1/25/2013 02:52:00 PM

John Besh Talks Tailgating Tips, Molecular Gastronomy and His New Show

Legendary NOLA chef John Besh is ramping up to cater a Super Bowl party for thousands, debut a new cooking show in April and release a new cookbook this fall - needless to say, the guy's got a lot on his plate. We recently chatted with the renowned toque/TV star (owner of nine restaurants including his NOLA flagship, August) about all his latest projects plus his thoughts on how being a chef compares with being a Marine, molecular gastronomy and more. Check it out in the chat below.

Zagat: You're doing the menu for the Super Bowl Ultimate Tailgate - how many people will you be cooking for?
JB: Most people might think that the Super Bowl is just about the football game, but the truth is it really has become a huge event that just brings people together. Businesses of all type gather, and especially in New Orleans, using the food community as a common thread - food, music, sports - it all kind of converges this weekend. It’s going to be outrageous. We have a couple thousand [people] that we’re doing the Ultimate Tailgate for, but I’m also doing things with Tabasco and Playboy plus another event with the USO and Jeep for Wounded Warriors. NOLA is one of those destinations where we can handle a crowd. We have our own food identity, and it’s the sort of place where people just totally let their guard down and companies that wouldn’t ordinarily spend money on large parties are doing so, because this is a destination that people want to come to.

Zagat: Are you a sports guy? Who are you rooting for to win?
JB: You know I’m definitely a Saints fan. You can’t be a New Orleanean without loving the Saints. I am a sports guy. I still have a little bad blood left over from last year from when San Francisco kicked us out of the playoffs, so I’d have to go with the Ravens. I’m happy to cheer for Baltimore. It’s going to be interesting. Part of this Ultimate Tailgate is that we’re doing food from both cities - everything from cioppino to crab cakes.

Zagat: Any cooking tips for home tailgaters?
JB: First of all, when all the guests come over, you don’t want to wait till the last minute to do everything. I love to start a big pot of something, chili or jambalaya, which is the ultimate tailgating food. Because people can add whatever they like - seafood or roasted pork and andouille sausage - it lends itself to so many variations. One-pot cooking is what I think tailgating is all about, so that you limit the mess to one pot and a cutting board. So you’re stirring the pot of gumbo, you put the lid on and let it simmer for the first half.

Zagat: I know you used to be in the army - how would you be compare being a Marine with being a chef?

JB: I was in the Marines for eight years - I was not a cook though [laughs]! I think it prepared me remarkably well: it gave me a priceless perspective and insight. Having been in combat and sacrificed and given of myself, and seeing people give the ultimate sacrifice, it doesn’t make cooking trivial. At the same time, it’s only food - it allows me to not get too up on myself, because none of this is going to last forever. Being in the Marines really gave me that perspective, and really I think it matured me early in life.

After my service, I realized what I want to do is survive. And if I survived, I wanted to be a father like my father, and I wanted to be the best chef that I possibly could. It really set me on this path with determination, allowed me to develop early in my career and gave me a lot of leadership. In combat, you’re leading a diverse group of people - it helps you build a repertoire of communication. Marines have a reputation for being brainwashed, but we’re really not - we have people coming from different parts of the country just willing to serve. Once I had my own kitchen, I didn’t have to yell and beat people down. And after countless pathetic meals as a Marine, that gave me the drive to learn to cook great food. 

Zagat: I know that your new show, Chef John Besh's Family Table, is premiering in April. How will it differ from Chef John Besh: My New Orleans
JB: It’s a lot more casual - it’s filmed in my house, so it’s literally bringing people into my home. And I wanted it to be very simple. I love the food of my New Orleans, but it can be a little intimidating if you’re not from here, because the shopping list can be up to 20 ingredients for one dish. So I’ve simplified: this is how my wife and I cook at home and this is how we feed our boys. I just wanted to knock down the barriers and show people you can do this. You can cook like a chef at home and follow these simple steps. The food is less regionally specific than My New Orleans

There’s an ease to it, and if I can have each family that watches the show cook one extra meal or just start with one meal a week and enjoy it, then I think we’ve really accomplished something. The family table represents a chance to turn everything off for a half hour and just communicate, break bread. I think the human spirit needs that and we crave that. We’ve become so engrossed in pre-prepared ingredients, and we’ve forgotten how to feed ourselves. 

Zagat: Tell me about your new cookbook.
JB: It's coming out this fall. The book is called Cooking From the Heart, and it’s about a journey that my wife and I undertook, traveling to Germany and France and really dedicating years of our lives to learning and cooking. We're looking at great dishes that truly taught me how to cook and things that have kind of fallen off the radar. I guess I'm rebelling against some of the molecular gastronomy movement. We can’t lose the soul in our food. As food becomes more cerebral - which is fine (I dabble in everything myself) - we want to be careful that we don’t forget some of the basics, like how to braise and really coax great flavors out of lesser cuts of meat and using the whole fish, etc. It’s really how I fell in love with cooking, and this is what I love to cook for my friends.

Zagat: Are you planning to expand your restaurant empire at all in the next year? And would you ever expand up North?
JB: After every restaurant that we’ve opened, I say, "No more restaurants." I’m the world’s biggest hypocrite. I’ve had so many opportunities to go to New York. I’ve figured out that I just can’t really do it right. I want to stay as local as possible. But I do want to continue to grow. I’ve got this incredible wealth of talent - many on my staff have been with me over 10 years. So as we grow, I’ll continue to invest in them and support them the same way. I see us continuing to grow, investing in the people around us, but I don’t want to open anything this year. I just opened Borgne a year ago with chef Brian Landry, so I don’t want to overdo it. New Orleans is really becoming saturated. We have a small population and so many incredible restaurants per capita that I do want to be careful about being greedy. We’re really focused right now on scholarships we’re offering and working with programs with local farmers. The busier you get, the harder it becomes to stay close to the stove.

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