Interview with New Orleans Chef John Besh

Chef John Besh

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to spend quality time with famed New Orleans Chef, John Besh. Warm and engaging with an infectious smile, John is a James Beard Award-winning chef with a soulful culinary style.

An undercurrent of adverse challenges shaped the man John is today. At the age of nine, his father was paralyzed by an accident with a drunk driver. Then, just before graduating from culinary school, he was called to fight the war in Iraq (Desert Storm). He opened his first restaurant…the week of 9/11. And like the rest of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark.

Conversations with John reveal a man with a deep sense of history and an earnest desire to preserve the culture of New Orleans. Within the context of food, John is an entrepreneur who leverages his passion for sustainability. He is a dedicated mentor who is guided by the desire to leave an impact on the world of food.


John Besh: I was with Alice Waters the other day. They’re doing farm-to-table in the Northwest & San Francisco…and I can do that in my own back yard. That gives me inspiration.

Traca Savadogo: Tell me about your farm.

John: We started the farm in an effort to be more self-sufficient, to recycle, use what we have…and try to be more responsible. We started with a pig pen and a chicken coop. Then we began composting all the organic matter from our restaurants. Next, we composted everything from the chicken coop. So after the chicken coops are raked once a week, and composted every two weeks, we have new soil.

We created these raised beds because it’s in a swampy area. Years ago when I worked here, I lost a few gardens (from flooding.) So what I decided to do was build these raised beds and all this beautiful, organic composted soil then goes into the raised beds. That’s where we grow specialty vegetables, herbs, and lettuces.

We enlarged the garden even further by planting fig and citrus trees. We brought one of our bee keepers out here and he’ll start the honey process for us. We started doing that and before we knew it, we have a little room here, a little room there that we can enlarge by adding a small strawberry patch and some other things.

It’s evolved into this well-rounded little biodiverse backyard farm.

Traca: (I had the opportunity to meet Erick Loos, John’s Chef de Cuisine, here in Seattle.) What's Erick’s roll on the farm?

John: Erick is the Chef de Cuisine at La Provence. And he’s in charge primarily of the kitchen. We also have this farm on the property, so he’s taken up the role of organizing who does what. By that I mean, all of our sous chefs and chefs are required to spend a couple days a month out on the farm. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of weeding to be done. There are a lot of little things that have to take place in order to: 1. Keep it looking good and 2. To keep it productive. So Erick is in charge of making sure all these things happen. But there are probably six major players—six different chefs & sous chefs that have really taken the leadership roles in this…it’s too big for just Erick.

That’s what we’ve been doing. It’s been a lot of fun…and enlightening for all of us cooks, given all the different ex-terns and in-terns that come through one culinary school or another. They all come here and end up walking away from this experience building a much needed, much better relationship with the land. It fosters a certain philosophy among the cooks. You respect the food and you take more care with what’s on the place…because it’s right there! You’re seeing the end result of it. By doing that, what happens is there seems to be this esprit de corps. All the cooks really start to take care of it, and become more active in the farmer’s markets that we have here in the area. And one thing leads to another….

Before you know it, we’re using this as basically an experimental place. We just shipped about 20 pigs off to another farm. We’ll ship 10 more in a couple months. Other farmers are starting to do the same thing. It’s really starting to spread well and take off.

Traca: Are you sending off piglets or fully-raised pigs?

John: Pigletts. Raising larger pigs out here behind the restaurant just makes a mess of things. We can’t let the pigs roam free because we only have a few acres. To have fenced-in large pigs, that’s not why we started doing this. We’re moving pigs to another farm where they have room to graze the land. Essentially, they’re grass-fed for their adult lives.

Traca: How many acres do you have, total at La Provence?

John: Four acres. It’s not a big place.

Traca: Has growing your own herbs and raising produce had a positive financial impact?

John: For some things, totally. Overall, it’s still very costly. We can save lots of money by growing things like herbs. But when you look at the overall cost of upkeep, maintenance...the cost to build the pens, coops, and all the raised beds—we’re a long way away from making money at it.

There’s no real financial benefit to it as long as we can still buy crappy mass-farmed produce out of the West and Southwest, harvested by migrant workers. As far as I’m concerned, the whole use of slave labor just to save a few dollars on produce…it’s a sin.

What I wanted to do is really nothing more than to become as self-sufficient as possible and maybe…to wave the banner of self-sufficiency in saying “We can do better than this. We MUST do better than this.”

