If anyone is counting, chef John Besh has his fingerprints on the menus and cast-iron pots of 20 restaurants in New Orleans and beyond.
The husband and father of four, who understands both the art and the science of great food, knows that his restaurant empire adds up to four handfuls and to hundreds of employees.
So how does Besh manage to juggle so many spinning plates?
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” Besh said, laughing. “I’ve got a great wife, Jenifer, who keeps me on track. And I am just surrounded by great, great people.
“Eventually, I hope that each one of these chef partners that I have will just take it and build it and pay it forward in their own way. That’s how I try to manage it – just making sure that they’re moving forward in achieving their goals and doing well with their talents.”
John, Jenifer and their four sons are parishioners of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Slidell, and during Lent, if it’s possible, Louisiana seafood comes into even more of a laser focus.
“This time of year obviously is the time we all grew up with – fish frys and crawfish,” Besh said. “It’s a Friday night tradition in south Louisiana.”
Of course, the church’s sacrificial rubrics of not eating meat on the Fridays of Lent probably did not take into account the abundance of seafood harvested from the seas and the bayous and served to hungry mouths in Louisiana.
“Eating seafood is not a sacrifice, but there is something traditional about it, and some of these traditions fall within the scope of Lent,” Besh said.
Besh particularly recalls the seafood-stuffed artichokes, teeming with cheese, garlic and bread crumbs, that his mother made for the family around St. Joseph Day.
“This is something that can be made in advance – the day before – and then you take it out of the fridge and pop it in the oven at 350 degrees, and it’s ready to go after about a half-hour.
“The whole idea is that it’s community. Our food is really all about community. There’s something very strong in that message, that we as a community are traveling through Lent with Christ. As we do that, there’s something to be said for the Friday night crawfish boils and fish frys and the artichokes, where we all pull the leaves from the same artichoke. We’re sharing this together. These food traditions are steeped in our faith, and that’s what set us apart in south Louisiana.
“It’s nice to break bread, but it doesn’t have the same routine as when we share from the same pot of food or from the same sack of crawfish.”
Besh realizes that families are busy with work and school activities, but that makes the importance of eating at least one major meal together so important to build that family community.
He likes to offer “quick and dirty” recipes during Lent that don’t require a tremendous amount of prep time instead of others that could be “quite cumbersome” in their level of kitchen expertise.
One of his favorites is catfish (or redfish) courtbouillon.
“I grew up on redfish,” Besh said. “The idea of stewing down some redfish or catfish with just a little tomato and some onions and garlic and little bit of celery and serving that over rice is just wonderful.
“Another easy one is shrimp or crawfish etouffee. They are interchangeable recipes. What I like about these is that you can do them in advance when you have the time and reheat them, or you can do them at the moment of, and they’re a lot quicker than people actually think. You can find catfish fillets anywhere from our many local fishmongers. I actually prefer the little Des Allemands freshwater fillets. They’re really sweet and delicious.”
Besh also loves his seafood gumbo, but for those who are time-challenged, it may not be the ideal choice for nights when the cooking starts at 6 p.m.
“Gumbo is definitely doable, but if you’re coming home late on a Friday afternoon, do you have the time or the willingness to put together a gumbo before dinner?”
In the midst of overseeing his many restaurants, Besh has invested much time on two endeavors – Chefs4Peace, an organization of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs in the Holy Land who have banded together to model religious tolerance, and the Olive Mass, which was celebrated last year at St. Louis Cathedral in an effort to bring together the local hospitality industry.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate the second Olive Mass on Monday, Sept. 25, at 10 a.m.
“We’re going to have a lot more participation this year because now people understand what it’s all about,” Besh said. “The thought really struck me when I was at weekend Mass – Christ went out to the fringes. When he began his ministry, he went out to the extremes. He went to find the tax collector and the uneducated fishermen and the least among us.
“What I noticed from the Olive Mass last year were that there were many people who felt that the church had forgotten them and perhaps they felt unwelcomed. Father Leo (Patalinghug, founder of ‘Grace Before Meals’) said in his homily that Christ loves everybody, and it’s not up to us to judge but to extend hospitality, love, kindness and charity.”
The Beshes have visited the Holy Land many times. Their most recent trip was on a Clarion Herald pilgrimage in which Besh met with the founding members of Chefs4Peace.
Besh said he’s never more amazed than when he listens to a Gospel reading and can tie in the words of Christ with what he has been privileged to see and touch.
“A couple of weeks ago we heard the Sermon on the Mount, and we are to minister to all,” Besh said. “We are to give the cloak to the needy and feed all who are hungry. I think the Olive Mass did a great job of bringing together people who maybe have never known their Catholic faith or awakened something that people had forgotten about since high school.
“The hospitality industry goes to great lengths to serve others, and oftentimes, the people in the hospitality industry are the ones less served or not served at all. We are broadening our reach and saying, ‘All are welcome.’”
One Gospel passage that recently came to life was the temptation of Jesus in the desert. On the recent Holy Land pilgrimage, Besh visited the rugged landscape where that occurred.
“When you see these lands, you understand just how easy it would be to be tempted,” Besh said. “You know what these rocks could be? Manna, loaves of bread, I could feed myself. Being in the old city of Jerusalem, you could imagine yourself on the parapet of the temple, looking down on the great places. All of this could be mine! Those trips allow me to recognize and appreciate the importance of all these small nuances of Scripture.”
Besh said he is inspired by the exploding New Orleans restaurant scene, but not just because of “the great food and all the fancy restaurants.”
“It’s the fact that we have so many people who have moved here and made New Orleans their home,” Besh said. “They’ve moved here not to change New Orleans but to invest in it and make it a better place. They’ve moved here with a commitment of doing good here.
“When I look at the restaurant explosion, it’s really a microcosm of what’s happening all over the city. People are moving here from all over the world to teach in our schools and to give people dignity through education and work and health care.
“For a long time, New Orleans was very cloistered, and I don’t know how well we would accept help from the outside. Because of the catalyst of Katrina and these years of rebuilding and rediscovery, I think you have this. I’m excited about the city that my children and grandchildren will know one day, because it’s going to be based on something good.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.