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Chef's Mission: Saving a City's Food Culture

Chef's Mission: Saving a City's Food Culture

Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS-Chef John Besh opened his fifth restaurant a month ago and has his sixth opening in as many days. He’s touring the country with a just-published 5-pound, 200-recipe, $45 paean to the region’s foodways called “My New Orleans: The Cookbook.” A big book-launch party recently was held with family and friends in the upstairs private dining room here at his flagship Restaurant August, which just opened for daily lunch again after Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago.

No wonder his coffee order to one of his busboys is polite but direct.

“Make sure that’s not decaf,” the chef said, pointing at the steel-colored French press coffee pot heading toward the table in a corner of August’s darkly paneled bar. The server quickly assured him the pot is full of what some of us gratefully call “high-test.”

But Besh didn’t look tired or frazzled or grumpy. He clearly was having the time of his life.

Described as the “new leader” of New Orleans chefs, his national stature has been growing, thanks to being the second runner-up on the first season of Food Network’s “The Search for the Next Iron Chef” and appearing this summer in Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”

Besh champions the traditional New Orleans way of living and eating that goes far beyond the usual stereotype jive of “laissez les bons temps rouler.”

The chef estimates he spends upward of $10 million annually buying food for his restaurants with, at peak season, some 80 percent of it going to local farmers and purveyors. He wants to do better.

“I can’t find enough people to grow celery and onions for me,” Besh said.

Raised across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell, La., he knows the people, the food and the faith of the region inside and out. His new cookbook is a testament to his convictions. It took nearly five years to write. The words and the photos, express a very personal point of view about life on and about the Big Easy.

Although his book is glossy and coffee table-size, Besh insisted it is anything but a “chefy” cookbook.

“Some recipes are very simple; some are complex. Most are at the moderate level,” Besh noted. “It’s not about chefs. It’s not about trends. It’s about an indigenous cuisine only found within eyesight of New Orleans.”