This region has sustained the food culture that we have. We need to act now to work with local farmers—not to just buy from them occasionally, but to contract farm with the people before we lose all of the few farms that we still have left.

I’m hoping that the impact [of our farm] is more psychological. We can’t conquer the world. We can’t grow enough vegetables to feed the world. We can’t do enough ourselves to make the difference that we really need to make. But we can do other things.

We can start to foster a whole different mindset with the young cooks and chefs—people like Erick, who were raised without any sort of food culture…without any sense of understanding where food comes from. Now minds are open to “Oh yeah. Look at what we’re doing!” And you hear him talk about it and he’s so, so excited! So that excitement and that enthusiasm and passion are just pills of fire. I think of the many cooks like him that are just being awakened to all these possibilities.

The great thing is…like what I’m doing today. We have the Edible Schoolyard over here. Green Middle School in New Orleans was the first school outside the state of California that adopted Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard curriculum. At the end of every semester we have the students come out to La Provence. We let the kids harvest the strawberry patch, so we’re making strawberry dessert with them right now. And then we have them pick over a bunch of our lettuces, and we pulled a bunch of beets for a big salad. Then we harvested all these fava beans to make a fava bean risotto with some locally raised chicken.

See? The impact is affecting more than just my cooks…more than just my little world. It’s affecting people that have never imagined my world before. Seeing students from the inner city come out here to the country…we work with them for a few hours on the farm, cook with them, and cook for them. I think we’ll open their eyes and perhaps change the way they look at food. That, coupled with their curriculum at school, I think that may spark this new awareness that we need so badly.

Traca: Sustainability is gaining traction, but we’ve discussed the notion that perhaps people don’t really practice it at home. Can you expand on that?

John: I think sustainability is much easier to talk about. It’s much easier to play the role of activist, but not actually practice it. I think that’s just human nature. It’s a lot easier to sit on the sidelines, but really? I think I could do more than what I do. We all just need to do what we can.

The catastrophe that followed Hurricane Katrina made me realize how vulnerable life is…how vulnerable a region can be, how vulnerable a city can be. I don’t care what politics you subscribe to. If you’re waiting for the government to have your answers for you…I’ve seen the government in action. I’ve seen Democrats and I’ve seen Republicans. I don’t think there’s really all that much difference.

I think when it comes down to it, we need take charge of our fate—what we eat, how we harvest food. Where does the food come from? Ask questions.

I went to several grocery stores this week…picking up a few things for the house for Mother’s Day. Sunday night I cooked a little dinner for all the mothers in my life and I was amazed walking through these national chain stores. They’re all playing the “Eat Whole, Local” card, which is good. I hope they really are. But at least they’re talking about it…and at least we’re moving in that direction.

I still have personal problems with activists for sustainable anything who live in places like Las Vegas and have everything shipped in from around the world. We’re trying to appeal to people and market ourselves as being sustainable when we’re anything but. That’s just one of my little pet peeves.

When you and I were talking about this, it was right after the Sustainable Seafood Conference where I met with a bunch of industry leaders talking about sustainability. Of course you’ve got the fishing industry trying to use sustainable as a marketing ploy. You have them painting the picture that every fisherman out there is essentially Alice Waters, which is NOT the case. It’s not the case at all. The fisherman is just trying to make a living. I know some people that are particularly safe about the way they harvest their seafood, and there are others who aren’t.

At this point we need to buckle down because we know we’re having an effect on the climate. We are making an impact on our environment and we now have to start thinking, “Okay, what can we do? Maybe I don’t need to throw all the fertilizers in my yard because there are some other effects to that we don’t need.”

I think if we can just do a little something here to make a small impact at La Provence, I think the ramifications of what we do today will be felt twenty years from now when the young cooks are starting into the business, they are the big chefs of tomorrow. Hopefully, what they’ve seen and what they’ve come across here…this will be just commonplace. We’ll have many communities buying up their green space and preserving some of their agricultural land and servicing the urban areas. Hopefully that’s the impact we will make by doing what we’re doing here.

Traca: How do you go about conveying that message to your dining patrons? For example, here we have the Herbfarm and before dinner, guests take a tour of the gardens. Do you do something similar at La Provence?

