Chef John Besh Visits Austin
He's always eager to share the South's traditions of food and hospitality
Chef John Besh gets around. Happily for Austin, he's managed to spend some time in our town lately, in between running six New Orleans restaurants and his newest place, Lüke in San Antonio.
In March, Besh was cooking buttermilk-fried quail (from his book My New Orleans: The Cookbook) at the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. He's here this week as a featured speaker at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, and he's judging the Edible Texas Wine-Food Match at UT's AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on June 3 (info at www.edibleaustin.com).
Besh was raised in Slidell, La., on Lake Pontchartrain, and his métier remains firmly in the food traditions of South Louisiana. He won a 2006 James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast, and his first cookbook, My New Orleans, won the 2010 IACP award for Best American Cookbook. And now he's a TV chef two times over.
In April, PBS began Chef John Besh's New Orleans, a 26-episode series based on the recipes, neighborhoods, and cooking traditions from his book. And with a different focus, TLC begins a series in June called Inedible to Incredible, in which Besh helps home cooks understand good food and improve their cooking.
When meeting Besh, it's easy to understand why two networks want to feature him. Delicious cooking aside, his easy manner and youthful good looks are made for TV, and in person, he embodies the best aspects of Southern charm and courtesy. It's been a while since I've had such an engaging conversation with anyone so grounded in where they come from, so invested in the meaning of that place's culture, and so eager to share its traditions of food and hospitality. Here are some highlights:
On Tradition, Authenticity, and Innovation: Besh is best known for showcasing traditional Louisiana cooking – Creole and Cajun, urban and rural – but he's quick to point out: "I've been blessed to be exposed to a great food culture all my life, but authentic doesn't mean tired. You've got to keep a balance – tradition, yeah, but you've got to have people that push ahead; it's always an evolution. We can't be satisfied with just one way of cooking." However, "there are responsibilities that go with that." These include stewardship and telling a culture's stories through food. "Some things are too important to deconstruct to a foam. Culture and cuisine are much more important than any chef. I was once the young guy listening to the food stories; now I'm the old guy passing on the story. And who's the ultimate authority? Only the family table really decides what's the true food of a city or a region; restaurants can't do that."
On New Orleans and Katrina: I'd heard Besh speak at a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium just a few weeks after the hurricane; I told him I'd never forgotten his eloquent call for renewal. He replied: "The catastrophe that was Katrina woke me up. Immediately. We had to act to save our culture, or we were going to lose it. I realized that none of us could be complacent about anything anymore."
And now? "This past year, we rounded a corner," Besh says. "As a city, we're better than we were before. New Orleans has become more progressive – the status quo is no longer acceptable. There are urban farming projects, more music venues and restaurants than before. The city became more unified; a lot of huge lessons were learned. Now, if you're there, you're committed; you're there to make a difference. The storm made us realize just how fragile a culture can be – ours is too valid to let it fall by the wayside."
On Lüke in San Antonio: Why was Besh's first venture outside Louisiana in San Antonio? "There are lots of similarities between San Antonio and New Orleans," he says. "Each has a unique ambience that couldn't be mistaken for anyplace else. ... People forget about the important German influence in New Orleans, and San Antonio has that too. Lüke is my homage to the old Franco-German restaurants like Gluck's and Kolb's in New Orleans. Lüke means 'young Luke' in Schwäbisch; it's also the name of one of my sons."
On the John Besh Foundation/Culinary Scholarship: When I asked Besh what he'd like Austin to know about him, the megawatt grin grew even brighter. "My biggest thing now is pushing the philanthropic envelope. I'm working on things that are in my capacity to change – and that's changing who's cooking in the kitchens of New Orleans." Besh, with Jessica Bride, established an annual full scholarship for an Orleans Parish resident to the French Culinary Institute in New York City. "There is so much talent; I want people who live here to realize the incredible food culture we have. I was lucky – I had supportive parents, good education, and a look at the outside world, but it still took a couple of villages to raise my ass. I want to provide support and opportunity to people who weren't born into a supportive situation like I was."