Chef John Besh on simple, soulful at-home meals.
New Orleans chef John Besh is making a batch of his mama's seafood gumbo, dropping in smoked pork, sausage, and blue crab he picks from the bayou behind his house. It's a special dish, and the one he prepares for his annual tailgate party at LSU. Besh owns 12 restaurants—10 in or around New Orleans, one in Baltimore, and another in San Antonio. He's also written four cookbooks, including Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes—out September 29. In New Orleans, Besh is a hero. He helped feed bereaved folks after Katrina and has made it his mission to preserve the city's culinary history, one pot of jambalaya at a time. But in his new cookbook, he trades the meticulous technique of a professional kitchen for a more streamlined approach to food—the kind his mother and grandmother used to cook.
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He talks of his wife, Jenifer, their four boys, and the daily meals that have become more precious to him over the years. "It all starts at the family table," he explains.
Besh didn't set out in search of fame. He took to the kitchen as a boy to help care for his father, Ted, a former pilot who was paralyzed by a drunk driver. He wanted to be able to make his dad breakfast. "My Dad was my hero," he says. "He came back from what happened to him, started another career, and cared for his family. That's who I try to emulate."
Ted Besh died in 2014, but John keeps his dad close to his heart. And he talks to his mom, Imelda, every day. Losing his father last year and his sister Kathleen (in 2006) changed him, he says—and made him reconsider his priorities. With his oldest son in college at Notre Dame and three others, aged 10 to 14, growing up quickly, making the time to cook for his family, for them all to be present, has taken on a whole new meaning.
"We have a strict no-phone rule at the table," he says. "Even when we gather to enjoy simple meals, we're going to look at each other."
When Besh was growing up, his father would take him out to eat at Mandina's Restaurant on Canal before football games. It was a pregame tradition they followed religiously before heading to Tulane Stadium to cheer for the Saints. Now, apart from the annual party at LSU he hosts for longtime friends, tailgating at home in Slidell (40 minutes north of New Orleans) is much more his speed.
The menu remains fairly consistent. "With jambalaya, you can easily make enough to serve 50 to 100 people," he says. "And with gumbo and étouffée, you can get a head start by prepping the broth in advance, adding oysters and shrimp later." He serves the food family style in his huge open kitchen, encouraging his guests to stir the pot between plays.
Nothing formal here. Just good food and football. "Tailgating is one way we share love with one another, regardless of the team. But I sure hope LSU wins."
Pictured above, Besh's Creole Seafood Jambalaya. Get the recipe here.