John: I aspire to be what they are. But I also don’t want to turn La Provence into Disney World. The farm is here and it’s not really for amusement. Come and look. Come be a part of it. People do. They get it. When they park their cars, they’re looking out over the farm. They hear chickens. Occasionally we get complaints roosters are chasing some of the customers, so then we’ll have to go and kill a couple of the roosters….and eat ‘em!

The people that come here, get it.

We try to list as many of the products as we can on the menu. If it’s La Provence country ham than we list it as such. So essentially we don’t buy any prosciutto, ham, sorrano…any of the specs or anything like that because we make our own now. That’s what we try to convey through our servers. “This is special, and this is why.”

Traca: So you’re doing in-house charcuterie?

John: Oh yeah.

Traca: Are you having any issues with the USDA requiring HACCP plans?

John: That all begins the moment you try to sell it on a retail level…or sell it across state lines, which gets even more complicated. What we produce, we can sell within our restaurant.

Traca: I was at a Chef’s Collaborative event a couple months ago and there was some discussion that it’s being “suggested” that they have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Pts) plan—even for restaurants.

John: That I’m sure is probably well-founded. I’m all about…get out there and do it and say you’re sorry later. If I asked for permission for everything I do, I doubt very seriously that I’d even have a farm back here. But I don’t. I just do it. Everything is natural, and there’s nothing dirty about it. This is beautiful. The whole thing works really well.

We haven’t had any issues but I think you have to be careful. There are a lot of chefs that are experimenting with things just in their coolers, for instance, or in their offices, having salamis hanging here and there. If the board of health comes by and it’s not at the right temperature, and you’re caught in the danger zone, you will have issues. You can’t get around that without investing the resources and the plant that you need to do it right. I don’t know…it’s finally raising its head here with the USDA and the FDA.

Now chefs are demanding in-house charcuterie. We don’t want to just buy ham from a country we don’t know anything about. We want to do some things ourselves again. Frankly, in-house charcuterie hasn’t happened in years—except for a small group of people. As it becomes more wide-spread, you’re going to have more issues like that. The government is going to say, “Okay, now how do we control it?”

Traca: I’m intrigued by the fact that we’ve seen artisan processes come to the brink of dying out, and like in-house charcuterie, now we’re seeing a revival in the craft of food. That’s just one more element in raising the experience, or the quality.

John: I don’t know if in-house charcuterie is really the answer. I do it because I can control what the pigs eat, and I want to control that end product…the end flavor. Ultimately what I’d love to see happen is the butcher shops come back. I think we’re making so much headway in some areas, and in other areas, we’re totally missing the point. Things could be interesting.

Over the long haul, I don’t know. You’ve got so many people dependent on processed—or over-processed foods handled by just a handful of companies that also control all the feeds. They control everything! You see artisans popping up because people concerned about hand-crafted food and good stuff like that. On the other hand…not that I’m against corporate America, but you see just a handful of people dictate the policies of government. People who have control over the ConAgras and the like—both producing and processing, and packaging food in this country, leave small margins for the little guy.

Traca: I want to track back to this question that came up at dinner, “What does food mean to you?” and how you got involved in the business. Can you touch on that?

John: Things really took off for me…I grew up in a culture where men really enjoyed cooking and carried on a lot of the traditions. I think that was very important because much of this country…the way that we’ve treated food throughout the industrial era was that food was a woman’s thing. So frankly, in all these years of “progress”, we lost a lot of our food culture. A lot of that had to do with many different things…prohibition, for one.

Our country lost a lot of its food culture, but I grew up in a place that never really lost it. Isolation was the key to our success. So I had this relationship with food a young age, and what I really enjoyed doing the most was cooking. I could make people happy through food…and I had a father that really encouraged that. He encouraged us to pursue our passion—not to think in terms of careers. “Do what you love to do and do it the best that you can. Great things will follow.” Consequently, I did that. In my family we have teachers, doctors, lawyers, and we have a former ballet dancer. We all pursued these different passions.

[My passion for cooking] really came to a head about the age of nine. My father was hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed for life. Over several years of a convalescence, I just started cooking. I’d make him breakfast—pain perdu, and learned how to make poached eggs. Then I’d make my own Hollandaise sauce so I could serve it over the poached eggs…

At the time that I started cooking, I looked up to the great chefs of New Orleans. I thought, “This is great. I want to try that!”

My father encouraged me to stay with it.

Over the years as he grew stronger and got a little bit better, I just cooked for him. That’s probably the reason why I’m a chef today.

