s culinary traditions. The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina found Chef Besh in a rowboat, looking for staff members in the flooded streets of New Orleans. With his wife and four young sons evacuated safely to North Carolina, he remained focused on his other family – his restaurant team. Within days, Besh was serving red beans and rice to relief workers. He flew to Washington, DC to participate in “Po’Boy Power!” – an event organized by fellow chefs that raised over $27,000 in just one two-hour stretch, one po’boy at a time.
In addition to getting his own restaurants, the elegant contemporary August and chic Besh Steak, up-and-running as soon as possible after the storm, he was also instrumental in rebuilding other establishments such as Willie Mae’s Scotch House, one of the city’s venerated culinary landmarks in the ninth ward.
With his friend and business partner Octavio Mantilla, he acquired the charming and rustic La Provence in Lacombe, Louisiana from his late mentor, legendary Chef Chris Kerageorgiou; and also opened Lüke, a brasserie in the grand New Orleans tradition, a cultural legacy that Besh could not allow to slip away. All the while, he has been the energetic spokesman for the Louisiana Seafood Council, as well as a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance; and a Board Member of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Besh is active in a state promotional program created by Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, who tapped the chef to prepare meals with the media in an effort to showcase the cuisine of Louisiana.
Besh’s European training made him an aficionado of local farmers markets, and he has many friends among the farming and commercial fishing communities of southern Louisiana; in fact, it is not unusual to see their names on his menu items. From farmers who have been working the land in Lacombe for generations, to the newly arrived Vietnamese farmers who provide the delicate baby vegetables for August, Besh’s network of local purveyors is the key to his culinary style. In fact, his commitment to sustainable local ingredients has led him to become his own organic farmer: not only has he created an extensive kitchen garden on the grounds of La Provence, but he is also raising his own livestock from Berkshire Pigs to Gulf Coast Sheep to Charolais cattle for the restaurants.
The Besh Restaurant Group’s new restaurant, Domenica, brings a warm and inviting ambiance depicting a traditional Sunday supper experience in a rural Italian village, where each bountiful dish is lovingly prepared with the purest ingredients according to ages-old technique. This rich heritage of the artisanal Italian families, who migrated to New Orleans has been soaked up by John Besh, because of his growing desire to bring back cultural influences of New Orleans to the here and now.
Lucky for all, John Besh has launched The American Sector, a venture close to his heart. It anchors the World War II’s museum in downtown New Orleans. Just reading the menu will send you down memory lane. Besh is a gifted chef with a playful touch, who is dedicated to preserving the food ways and traditions that are of the country’s traditions. His nostalgic menu of lovingly updated all-American favorites honors the World War II era, with a delectably southern bent.
The menu at August is both serious and playful, much like the chef himself. Besh takes his food and its preparation seriously, but creates with a whimsical flair: for example, one of his signature dishes on the August lunch menu is the “BLT,” cited by Gourmet magazine, which consists of buster crabs, lettuce, and tomatoes on pain perdu. His signature dishes at dinner include his Hand-made Potato Gnocchi tossed with Blue Crab and Black Truffle; Moroccan-spiced Duck with Creamy Delta Grits, Roasted Duck Foie Gras, and Preserved Quince; and to finish, Père Roux Cake, whose recipe was derived from that of a famed local baker and Catholic priest. Besh’s French-grounded cooking, bridges the classic techniques of the past and the progressive influences of a new generation.
In America’s oldest fine dining city, this boy from the bayou has built a thriving restaurant group. Each venture reflects his broad-ranging culinary passions, benefits from his dedication to local products, and – though his palate has taken him around the world – celebrates the multi-faceted cuisine of his beloved southern Louisiana.