At the Table with Chef John Besh

Long before I met New Orleans chef John Besh, our paths crossed several times. A handful of e-mails and a couple interviews later...a reverent admiration began to take shape. Conversations with John are deep and soulful, and leave me pondering long after they're over.

A quick two day trip brought John to Seattle. Day 1: John was cooking dinner for the folks at, based on his book My New Orleans. Day 2: dinner together.

Choosing a restaurant can be a tricky thing. I wanted a quiet spot where we could talk in a relaxed atmosphere...with fabulous food. Tall order. I called a few friends and quickly realized, many were tied up with another event. What to do? I threw out a request for restaurant suggestions on Twitter.

Private chef Becky Selengut heeded the call...and offered to cook. Pastry chef Dana Cree took on the dessert course. Word spread quickly and before long, we had oysters donated by Taylor Shellfish and wines delivered to our doorstep by A&B Imports.

To quell my nerves, I invited a handful of friends 'round the table. Each, in their own way, play a hand in shaping the Seattle food scene. William, owner of Bakery Nouveau, arrived with baguettes hot out of the oven, and Andy provided an array of chocolates from Theo's.

During dinner, John asked, "What is Pacific Northwest cuisine?"

This is another topic I've considered long after our conversation. Rather than being anchored by specific dishes, Pacific Northwest cuisine is ingredient-driven -- sweet Dungeness crab, briny oysters, foraged mushrooms, etc. The application of those ingredients is less about specific dishes, and more about coaxing the maximum flavor. Often it is the simplest applications that let the flavors shine.

Unlike the Pacific Northwest, New Orleans cuisine is rooted in traditional beans & rice, crawfish ettouffee, beignets, and gumbo. It's a shared cuisine that reflects a sense of history and place.

After this dinner, I've thought about the differences between our two cuisines, and its impact on the culture. Ingredient-driven Pacific Northwest cuisine, lacking in dishes that provide a common thread, reflect our cultured yet fiercely independent spirit. While in New Orleans, debates linger over esoterics like the proper technique for roux. "When you think it's done, let it cook some more." It's a unifying component of the culture. Food's role in a culture varies greatly and juxtaposing our two cuisines was an eye-opening experience.

As an ambassador of Pacific Northwest cuisine, I was thrilled to have Cornucopia's Becky Selengut at the helm. She has a remarkable palate and I've been a longtime fan of her work. Providing the dessert course, Dana Cree is another incredible Pacific Northwest-based chef. Highly influenced by molecular gastronomy chefs Heston Blumenthall, Wylie Dufresne, and Sam Mason, her work fuses seasonal ingredients with a comfort food spin.

Ready for some food porn?

Cornucopia chef, Becky Selengut

In the kitchen with Ashlyn Forshner, Becky Selengut, and Jeanette Smith

First course: Kumamoto oyster with champagne gelee, Totten Virginica oyster with spring onion mignonette

Detail: First course (love the sea beans)

Second course: Port Madison chevre tart, port-soaked cherries, pickled red onions, lemon thyme

Third course: Dungeness crab-apple sandwich, ginger and vermouth fumet, Skagit River bacon and shiso salad

Between courses

Andrew Daday, then with boutique chocolatier Claudio Corallo, now with Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Dana Cree, pastry chef at Poppy.

Theo Chocolate's chief scientist and COO, Andy McShea

Ashlyn, pan frying nettle gnocchi. To the right, halibut smoking over tea leaves in the wok.

First of the season halibut, wok-smoked over tea leaves.

Becky, preparing the next course, plus a quick peek into her kitchen, newly restored in a circa 1910 building.

Waiting for the halibut.

Wok-smoked halibut, stinging nettle gnocchi, chanterelles, fiddleheads and fried nettles

L-R: John Besh and Erick Loos, John's sous chef at La Provence restaurant.

Fifth course: Estrella Family Creamery cheeses, rhubarb-thyme jam, miner’s lettuce salad and dandelion cracker

Sixth course: Wildberry sherbet with caraway streusel and duschelly hazelnuts

Seventh course: housemade nutterbutters

John, taking a stash of nutterbutters back to his hotel

Eighth course: Theo Chocolate plunder

John with our hosts, sommelier April Pogue and chef Becky Selengut

John with William Leaman, owner of Bakery Nouveau and captain of 2005 world champion baking team, Bread Bakers Guild Team USA.

L-R: Erick Loos, April Pogue, William Leaman, Becky Selengut, Ashlyn Forshner, John Besh, Andy McShea, Jeanette Smith, and Andrew Daday.

If you're drooling over these dishes, Becky's book on sustainable seafood will be released March 2011. With any luck, it will include my favorite...course #3.