Interview with Chef John Besh
Chef John Besh was raised in Southern Louisiana and currently owns four restaurants in New Orleans: La Provence, Lüke, Besh Steak, and his flagship restaurant August, which was named on Gourmet magazine’s list of Best Restaurants two times. He has been a contestant on Iron Chef America, where he won the andouille challenge against Mario Batali, and was a finalist with Michael Symon on The Next Iron Chef competition. Chef Besh was named one of the Top Ten Best New Chefs by Food and Wine magazine in 1999, and won the 2006 James Beard award for Best Chef in the southeast. Chef John Besh emceeing the Bocuse d'Or USA, Epcot, Walt Disney World. Photo by Christey Krause
I got a chance to speak with Chef Besh after he and Al Roker emceed the Bocuse d’Or USA competition in Epcot, Walt Disney World. The chef for team USA was to be chosen out of eight competitors, the winner will represent the USA at the International Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France, in January 2009.
Foodbuzz was kind enough to send Christey and me to the competition as part of their Foodie Correspondant Program, to write about and photograph the competition. This interview is our first post about the competition. There will also be a post where I speak with Chef Hung Huynh, one of the Bocuse d'Or USA contestents and winner of Bravo's Top Chef Season 3, and one or two more posts covering the competition itself.
Al Roker and Chef Besh answering questions from the audience. Photo by Christey Krause
Photo by Christey Krause
Peter Krause, fotocuisine.com/Foodbuzz.com: So, obviously you’ve done Iron Chef and The Next Iron Chef, and all these competitions, and I guess The Next Iron Chef was six weeks of competition?
Chef John Besh: Three weeks.
Peter: Three weeks. So, what do you think of the preparation needed to compete in something like this?
Besh: I think that this is something totally different, you know? When you’re talking about TV reality shows -– “reality” in quotes...
Besh: ...you have to create drama. And so the drama is created by throwing chefs off, so it’s a little bit skewed, while [Bocuse d’Or] is very pure. This is cooking at its best, this is about everybody producing something out of the same ingredients in the same circumstances given the same amount of time. And so, this isn’t the case of...well...
Peter: Hauling you guys in an airplane to cook airplane food
Besh: Right, you’ve got to create this dish out of filet mignon and you need to create the same dish out of cat food, and... do it! Instead, this is so pure, and that’s why I love it, and it’s because it truly honors the tradition of grande cuisine, it truly honors the traditions of the great techniques that have been passed down through the ages. I think there’s something great about that, and although it’s not necessarily fashionable today to wear the toque and to wear a white apron and to wear chef’s pants....
Peter: Almost the ritual as well as the food....
Besh: Right, because we love to break down the barriers here in this country, but in the process of doing so, we also risk losing some of the fundamentals. And, this competition is all about the fundamentals, the fundamentals of professionalism, decorum, knife skills, to sanitation, to cooking techniques, to cutting techniques, to serving, the way you plate something, the temperature, all these great things that make the culinary arts so incredibly interesting. The drama is much more subtle here, but there’s drama nonetheless.
Peter: A very subtle drama, like the old Japanese concept of the significance of one hair out of place meaning...a lot
Besh: Right, absolutely
Al Roker and Chef Besh interviewing Chef Hung Huynh after his dishes were presented. Photo by Christey Krause
Peter: Now, Chef Hung Huyhn obviously is also a former reality show contestant...
Peter: ...involved in this, I understand what you’re saying about the purity, but the reality show phenomena is a phenomena, do you think coming along with the rise of interest in the average American for cuisine, in decent food, that reality show cooking is entering a different level from the old James Beard and Julia Child days?
Photo by Christey Krause
Besh: Yes, I think in two ways. I think we have a parting of paths here. One where we’re going off in this different direction, this direction we’ve never been before with these. Even Iron Chef Japanese was worlds apart from what we now know as Iron Chef America.
