In the hyper-competitive world of celebrity chefs, John Besh is busy reaching the pinnacle. A Marine Corps veteran of the first Gulf War, Besh uses everything he learned in the service to excel at not only cooking, but also owning restaurants, appearing on television, and authoring books. Besh and his restaurants are based in New Orleans – Luke, La Provence, Besh Steak – and range from casual to special occasion. According to The New York Times, Besh is responsible for over 300 paychecks. Besh is 40 years old, married with children.
Besh has been awarded Food & Wine’s “Top 10 Best New Chefs in America”, Gourmet’s guide to “America’s Top 50 Restaurants”, and the James Beard award for “Best Chef of the Southeast” in 2006. Besh’s profile and use of ovens appears on Viking Appliance’s pr materials and site. He has appeared many times on PBS, the Today show, and was runner-up for the Food Channel’s Iron Chef”. When he competed against Iron Chef — and world famous restauranteur — Mario Battali, he won with his treatment of Andouille sausage. On the acclaimed Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts, that has two culturally noteworthy people interview each other, Besh was paired with Wynton Marsallis. Besh is also co-author of New Orleans Style, a book that brings healthy ideas to his favorite style of cooking.
Besh is adamant about giving back to the Slidell/New Orleans community that is his hometown: he was one of the first chefs to organize a catering contract after Hurricane Katrina, he regularly helps with New Orleans fundraisers, and even appears on the national television campaign aimed at prospective tourists, “My Louisiana”. For more info, check out www.chefjohnbesh.com.
MM: What are your latest projects?
John Besh: We are opening two restaurants in the Spring: Domenica, which will be in the newly relocated Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New Orleans – in the former Roosevelt Hotel – in May. It’ll be casual, smart Italian food. In April, we’re opening a restaurant in Atlanta, in the Kimpton Hotel on Peachtree Street. This will be an homage to Luke, my restaurant on St. Charles Street: a fun, gregarious brasserie. I also have a book coming out, “My New Orleans,” which are essays I have written about growing up in New Orleans.
MM: How did you get interested in cooking?
John Besh: I have always been passionate about food. I am an avid hunter and fisherman. I also know that I have a culinary heritage here. I always knew I wanted to preserve it. There will also be recipes for throughout the year. It’s for the home cook.
MM: Do you come from a military family?
John Besh: My father was an Air Force fighter pilot. He wanted me to be an officer, his friends, too. All our family friends were military aviators and one worked for Delta. They had been in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. I just wanted to go into the Marines right out of high school. There was a lot of pressure not to do that. But, I knew I didn’t want to make a career of it.
MM: How did you make the decision to enter the military?
John Besh: I started cooking at 17. I was a rebellious teenager. I was sporty. Oh, yeah, I loved it. I wanted a challenge and the training in boot camp, that was the fun part. I never once had KP duty, I got out of it. I was in the infantry, as a mortar specialist and fort observer.
MM: What was your rank upon discharge?
John Besh: Sargeant. Right before discharge, I got my stripes! It says Corporal on my papers, but I was in the Reserves at the time. It was tough coming back from the Gulf, being in the Reserves on weekends and trying to run a business.
MM: What skills did you learn in the military?
John Besh: The Marine Corps stresses small team leadership. NCO School emphasized discipline, strategy, which helps with business strategy, logistics, support, and plain old basic leadership skills. I learned about understanding the mission, conveying the mission to the lowest ranks.
I spent 9 months of my life living in holes in the desert. Every day I don’t wake up in a hole is a blessing. I don’t take anything for granted. I pursue goals with the same mentality that I did in the Marines. It’s knowing you can run one more mile, you can do more than what your mind says you can. In the Marines, it’s about self-sacrifice and service. It’s more than me, it’s about the Corps. Things won’t always go your way. It’s how you deal with that, that’s important.
MM: You did very well on Iron Chef. What advice do you have for people in competitions?
John Besh: Don’t take yourself so seriously. Enjoy it! It’s how you play the game. I looked at the other competitors as my brothers in arms.
MM: You enjoy owning – not merely working at a restaurant. What are your favorite things about being an entrepreneur?
John Besh: I express myself through food. Business itself is an art. You expand, you have to be creative with management. The rewards aren’t just for yourself…they’re great for the community! You’re employing people, giving them benefits for themselves and their families.
MM: Your restaurants are concentrating on using local ingredients – with La Provence having its own livestock/produce farm. With people more concerned about carbon footprints, etc., do you think more restaurants will be copying you?
John Besh: Eventually, we’ll have to be more responsible for the way this country operates. It’s not just about the carbon footprint, it’s about the economical footprint. My restaurants use $5 million of groceries every year. I spend it here; my community needs me. We have a vibrant economy, with working farmers, welders, and plumbers.
MM: You are doing commercials for Louisiana. How is New Orleans these days?
John Besh: New Orleans is great. Louisiana is growing with the rebuilding effort. Plus, we have oil and gas. We hit rock bottom after Katrina. 1.2 million people have moved to the region and they’re more progressive-minded people. This allows us to re-think housing, regional transportation, schools.
MM: Do you manage your own money?
John Besh: I manage my business’ money. My wife looks after our personal money. My wife is a recovering attorney and we are working with U.S. Trust. I understand my business and I’m willing to take risks. The last thing I want to do with the profits is gamble with them, which is what you do with the stock market. I am conservative with my personal money.
MM: What’s a splurge to you?
John Besh: I love to travel. I like to take some time to do some snow skiing and scuba diving. I still am an avid hunter, too.
MM: What’s a complete waste of money to you?
John Besh: Jewelry – I could care less. My wife is a different subject, though! I have friends with private jets. I have one friend who sold a company for a couple of billion dollars and he still has a $200,000 home. I think of that.