Thursday, November 1, 2007

Playing Favorites- The Next Iron Chef

We all know that I am a dork and watch about every food show there is (with the exception of the real cheesy ones that target housewives with young kids and make meals in 20 minutes using crappy ingredients). My new obsession every Sunday night is the Next Iron Chef. Eight chefs compete each week for the chance to take Morimoto's place as he is stepping down (one of the original Iron Chefs from the Japanese show). I am rooting for John Besh (above) BIG TIME. So, my boyfriend just forwarded me this article and now I'm really in love. Just read this article below and you'll start rooting for him, too.

October 31, 2007, New York Times
From Disaster, a Chef Forges an Empire
New Orleans

BEFORE Katrina, John Besh was simply a good chef with a fancy restaurant that had a habit of making top 10 lists around the country.

After Katrina, he became known as the ex-Marine who rode into the flooded city with a gun, a boat and a bag of beans and fed New Orleans until it could feed itself.

His post-Katrina narrative has turned him into a spokesman for his city’s culinary recovery. He is the anti-Emeril, a polite, bona fide hometown boy who is less bam! and more bayou. That he looks good on television hasn’t hurt. On “The Next Iron Chef” last Sunday night, Mr. Besh beat another chef on his quest to join the Food Network’s all-star cooking team.

But behind that telegenic Southern humility and unquestioned generosity lies a man who approached life after Katrina with a kind of military focus that has made him one of only a few chefs in New Orleans who are much better off than before the storm.

Just before Katrina, Mr. Besh had bought out his investor in Restaurant August, his downtown flagship. When the storm shut the city down, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cover the rent and payments on his business loans.

Through a series of aggressive moves in the months after the storm, Mr. Besh expanded his empire. The number of restaurants in his group doubled to four, including the new Lüke, a downtown brasserie with a private line of beer, and La Provence, a rustic French restaurant and mini-farm north of New Orleans that he bought earlier this year after the death of its owner, Chris Kerageorgiou, Mr. Besh’s mentor and partner in a pig-raising venture.

He is now responsible for 310 paychecks, up from 167 before the storm.

In hindsight, it turns out that the smartest move Mr. Besh made was quickly arranging a series of lucrative emergency catering contracts, feeding thousands of law enforcement, government and oil rig workers. The contracts, some of which lasted for a year and a half, made him enough money to bankroll the expansion of his businesses.

The bottom line also got a boost from Harrah’s, which owns the casino where Mr. Besh has been running a steakhouse since 2003. The company paid him as a consultant until the restaurant could open again.

“We just did what we thought was right at the time,” he said.
As he and his partner, Octavio Mantilla, began to rebuild, Simone Rathlé, a longtime friend in the public relations business Mr. Besh hired when he opened August six years ago, went to work.

“He was like numb and just freaked out,” she said. “He owned this restaurant and owed a lot of money. He was doing things for survival. He needed to pay his bills and I needed to promote him to get people to go to his restaurant to help him to pay his bills.”

She flew him to fund-raisers and put him in front of any journalist she could think of. Soon Mr. Besh was leaning into the role as spokesman for New Orleans like a politician with a cause. Even today, whether he’s cooking at a charity event, shooting a holiday magazine spread or appearing on television, he stays on message.

“I’ll tell ya’ll, it’s been trying,” he said as he braised short ribs on the “Today” show set earlier this month. “There are so many beautiful things happening in the city, but at the same time there’s a ways for us to go.”

Commitments have been piling up. He’s writing a book and designing a line of flavored butters for Whole Foods, with a local dairy. On Nov. 22 he will star with Wynton Marsalis in an episode of “Iconoclasts,” the Sundance Channel series that makes unlikely celebrity matchups.
Meanwhile, Food Network fans are cheering him on in the “Next Iron Chef” competition. The finale is Nov. 11, and the smart money is on Mr. Besh to make it at least that far.

Spend some time with Mr. Besh, and it becomes clear that he knows how to work his assets, which include an addictive laugh, deep blue eyes and hair that always looks a few days away from really needing a cut.

He is a practiced bad boy. His idea of a joke is to send his Israeli-born chef at the Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s on a nine-hour drive with a car full of Berkshire pork to a Tennessee smokehouse for what Mr. Besh calls “ham camp.”

With a tendency toward dispensing compliments that rival Eddie Haskell’s, Mr. Besh walks through the world with the playfulness of the class clown and the confidence of the star quarterback.

“He just shines,” said Bruce Seidel, the executive producer who cast Mr. Besh both for an “Iron Chef” andouille challenge against Mario Batali (Mr. Besh won) and for “The Next Iron Chef” series.

