It’s easy to paint a target on John Besh’s chest these days. He continues to open successful restaurants, publish books that fly off the shelf, cultivate a brand that is becoming the preeminent NOLA restaurant group, and flash a set of pearly whites that would send Donny and Marie into a corner crying. Women love him and men love to hate him for just that. He is an enviable man and is quite simply everywhere these days.
The road to enviable, though, is a bumpy one. Ours is an industry that chews up personal relationships and marriages for sport. Managing a successful restaurant, much less a budding empire, can drag a man or woman to the outer reaches of ability to keep those relationships together. For Besh, this hazard has always been at the forefront of his mind.
When speaking to food and restaurant philosophy, John uses words like “tradition,” “honor,” “respect.” They are not concepts frequently addressed by chefs when discussing their food. It is easy to hear this kind of talk and then subsequently dismiss it as bluster or bravado. But these words, you quickly come to understand, build the code within that the man lives, breathes, and works. These words weave their way into conversation on business philosophy, food, and his family.
It is ultimately family, for John Besh, that holds top priority. The time spent with his sons, duck hunting and fishing, relaxing at the beach with his wife, Jennifer, or riding up the bayou behind his house outside of New Orleans with friends is where he finds his greatest peace.
“We built our home around the idea of being able to entertain family and friends, particularly during the holidays,” says Besh. The cavernous open center of the house with kitchen, dining, and entertainment areas speaks to this goal. “At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the place is filled with family and loads of kids. These are my favorite moments.”
His menus at home for these events, like at his restaurants, reference the things most important to him and the places that have most deeply influenced his life and career.
“Thanksgiving is not complete without ‘teal bird’ gumbo or andouille cornbread dressing. These are the most traditional items to our family,” he says. His menus touch the traditional while always hinting at a chef’s boundless creativity. “This year we’re doing a French-style risotto with Gulf shrimp and Honey Island Swamp chanterelles.” He uses a short-grain French rice in place of Arborio, suggesting the flavors of the mouth of the Rhône and employing ingredients of his own terroir.
His secret to a successful holiday meal is doing as much in advance as possible so he can enjoy as much uninterrupted time with his guests as he can. “Fortunately, traditional holiday dishes are designed to allow just this,” he says. “They are mostly casserole-style dishes, so made in advance, all you have to do is get them all in the oven and out onto the table and you’re done.”
There is a softness to Besh’s voice when he discusses these things that reveals the sincerity around his love of these times and being with his family. Enviable as he is, you can’t help but respect the man, the Marine, the chef, the father, and the husband in him when you hear him talk about his family.
These gatherings of family and friends are the moments in our lives we rely on to bring solace in times of strife. These are the events that ultimately feed our hearts and souls as well the stomach. John Besh understands this. He appreciates it and he revels in it…as well he should.