John Besh is on a cell phone standing outside August, his flagship restaurant tucked away inside a majestic 19th-century building on a corner in New Orleans’ Central Business District, when he politely asks me to hang on. “Sorry about that,” he says when he returns a few moments later. “Someone wanted to take a picture.”
Besh, who presides over a powerful kingdom that includes six other restaurants in the Crescent City—Lüke, Borgne, Domenica, Besh Steak, and American Sector and Soda Shop in the National World War II Museum—as well as La Provence in nearby Lacombe and Lüke in San Antonio, TX, is accustomed to life in the limelight. He won a 2006 James Beard Award, earned two James Beard nominations for Outstanding National Restaurant, and he’s made frequent appearances on PBS, Food Network, and Top Chef.
Well-deserved fanfare aside, what compels folks to stop on the street and say hello to Besh—who will gladly return the greeting—is that this charming native son never forgot his Louisiana roots. Through his non-profit John Besh Foundation, he helps preserve the culinary heritage and rituals of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, just likase he does every day through the thoughtful food made in his kitchens.
Formative years spent attending crawfish boils and hunting through swamps had a lasting effect on Besh. “Going out shrimping and then bringing it home taught me reverence,” he says. Humbling, personal snapshots like these are the focus of Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way (Andrews McMeel Publishing), his new book debuting October 29. In it, Besh—who has already penned My New Orleans and My Family Table—shares recipes for dishes like squid with spaghetti and bottarga, tomato and fresh cheese tartines, and Provençal leg of lamb.
Even more poignantly, they are all woven through tales of the mentors who set him on his own path to restaurant success. After serving in the Marines and graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, for example, Besh went off to Germany’s Black Forest with his new wife in tow, where he apprenticed for Karl-Joseph Fuchs of the hotel and restaurant Spielweg. Chris Kerageorgiou, the Frenchman who originally ran La Provence—the restaurant Besh would usher into a new era as his own—was another profound influence.
“Cooking is one of those professions where we depend on one generation to lead the next,” Besh says. “All these lessons have given me the foundation I’ve passed on to young chefs: being respectful. Before you love something, you have to respect it.”
Besh’s fortuitous culinary journey was peppered with enlightening, inspiring people. Here are 10 of the dishes he encountered that made just as powerful an impact.