Even though New York producers are taken with the Louisiana bayou-boy persona and his humble message of hope, it can wear thin. On a recent episode of “The Next Iron Chef,” the host, Alton Brown, issued a warning: “The judges feel the Southern gosh-darn cook thing is growing a little old.”

In New Orleans, it is a rare person who criticizes Mr. Besh’s newfound stardom. Chefs and food writers in a town thick with both might grumble about service lapses at August or the naked capitalism of the $1,200 California wine and $58 New York strip at Besh Steakhouse, but his success is generally regarded as a good thing.

“When he rises, he raises it for all of us,” said Leah Chase, the 84-year-old Creole chef of Dooky Chase’s. “I like people who know what they have to do and just do it.” (But the TV appearances don’t impress her. “I’ve got to call John and say I think he’s above that Iron Chef,” she said.)
In Slidell, the little town north of here where Mr. Besh, 39, was raised and still lives, his culinary degree, European training and a cell phone full of high-powered numbers aren’t all that important.

“He thinks he’s from Paris, France,” a relative likes to joke. “But he’s just from Slidell, Louisiana.”

During a recent family breakfast at his Pottery Barn-perfect five-bedroom house on a bayou in a new subdivision, Mr. Besh discussed his strategy for avoiding the problems that come when chefs stretch themselves too thin.

“Unlike a lot of chefs, I don’t try to pretend I’m in every one of my kitchens every day,” he said. Although he likes to cook at August at least five days a week, the partners and chefs at his three other places get room to run things as they see fit.

That kind of structure lets him leave town a lot, grabbing every opportunity that comes his way. He likes it, sure, but he also feels that he has to do what he can while he has the chance.
“This is my home and my life,” he said, dishing out pork grillades and stone ground grits to his four boys, the oldest of whom is 11 and the youngest 3. “But when I think about the sacrifices all the people who work with me have made and my children and all the help the city still needs, I think who am I to turn down the chance to be on this new Iron Chef show and everything else that has come my way?”

Mr. Besh and his wife, Jenifer, grew up together, but didn’t fall in love until Mr. Besh, his studies at the Culinary Institute of America cut short by a tour leading an infantry squad during the Persian Gulf war, came back home to Louisiana ready to settle down. They’ve been married 16 years, and their lives are a tangle of kids, relatives and friends they’ve both known since Catholic school.

Mrs. Besh is a lawyer who has stopped practicing except to occasionally look over her husband’s contracts. Ask her how she feels about her husband’s new fame and she’ll raise an eyebrow and say, with the slightest hint of sarcasm, “I am the happiest girl in Slidell.”

If the storm sharpened Mr. Besh’s naturally competitive drive, it softened his cooking in many ways. Before the storm, locals sometimes criticized him for being too far out on the cutting edge, which is an easy place to be in a town where people still get a little itchy if there’s no trout amandine on the menu.

“When he went through his foam phase it was a little nauseating,” said Poppy Tooker, a local cooking teacher. “It was like crawfish jelly with spit on top.”

Although he still plays on the edge, foaming this or that or using methyl cellulose to create fried oyster stew that comes to the table as a liquid encased in a perfect cube of crust, most dishes are more direct. The August menus, still sophisticated, are built from even more Louisiana ingredients than before. He uses his own eggs and Berkshire pork and is trying to figure out how to raise a mix of Brahma and Charolais cattle, which he hopes will mirror the flavor of the beef he tasted in the Loire Valley.

“I’m cooking with a lot more soul now,” he said. “I want my food to have meaning.”
From his first days in a kitchen, misfortune has shaped Mr. Besh as a cook. He took to the stove at 9 after his father, who was out for a bike ride, was hit by a drunk driver and became paralyzed. Mr. Besh pitched in by cooking breakfast. Then, encouraged by his dad, he moved on to the game and fish he and his family pulled out of the Louisiana woods and bayous.

When Mr. Besh wanted to get as far away from Louisiana as possible, he signed up for the military. But the reality of war in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sent him back home, ready to get serious about his cooking career. Then came Hurricane Katrina.

And life’s hard turns keep coming. Almost a year ago, Kathleen, one of his four older sisters, died of cancer at 46. One of her last wishes was a white Christmas, so Mr. Besh rented a snow machine and covered his yard in frozen Louisiana water.

And after surviving all of it, he says that there is only one thing left that scares him.
“I’ve only got this one shot,” he said. “I don’t want to mess it up.”

1 comment:

Missy said...

I wasn't a big fan of him on the show (i HAVE to like chris cosentino after his iron chef appearance where he presented a squab talon clutching a grape, it was soooo delightfully creepy) but now I really like Besh, too!