Traca: Then what happened?

John: Before I went off to culinary school, I decided that I wanted to do something wild and crazy. I had this wild hair to join the French Foreign Legion or something. I decided to give the Marine Corps a try! I knew I didn’t want to make a career out of it. I guess I wanted the challenge…and to see if I was up to the challenge. So I pursued the Marines for a few years and then switched into the Reserves. I stayed in the Reserves, which helped pay for culinary school.

Just before graduating culinary school, they invited me back to active duty—to serve in the Marines for Desert Storm. So I did that and came back.

In between, I fell in love with my wife. We started writing to each other—we were pen pals and childhood friends…and married her when I came home. You can’t marry a woman from New Orleans and ever really leave New Orleans. I wanted to be closer to my parents because they need my help and my wife always wanted to be by her parents. So that’s what we did. That’s why I became a cook…and why I returned here.

Traca: At what point did you work abroad? You worked in France and Germany, correct?

John: In the Black Forest, I made my apprenticeship at a place called the Romantik Hotel Speilweg, which is in the mountains of southern Germany. My wife had just graduated law school. After she passed all of her classes and passed the bar exam, we left. We left the day she was sworn into the bar.

We were in Germany for a year and a half and then made our way down to France. The chef I worked for in Germany had a friend who was the chef at the Chateau de Montcaud in Bagnols-sur-Ceze, France.

I fell in love with France and saw so many correlations between the way I learned about food in Louisiana and Southern France. It was all just very, very natural. After that, we came back here and I started working at La Provence out here in the country. Fifteen years later, I’d come back to buy the place.

In between La Provence and August, I had a place that I was the chef at called Artesia. I worked there for a few years in a little town called Abita Springs, Louisiana.

The week of September 11, 2001, I opened up my first restaurant, August.

Traca: And how was that?

John: Everything in my life has always been a struggle. (Laughing.) It’s pretty much along the same lines.

We opened this big, beautiful, gorgeous restaurant right before the worst tourist crunch ever came to New Orleans—and to the country, for that matter. We were dependent upon our convention business and tourism when September 11th came. That just shot everything down.

So it was hard.

But then I read a couple articles that said some of the strongest companies in American history were founded during the depression—or right before the depression. You learned how to do with less. And there are a lot of good lessons to learn there.

Traca: I would say that experience has continued to shape your philosophy, is that correct?

John: Yeah. It’s kind of like this Marine Corps philosophy: Get it Done. Let’s just make it happen.

After Hurricane Katrina that [mindset] really paid off because you couldn’t just wait for things. I mean, I felt deceived by so many people, and everything you think is real, is turned on its head. You think, “The city will surely evacuate. We won’t close our business until the city evacuates.” And the city doesn’t evacuate….and then you have to make these calls.

I’ve been tested off and on throughout the whole Katrina debacle. When I walked away afterwards, I said, “You know what? I’m tired of playing by the rules. What you need to do is go out there and make things happen.” I’m trying to open a restaurant and I wasn’t going to wait until we had the proper document, we just opened for business. That’s pretty much the way we’ve handled everything.

With the other restaurants I’ve opened….I’ve got great people—very passionate people that have stood by me over the years. If they want to open a restaurant, then I want to help them. I want to give them the tools that they need to be successful. That’s why I have a chef partner in each of the restaurants--because I know what it’s like trying to scrape a few pennies together and not get the financing. Banks aren’t going to loan you anything—especially these days.

That’s why we’ve pooled resources and managed to do things the way we’ve done them. We’ve grown by doing it ourselves. That philosophy of making due with less…you know, maybe I don’t need a huge salary. I’m not going to take it. I want to 1: share it with others and 2: let’s pay our debt down so that we don’t have a lot of debt. If another Katrina comes along, we’re not out millions of dollars.

That still shapes the way I operate today and the philosophy that I’ve taken on…by remaining skeptical…and cautious, but yet moving forward.

Traca: So what is ‘moving forward?’ What does the future look like for you? Pie in the sky…what would be the ideal situation?

John: You know, my ideal changes every day. I evolve as a person, every day. I’d love to be able to get to the point one day where I retired to the little place in the country…and just cook.

