Acclaimed chef John Besh grew up hunting and fishing in Southern Louisiana, learning at an early age the essentials of Louisiana’s rich culinary traditions. As a teenager, he began working in commercial kitchens, where his knowledge of food and dining truly began to blossom. “With the many cultural influences in Louisiana,” he says, “it’s an exciting place to learn about food.” Besh has traveled the world over searching for the roots of those far-flung influences, and infuses them into the cuisine of both of his restaurants, Restaurant August and The Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s.
After his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America, Besh furthered his education in some of the most renowned kitchens in the country. A tour in the United States Marine Corps Reserves found him leading a squad of infantry Marines into combat as a noncommissioned officer in Operation Desert Storm, where his platoon was almost certainly the only one reading food magazines at the front. Once he returned state-side, Besh’s love of classical cooking styles, together with the Creole influences that come naturally to one “born on the bayou,” drew him back over to Europe.
Besh returns to France annually, to the Château de Montcaud in Bagnols-sur-Cèze, as a chef-consultant, training fellow chefs in the fine points of Creole cuisine. “The correlation between our cuisine of New Orleans and that of southern France is intriguing,” he says. “Our Creole food and culture are quite exotic to the French, yet familiar enough for them to enjoy.”
John Besh was born in Slidell, Louisiana. Not surprisingly, Besh has embraced this culinary connection with France at Restaurant August, whose menu he describes as “very French, with a contemporary caché, and steeped in local ingredients.”
Besh’s menu, with sections labeled “To Begin,” “To Continue,” and “To Finish,” is both serious and playful at the same time, much like the chef himself. He takes the food and its preparation seriously, but often plays with the names of dishes: for example, one of his signature dishes is the “BLT” cited by Gourmet magazine, which consists of buster crabs, lettuce, and tomatoes on pain perdue. “Tongue and Cheek,” a combination of foie gras, veal cheeks, and a beef tongue terrine, sometimes appears on the tasting menu. Entrée selections range from Veal Panée over a Ragoût of Wild Mushrooms and Spätzle to Sugarcane Grilled Chicken Breast with Celery Root, Celery Salad, and Rhubarb Vinaigrette to Creamy Plaquemines Parish Oyster Stew and Garlicky Bruschetta.
In July 2003, not two years after the opening of Restaurant August, Besh launched another venture just a stone’s throw away in Harrah’s Casino. The Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s reaches the high-rolling gamers who might not make it over to Restaurant August to linger over a multi-course dinner. Here, in the distinctly high-end Vegas atmosphere, Besh serves them steaks, chops, and seafood like they’ve never had before, in a sophisticated marriage of American Steakhouse and French Bistro cuisine. As New Orleans Gourmet describes it, “he brings to the table a fond affection for his native South Louisiana roots….highlighting local flavors, his food helps diners experience a satisfying meal hearty enough to qualify as a steakhouse, but with a greatly appreciated dimension of refined cooking.” And, as at Restaurant August, Besh’s playful sense of humor is in evidence on the menu, in items such as “Steak and Fries,” a starter of Steak Tartare, Quail Egg, and Crisp Potatoes, and the “Surf & Turf,” an 8-oz filet of beef and a lobster “Knuckle Sandwich.”
Besh is also kept busy with special culinary projects such as appearing on The Today Show in December 2003 and in April 2005; cooking at The James Beard House in New York in January 2004; and conducting cooking classes at Restaurant August. He was crowned “King of Seafood” for winning the 2004 Great American Seafood competition, and is now a spokesman for the Louisiana Seafood Council. In April 2005, John Besh was nominated for a James Beard Award.