It's a weighty task, encapsulating an entire city's food culture inside of one cookbook. But Chef John Besh has grown into the role of the latest celebrity chef to speak for New Orleans, embracing the cultural heritage of the city where he owns and operates six restaurants. And in between the 200 recipes, Besh weaves stories from his own culinary past and the history of the dishes and producers from the region around New Orleans. On Monday, he'll be in Kansas City to sign his new cookbook, My New Orleans, at Jasper's Ristorante.
Fat City spoke with him yesterday.
In your acknowledgments, you write that you see your role as a chef as more an "act of stewardship than a job." With everything that has happened in the years since Hurricane Katrina, do you ever feel pigeonholed into the role of 'New Orleans chef'?
It's a tremendous honor to be in the position I'm in and with that comes a bit of responsibility. And if I'm going to be pigeonholed anywhere, I want it to be New Orleans. I'm proud of that identity.
The hurricane ignited something in me. I started a book before the hurricane -- and I did want to pay homage to New Orleans. I wanted to take about what makes this city special and throw my two cents in about the great traditions that existed before various culinary trends. Before the fancy restaurants, New Orleans was great because of its culture and the expression of that culture in food and music.
What did you envision when you set out to write My New Orleans?
I didn't want to create just another coffee table book that you can't
actually cook with. I wanted a cookbook that was real. The story of our
food is really important because cooking is a reflection of the
culture. And a relationship with food is more important than a certain
To me the stories behind the food capture the passion of the food. Then
you can cook with more authenticity because it relates back to a story.
One thing I see across the country is that cooking has become more
cerebral and less heart-felt. That's where the story comes into play,
and the understanding of the soul of food.
The cookbook is arranged via the seasons in what seems to be a logical
progression: the reader follows the book over the course of a
I shopped the idea around and nobody saw what I saw. Thankfully
Andrews McMeel was willing to give me the artistic freedom to produce a
book that talks about why you need to eat like this and think of
ingredients as seasonal. I think we're doing the responsible thing in
helping to show people that instead of heading out to a nationally
branded store year-round, they can instead realize that if it's not in
season, chances are you don't need to eat it right now.
Your family has a strong presence throughout the book, both in terms
of your mentors and how you choose to cook today. Is it something akin
to chef Art Smith's contention that "food is love"?
I think Art is onto something. The more we move away from the dining
room table or the kitchen table as a culture, the more precarious of a
position we find ourselves in. A lot could be solved in the world by
In "A Smokehouse of My Own," you talk about realizing that slaughtering
a pig in Germany is the same as in Louisiana -- the only difference is
in what it's called. You've got your own smokehouse now. You think
it's the same as all of the barbecuers in Kansas City?
I love barbecue, but we don't even have barbecue in Louisiana. We just
want you to come enjoy the Creole cuisine and seafood. I joke that
we're surrounded by the South, but we're our own little island of
culture -- the only ones that don't do barbecue.