Maybe if I could do well enough financially, I would create a restaurant that did nothing but fund a food bank. Somehow…I want to see myself feeding people who need to be fed, and making an impact that way. My partner Octavio [Mantilla] just laughs every time he hears it, but I think the greatest way for me to go out would be to create this one little restaurant that operates not-for-profit. It goes into something greater, something bigger that perpetuates itself.

I think that’s something I’ve learned too is that it’s not all about the [media] reviews. I’ve got all those, but that doesn’t make you happy. It’s never good enough. And I’ve noticed one thing with money is that you never make enough of it. Even after you make enough of it…and you do have some good years, you’re always paying too much of it…to people who spend it way too freely.

I don’t want to think about retiring, but after the storm, we fed people that were truly hungry. That was the most exhilarating thing ever! The pay off for that was tremendous—making people happy through food, bringing a smile to somebody because they know you care about them.

Long term, I’ll keep building as long as our chefs want to keep growing. Then, ultimately, when it’s time…each restaurant project is designed so that….for example, Steve McHugh my chef and partner of Luke, could buy Luke from me someday. Then he’s got something that the debt’s already paid down, he’s got a great asset with years under his belt, and then he’s capable of just taking it and running it forever. Same thing with all the other restaurants. We’ve set it up so that I’ve enabled them to pursue their dreams. Now it’s their turn to move on.

I often talk about…I think being a chef in some ways—especially down here where there’s a culture of food—you have to go into it with stewardship in mind. Because it’s much too big…it’s much too important. It’s not about fads and trends. They won’t last down here. What you do has to be rooted and steeped in something real.

It’s my job now to pass it on to the next generation so that we all continue to grow and perpetuate this culture. So guys like Erick can pursue their dreams. He knows that I care about what’s best for him and that I’ll expose him to things that are truly unbelievable. It makes him a better chef.

Traca: I’m curious to know, how many restaurants do you have…and how many covers are you doing?

John: Let’s see…I have four restaurants right now [August, Luke, La Provence and Besh Steak]. In another month, I’ll have five. And by November, we’ll have six.

August will serve 150 every night downstairs and then we have private dining with potentially another 250. We’ll do on average, about 100 a night at La Provence. And about 500 a day at Luke. We’ll do another 300 a day at the steakhouse.

Traca: Wow! So the two restaurants you’ve got on the horizon, can you shed some light on those projects?

John: One is Dominica. It’s an Italian restaurant, which will open up at the Roosevelt Hotel. It’s an old historic New Orleans hotel, run by the Waldorf Astoria Corporation. And we’ll have a 200 seat Italian tratoria there. The focus is on salumi and salumis in particular that come from the farm.

And then in November, we’ll have a 200 seat café that is being opened and run for the National WWII Museum.

Traca: What’s the name of the new café?

John: That one we’re calling the American Sector. That’s the original name to the warehouse district in New Orleans after the United States bought Louisiana. The Americans had a small presence. Really, up until the first World War, the Americans had a small presence in New Orleans. So it’s called the American Sector, based on this one little area that the Americans lived in.

Traca: What’s the menu look like for the American Sector? Are you doing revival food?

John: The design is post-modern industrial to tie in with the aircraft theme of the museum. I wanted the menu to mimic a 1940’s style diner here in New Orleans. So you’ll have a few things that really scream the South, but primarily we’re talking about great American classics—classic diner food that we’ll do in a fun, whimsical style. We’ll have lots of sandwiches, a soda fountain…that sort of thing.

Traca: Can you give me an idea of what dishes would ‘scream the south’?

John: Local products. So we’ll have a little rabbit pot pie, and we’ll do different things with fried chicken. Then we’ll have a lot of our oysters, shrimp and crab that you just have to have. When people come to New Orleans, they want a taste of New Orleans, you know?

Traca: What kind of crab do you have in New Orleans?

John: The blue crab. Compared to your crab, there’s more meat. I’d say for the size of crab, they yield more meat. That’s what we favor down here.

Traca: John, you’ve got a ton of things on your plate! When’s the last time you’ve been on the line?

John: On the line? It’s been a long time!


Chef John Besh
New Orleans, LA

* James Beard Award: Best Chef Southeast, 2006
* Gourmet Top 50 Restaurants
* Food & Wine Best New Chef, 1999
* Food Network: Iron Chef America vs. Mario Batali, winner, 2006
* Food Network: The Next Iron Chef Series, 2007

In addition to two new restaurants on the horizon, John’s first book, My New Orleans, will be released in October 2009.