Chef John Besh's cookbook is his love letter to New Orleans

Chef John Besh's cookbook is his love letter to New Orleans
October 01, 2009
By Judy Walker

The parade of local fall culinary books has a heavyweight in the lead this year.

Chef John Besh's "My New Orleans: The Cookbook" has 374 pages and weighs 5 pounds. With 200 recipes and hundreds of color photos, the $45 book, published by Andrews McMeel, took Besh five years to write -- in longhand.

His previous writing experience?

"Are you kidding?" he says, laughing. Then he thinks a minute.

"My dad was an incredible letter writer, " he says after a pause. "When I was away in the first (Persian) Gulf War, he would write these letters and we would pass them around the platoon. It was like reading Walker Percy. He would just tell these stories. He would send me a letter a day. And I would write back to him."

Besh is arguably New Orleans' most visible chef on the national stage these days. This year alone, he competed on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" and appeared on camera with Martha Stewart, Paula Deen and Rachael Ray. He's been in every publication imaginable and is profiled in the latest issue of Men's Fitness magazine.

Locally, his Besh Group's fifth restaurant, Domenica, opened in The Roosevelt Hotel recently, and the sixth, The American Sector, is set to open in November at the World War II Museum, which will be the site of his first book signing Wednesday.

On the cover of the book, Besh is spooning up gelato. Turns out it's not the strawberry and Creole cream cheese ice cream recipe on Page 70. It's his favorite flavor, dulce de leche, from La Divina Gelateria on Magazine Street.

Besh constantly references everything New Orleans and Louisiana; growing up in Slidell; hunting and fishing; his family; his hunting buddies; his co-workers.

On the back of the book, chef Paul Prudhomme's endorsement joins those of chefs Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali, along with Wynton Marsalis.

Besh says Prudhomme's kind words are one of his favorite things about the book.

"When I was a kid and I wanted to be a chef at age nine, my dad took me to meet Paul Prudhomme. So that's a wow. The first thing I did was call Dad and tell him all about it."

Besh's father was hit by a drunken driver and paralyzed when Besh was a child. Cooking for him made his dad happy, Besh said. For further encouragement, the elder Besh took his son to meet Justin Wilson, who lived on the north shore, and Chris Kerageorgiou of La Provence in Lacombe, who became Besh's mentor.

"This is just my little story of how I grew up eating, " Besh says. "The iconic seasons of my childhood influenced everything."

Another couple of Louisiana factors helped lead Besh down his chosen path.

"The great chefs of France develop their great palates at an early age, and so do we, " he said. "And it's never been just the woman's job to be in the kitchen. It's as much the man's job to cook the duck as it is to kill the duck to put in the gumbo.

john_beshgratin.jpgCourtesy of Andrews McMeelJohn Besh's Oyster Gratin with Horseradish and Parmesan"It's not about me. It's about the people, " Besh said. "This place is much more important than one person."

The photography alone took a year, because "we wanted to show the food fresh, all in season, in natural light. There's no way to substitute. You can't use frozen crawfish." His editor was Dorothy Kalins, a founder of Saveur magazine.

The more he got into the book, the more he discovered how proud he was to be from here, Besh said. And the more he delved into writing, "the less chef-y the book became, and the more I wanted to distance it from restaurant cuisine."

The book project was well under way when Katrina hit, but "the storm gave it a greater sense of purpose. Being a chef here, I feel a sense of stewardship, " Besh says. "Some things are not meant to be deconstructed."

Besh's own well-documented rescue efforts are part of the story, too.

"The first time I served red beans and rice after the storm, on a boat, this guy said it wasn't as good as his mama's, " Besh said. "And that signaled to me right there that we were going to be OK."

In the book, Besh expounds on that feeling:

"The story of our city is greater than those storms. We have been here for over 300 years, and we'll be here for another 300. Maybe it's about my children's generation, and their children's. Will they still eat red beans on Mondays? Make St. Joseph's Day altars? Will they still love the Saints? Will we ever win a Super Bowl? All I know is that I cook New Orleans food my way, revering each ingredient as it reaches the season of its ripeness. No other place on earth is like New Orleans. Welcome to the flavors of my home. Welcome to My New Orleans."

. . . . . . .

This recipe is in Besh's chapter on Mardi Gras. "In south Louisiana, any sauce is called gravy, " he writes. "Serve this gravy over biscuits with oeufs au plat, and you've really got something."

Green Onion Sausage And Shrimp Gravy

Makes 6-8 servings

1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat

1 pound green onion pork sausage, removed from casings

1 small onion, diced

1 tablespoon flour

1 pound jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ green bell pepper, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 pinch allspice

2 dashes Worcestershire

1/3 cup diced canned tomatoes

1 cup basic chicken stock

Leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme

1 green onion, chopped

Melt the bacon fat in a large heavy-bottomed pan over high heat, then add the pork sausage and cook, breaking up the meat with the back of a wooden spoon, until it is browned, 12-15 minutes. Add the onions and cook, stirring often with the spoon, until the onions are deep brown, about another 15 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium, then sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to mix it into the sausage and onions. Cook for about 2 minutes. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add them to the pan, stirring and tossing them with a spatula. Sauté until they turn pink, about 3 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside while you continue making the sauce.

Add the bell pepper, garlic, pepper flakes, allspice, Worcestershire, tomatoes, and chicken stock to the pan, stirring well. Increase heat and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Add the thyme, green onions, and shrimp and cook for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Oeufs au Plat

Makes 1 or 2 servings

2 teaspoons softened butter

2 eggs

2 pinches salt

Rub a room-temperature 9-inch skillet with the butter. Place the skillet on the burner without turning it on. Crack the eggs into the skillet on opposite sides of the pan from each other.

Turn the heat on to medium-low and cook the eggs until the whites have coagulated and turned opaque. Season the eggs with salt and serve with Green Onion Sausage and Shrimp Gravy.

. . . . . . .

You can make this gratin in a single large baking dish, in several small casserole dishes, or even spoon the sauce and gratin topping onto each individual oyster on its half shell, Besh writes.

Oyster Gratin with Horseradish and Parmesan

Makes 6-8 servings

4 tablespoons butter

¼ cup flour

½ medium onion, sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 cups milk

1 clove

1 bay leaf

½ cup prepared horseradish


3 dozen shucked oysters, drained, patted dry

Freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup dry bread crumbs

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook the roux, stirring frequently, until it turns blond, no longer than 5 minutes. Add the onions and garlic, reduce the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking, stirring often, until the onions are soft.

Slowly add milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to low. Add the clove and bay leaf; let sauce simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the horseradish. Season with salt, then strain sauce through a fine sieve into a bowl. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming. Set sauce aside and let it cool.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Season the oysters with salt and pepper and lay them in the bottom of a baking dish in a single layer; then pour the cooled sauce evenly over the oysters.

In another bowl, mix the bread crumbs, olive oil, Parmesan, and pepper flakes. Sprinkle over the oysters and sauce in the casserole. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the topping becomes golden brown.
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