Besh: What we see happening today in television cooking is really promoting a lot of sensationalism. Now the whole thing is into new styles of...cinematography where there’s getting different angles, and this and that and it looks sexy and so on and so forth, but at the end of the day, using the directions you’re given you could never cook from TV as you once could with Julia Child and with James Beard, and I think there’s a faction that will head back that way to the purity, again, of cooking.
Peter: Well there are a lot of people mad at FoodTV, that it’s entertainment now, and in its early years, it was, pretty much, cooking.
Besh: Yeah, there are a lot of us who truly feel that what we’re missing in this country is substance, no matter what. Whether it’s in our politics...
Peter: Interesting point!
Besh: ...or whether it’s in our entertainment for that matter -- we want substance. And what we’re giving you today, what we’ve given you for the past two days, is this pure substance. These are artists, some of the greatest culinary artists of our time, doing what very few could ever possibly hope to do, doing it before –- and to be judged by -– the greatest group of culinarians I have ever seen gathered in one place. Including the James Beard awards. I don’t know when the last time that you’ve seen Georges Perrier, Andre Solter...
Besh: You’ve seen Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, all of these people, Patrick O’Connell, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, all in one place, for the purpose of supporting purity in cooking, and that, to me, means everything.
Peter: It is simply an amazing group of people. Can I diverge a little bit -– how is New Orleans these days?
Besh: New Orleans is coming around!
Peter: Did the last hurricane affect New Orleans?
Besh: New Orleans was spared from the last hurricane, which has been a blessing. Because of way that we fared after Katrina, there is a lot of sensationalism attached to every storm that happens to enter the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hit our business for possibly a month or so, but the city itself, I’m not sure if we lost one shingle, and we’re in good shape.
Peter: Do you think that after Katrina, and the whole, everybody leaving then coming back, and the rebuilding, has there been a difference in cuisine, in cooking and ideas? Not that you’re going to abandon hundreds of years of cooking tradition....
Besh: No, but I certainly think, speaking only for myself, it’s brought back a renewed vigor and enthusiasm to preserve our traditions, and evolve the ones that really need evolving, and that’s been a great thing. I can explain it best by saying I have three times been separated from my New Orleans. One, growing up and leaving for the Marine Corps, and going off to war and then longing to come back, and then coming back and then leaving to do an apprenticeship in Europe. Discovering things about my heritage and then coming back. Then the third time was when Katrina hit and I was forced to leave, and that was the hardest thing in the world for me and it really made me realize just how special New Orleans is. This culture and this very fragile land, made up by not so fragile people, really impressed upon me the importance of remaining true to my culture and making sure we spread the gospel of this great cuisine that has been passed down to us from generations of great chefs.
Peter: We do a food blog, and Foodbuzz gathers food bloggers from around the world to talk about food, I know you are busy with your own career, do you have a food blog?
Besh: Nooooooo, not at all.
Besh: The last time I read a blog, it was on Chowhound. A few days before I opened my restaurant Lüke, it happened to be a person who found their way into the restaurant when we were serving friends and family, and gave a harsh, but anonymous review of their dining experience three days before we even opened the door.
Peter: Oh no!
Besh: That’s my hangup with blogs. Written with paper and ink, there’s some level of ownership and then we’re able to question...what are their credentials, who are they and then at least there’s some ownership to the words. And that’s one thing that really worries me about the Net, is that there’s this ability to just go on about things that may or may not be true. I tend to stay out of that rat race, I’ve got four boys and my wife and four restaurants and my focus is just on that, and then helping my friends with things like this, this is a lot of fun. I try to stay out of that realm of getting too involved in what’s getting passed around.
Photo by Christey Krause
Peter: Foodbuzz has some restaurant reviews, but many are also people who, like: “I saw this in a restaurant and I tried to recreate it myself”, people helping each other to create this food as well....
Besh: Right, it is amazing how something like a chat room can open up new worlds, and it is amazing to live in a day and age where we have that resource. It’s a tremendous resource.
Peter: Thank you so much, Chef.