At this point in his career, John Besh needs little introduction. As both a chef and restaurateur with an interest in 12 concepts, Besh serves the flavors of New Orleans to thousands of people every day. While his days of cooking on a line are mostly over, his interest in feeding people remains as strong as ever — something that's reflected in the four cookbooks he's written.
His latest work is titled Besh Big Easy: 101 Home-Cooked New Orleans Recipes. Unlike his award-winning first book My New Orleans that focuses on chef-style dishes from his restaurants, Big Easy focuses on home cooking and one pot dishes. Even its physical structure as a paperback is designed to make it easy for people to use in their kitchen rather than feature on their coffee tables.
Besh promoted his third book, Cooking From the Heart, with a sold-out, 200 person dinner at Underbelly. In keeping with Big Easy's more casual tone, his two Houston stops for this tour will be more low key and are open to the public. Catch him Sunday at River Oaks clothing store Billy Reid from 4 to 8 pm and Monday at the Kinkaid School from 5:30 to 8:30 pm as part of the school's annual book fair.
At Billy Reid, attendees may also purchase the apron that chef and designer collaborated on; a portion of those proceeds will benefit the John Besh Foundation that provides scholarships, grants and loans for people in New Orleans to attend top culinary schools.
Before he arrives in Houston, Besh spoke to CultureMap about his book, whether he wants to open a restaurant in Houston and his big project at the famous Pontchartrain Hotel.
CultureMap: What is Besh Big Easy about?
John Besh: Over the years, my cooking has changed. When I was a young chef, it was all about ingredients and making things more complicated than they needed to be. As I’ve matured, I’ve focused on the cooking I grew up on . . . Cooking much more like my mother and grandmother did than maybe a chef per se.
That’s what the book is all about. Most of it is one pot cooking. When I was young and intemperate, I soiled every pot, and the house looked like a disaster zone. No one is going to clean up after me anymore.
CM: How did you decide on this topic?
JB: My first book, My New Orleans, was a great big hit. It’s big in size and it’s just a beautiful book. But I found people were keeping it on the coffee table. I really wanted a book like my mother’s old River Roads cookbook where someone is going to take and test and try. Creating a resource for this great cuisine that Houston and New Orleans share.
CM: What are your favorite recipes in the book?
JB: Most of them are those kind of one pot things. I’d have to say I never have a family get together, and we’re about to have a bunch of them, without having a big bowl of crab meat salad. Take some bread, toast it off. I always have the salad next to toasted baguettes.
Another one would be the corn and crab fritters, shrimp remoulade. These are part of the best repertoire when you come over to our house.
I love gumbos and jamalayas, because it requires real cooking. You have to watch it simmer for about 30 minutes, and then it gets better as you go along. I love them, because it tells us who we are and where we’re from.
CM: Do you think you'll open a restaurant in Houston?
JB: It’s always been a dream. I’m only growing . . . It isn’t set it stone, but I have a couple people who love Houston and want to move back. But there’s nothing in the works just yet.
CM: Could I put in a request for a Houston location of Shaya (an award-winning, modern Israeli restaurant)?
JB: I was hoping Alon would want to take Shaya over there. I know my friends in Houston would love that. I love it so much. It’s really tremendous to see that he’s cooking from the heart, and people have received it so well.
CM: Do you know what’s next?
JB: Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about what can we do, what can we do better. One thing that’s happened recently is we just signed a deal to take over the food and beverage of The Pontchartrain Hotel. That’s taking up a lot of our time. It’s the home of the famed Caribbean Room . . . that delivered so many classic recipes.
Working on that with chef Bryan Landry who I’m partnered with at Borgne. We have a lot of delicious things planned. My partners in the bakery Willa Jean, Kelly Fields and Lisa White, will be helping us as well. That’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a New Orleans icon. I love the fact that I get to be a steward and help resurrect those memories.