Chef John Besh has the kind of warm, inviting persona that can make even the most callous feel instantly at ease. His gentle openness, passion and genuine interest in life, love and food was ever-present throughout our interview with him at Nashville’s star-studded Music City Eats Festival this past September. Admittedly not the relaxed air one would expect from a fiercely renowned New Orleans chef. Besh effortlessly totes a James Beard Award, Iron Chef champion title and pair of best-selling cookbooks—all while balancing nine acclaimed restaurants and a tight-knit family of six.
His newest cookbook, Cooking from the Heart, has a similar energy and warmth. It’s a beautiful ode to the experiences, mentors and mistakes that enabled Besh to go beyond skill mastery and allowed cooking to become a passionate expression of life. In talking with Besh, we wanted to know how he had seen others “cook from the heart,” in New Orleans specifically and how he distinguishes “Cooking from the Heart” from the trendy “Food is Love” slogan.
Relish: In New Orleans you played a large part in revitalizing the food scene after Hurricane Katerina. In what tangible ways have you seen New Orleans change since that event?
John Besh: So it’s really interesting to have the ability to witness a city completely shut down—shut down from the standpoint that within the city limits you couldn’t even buy gasoline, much less go to a grocery store…New Orleans is not just revitalized but revitalized with a mission. It’s an impassioned city that proves that not only is it back, but it’s better than ever.
Besh’s TEDxNOLA talk on ingenuity and crisis:
And I think what’s really interesting is that’s it’s undergone this revitalization without losing a sense of who it is. They didn’t try to “rediscover” anything. New Orleans has always known who she is and what she’s all about. They’ve got family traditions there and religious traditions—all the cultural traditions of food and music are so firmly in place that it’s a refreshing place to be.
Of course, there are still a thousand things that can be repaired and fixed, but I think what gives us hope is that schools are better today than they were before, and we have this renewed civic awareness that we never had prior. We had been a culture that was very tolerant of poor politicians and very tolerant of high crime. And now not so much. We’re now a city that’s on every socioeconomic level on the scale—people are involved in their communities which is a beautiful thing.
And food is an expression of it all…Neighborhoods that cops were afraid to go in before the storm are now producing fruits and vegetables for us in the form of urban gardens in both the 9th Ward and Holly Grove areas of New Orleans, which had been just the worst and the toughest from a criminal standpoint. The hardcore neighborhoods of New Orleans are now producing food and have children in school learning a food-focused curriculum brought on by people like Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard movement. That’s all taken seed in New Orleans. That’s something we wouldn’t have dreamt of before the storm.
R: On your blog, you say you don’t buy into the whole “Food is Love” slogan. And that’s so popular—but your new book is called “Cooking from the Heart.” What’s the difference between?
JB: Between love and heart? Boy—this is really going philosophical! My point I was making in the blog is not that food isn’t love or can’t be love. It can be an expression of, but love isn’t the food itself. For example, I could throw a crappy hot dog on a table and ask “Is that love?” It’s not.
I was noticing one day that one of my externs had this big tattoo “food is love” and pig parts all over his body. I mean I’m a pig farmer—we have farms, we have pigs, I’ve slaughtered them, I do this, I feed them. This is what I know—and I wouldn’t want to tattoo them to me. Because I’m that familiar with who the pig is.
So I started thinking, and I’m like, if you think that’s love—than you don’t know love…But maybe what they’re trying to say is that cooking from the heart, giving somebody something of themselves [a home-cooked, inspired meal] IS love. That, I totally believe in.
R: So it’s in the action and not the product?
R: How do you think the residents of New Orleans have adopted cooking as a form of love?
JB: I think when you’ve lost everything, you go to the things that bring you comfort. You look to the innermost little places of your heart and ask…where do I find peace? And that peace can be felt through red beans and rice, and a crusty loaf of French bread. Or a lot of times, it has to do with the friends at the table even though it’s the same red beans and the same crusty loaf—it’s the bigger picture. It’s not just the food but the sharing it with each other. It’s the idea of us all breaking bread together which I think is really sexy—that’s where love is. Eating it just by myself (shrugs) meh it’s whatever. But all of us together partaking—that’s love.
Besh discuses Thanksgiving Traditions in his New Orelans home:
R: I think we’ve gotten to the heart of it! The heart of the love for food.
JB: People have to be part of it.
R: So if you had to have a new slogan instead of “Food is Love” what would it be?
JB: Ok, so why do we need slogans? [Smiles] Ok, so you’ve just forced me into the slogan argument…food is great, and I love food and it’s been my life. But world peace is also great [laughs.] There are so many, the end of hunger would be wonderful…
R: We could just say “war on slogans” and not do a slogan?
JB: There you go. Sans slogan!
Hungry, inspired and eager to be in the kitchen? Start your own cooking adventure with Besh’s recipes below.