Jim Poris / January 2009
Food Arts presents the January/February 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Besh, the New Orleans chef who's reviving, revitalizing, and reconfiguring food city's culinary legacy for its post–Hurricane Katrina future. With three restaurants in New Orleans—a fourth, the Italian trattoria Domenica will open in the new Waldorf-Astoria hotel (né The Roosevelt Hotel) this spring—and one other 40 minutes away in Lacombe, Louisiana, Besh's investment in southern Louisiana's cultural identity has done more to reinflate the area's drenched spirit than a packed tarmac of clipboard-toting FEMA drones.
"Professionally, I find it gratifying to be both profitable and a tool for preserving our food culture in New Orleans, which surely was threatened because of the storm," says Besh. "Katrina was the catalyst that pushed me to act as a preservationist on one hand and on the other come up with new ways of resurrecting our community's standing as a benchmark for fine dining."
Even before the physical, psychological, and demographic toll Katrina afflicted in August 2005, Besh already had gained enough of a national profile for his fine dining Restaurant August to garner a James Beard Award in 2006 as the best chef in the Southeast. He also ran Besh Steak at Harrah's Casino two blocks from his flagship. But Katrina put him front center. With the first-responder instincts of a Marine veteran of the Gulf War (1990–91), Besh rustled up some old soldier buddies, jury-rigged a batterie de cuisine, and fired up hundreds of pounds of rice and beans at his home in Slidell to feed dazed survivors and relief workers.
"That experience gave birth to a new relationship with the city and south Louisiana, a better understanding of who we are and what we needed to do in order to sustain this beautiful culture," says Besh, 40, who grew up in Slidell and married the girl down the street, his best friend's sister, Jenifer Berrigan, with whom he has four sons. "I stopped thinking as a chef and decided to do the right thing as a person, which meant taking steps to elevate what we'd been doing."
Touched by the "cooks and others who had lost everything but returned to help reinvent August," Besh expanded so "I could help them achieve their goals." With another Marine friend, Octavio Mantilla, as business partner he opened the New Orleans German-style brasserie Lüke in 2007 (yes, there are very old Germanic roots in NOLA) and acceded to the dying wish of his mentor, Chris Kerageorgiou, and bought La Provence and its four acre farm. Now plans are afoot to take Lüke to Austin, south Texas, and Atlanta.
"I've learned over time that restaurants are not about the chef," says Besh, whose arc of experience reaches from the front lines in Kuwait to The Culinary Institute of America, the Michelin-decorated Romantik Hotel Spielweg in the Black Forest, to the Creole jazz brunch he cooks annually at the hotel Château de Montcaud in Provence, to his home city. "It's our job to make people happy, to help them celebrate on their best and, yes, their worst days. In the end, it's about serving others."