John Besh Profile
One is John Besh, who once wanted to strengthen the flavor and texture of his veal-stock reductions at Restaurant August in New Orleans by adding collagen, the protein found in cattle that also produces gelatin.
Collagen comes from the heads and hooves of cattle. According to Besh, it "adds a richness and viscosity to a sauce that you wouldn’t have otherwise." And the only way to get the stuff, he found out, was to buy livestock.
Federal law says you can’t use a bovine creature’s head and hooves for consumption unless you own the animal. So Besh buys a couple of male calves a month from local dairies, lets them graze for a few weeks and produces his own collagen, along with sweetbreads and meat for cutlets and chops.
Self-imposed standards like these have paid off in national accolades for August since it opened in 2001. In February this year, the judges on the Food Network’s "Iron Chef America" cooking competition ranked Besh’s dishes higher than those of New York culinary idol Mario Batali. In May he received the highly coveted Beard Award for Best Chef Southeastern U.S. for 2006.
For restaurant chefs, such compliments carry a price -- the heightened pressure to keep the menu’s quality high. At August, there are signs the kitchen can take the heat. The food often manages to be both lusty in flavor and playful in execution. The lustiness might come from impeccably soft beef tenderloin lavished with oxtail, porcini mushrooms, sweet onions and smoked marrow, and the playfulness in a dish like dew-fresh gulf blackfish, seared to a crisp and brought out with two other ingredients prepared both separately and together -- a lobster jus, some parsley root and a salad of lobster and parsley.
The menu also respects tradition. "We all have food memories that shape the way we eat and cook," Besh said. "One of my unforgettable ones is learning to do a bouillabaisse from two chefs in the south of France," one being Alain Assaud of the restaurant bearing his name in St. Rémy-de-Provence, the other, Clément Bruno of Chez Bruno, just north of the Mediterranean coast.
So August’s seafood dishes include his Louisiana improvisation on a Provençal bouillabaisse. It’s served at the restaurant in the traditional two courses -- first the thick and richly flavored broth made with a variety of fish and shellfish and accompanied by rouille (a peppery garlic mayonnaise), and then the seafood itself. "Clément Bruno said that a true bouillabaisse should contain rouget and stockfish from the Mediterranean," Besh said. "Here, I want freshness, so I use a couple of our local fish species -- drum, which has the right white, flaky flesh, then rouget barbé, the red mullet, and a bit of monkfish on the bone. Monkfish bones add a lot of flavor."
Besh’s sense of determination and his very ambitious reach are what you might expect from a restaurant cook who saw action in Operation Desert Storm as a U.S. Marine, and whose résumé includes substantial sojourns in a few highly disciplined European kitchens. He puts a premium on the kind of self-sufficiency he first experienced as a youngster in southeast Louisiana’s rich coastal woods and marshes, butchering deer at the end of a hunt, crab fishing along Lake Pontchartrain’s shoreline, and harvesting mushrooms from the area’s boggy soil.
Today, he works closely with local and regional growers and purveyors willing to meet his specifications. "Right now we’re working with three farmers. In the spring we discussed what to plant for the fall crop -- what greens, legumes, and heirloom tomatoes. Some tomatoes from eastern European seeds can be harvested here as late as Thanksgiving, thanks to southeast Louisiana’s almost year-round growing season. Last year we grew 68 varieties. This year it’s about 30 because we’ve narrowed them down to those that work really well for us."
Among the very few imported vegetables used at August is German white asparagus, arriving in spears as thick as knockwurst and loaded with flavor. "The care the Germans take in growing white asparagus is almost cult-like, and we get them by air, faster than anything that’s trucked in from California or Central America." They recently became the inspiration for a supremely elegant cream soup with crab meat.
Besh’s introduction to Europe’s lofty culinary standards came during the year he spent in Germany’s Black Forest, in the Michelin-starred kitchen of Chef Karl Josef Fuchs at the Romantik Hotel in Spielweg. He remembers the experience as giving him "a truer sense of what it means to build a sustainable food culture supported by local foodways, producing in your own environment the central elements of what you cook."
Evidence of his German apprenticeship shows up regularly on the tables at August. In one appetizer, the springy nuggets of "gnocchi" bathed in butter with bits of crab, truffle and Parmigiano-Reggiano are not as Italian as the menu terms would suggest, but are made from an old potato-dumpling recipe that has German connections. Soft kernels of spätzle appear alongside pork loin or veal, the schnitzel is state-of-the-art, and rarely is the menu without a dish or two that includes sausage.
Much of the charcuterie leaving the restaurant’s kitchen originated in it. "With my brother-in-law, who’s a fellow hunter, I’ve made duck or deer sausage, some of which we’ve used in the restaurant," Besh said. "Once a year the kitchen staff and I will make a batch of bratwurst." His cooks get more hands-on experience with sausage-making through occasional visits to another of the chef’s mentors, French-born Chris Kerageorgiou of La Provence restaurant, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. The subject of a Kerageorgiou lesson might be France’s pink and delicate-tasting rosette de Lyon, with pork, or the slender and spicy Moroccan lamb sausage known as merguez, neither of which is readily available at market in the quality Besh looks for.
It’s one more nod to what seems to be an unspoken rule in John Besh’s kitchen: If we can’t find the best, let’s try creating it.
Gene Bourg is a New Orleans-based free-lance food writer and former restaurant reviewer for The Times-Picayune. Among the magazines which have published his feature articles are Gourmet, Saveur, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure.More.