NEW YORK (Reuters) - John Besh delves into his past, recalling the advice and lessons he learned from top European chefs at the start of his culinary career in “Cooking from the Heart,” his third cookbook.
Since returning to the United States from Europe, the Louisiana native has earned acclaim for his modern spin on the cooking of his youth at his flagship restaurant, August in New Orleans. He has also opened eight other eateries.
The 45-year-old celebrity chef and former U.S. Marine recently spoke to Reuters about his early days as a chef, his mentors and the essential tools in his kitchen.
Q: What do you want to share with your new book?
A: The previous two books spoke so much about my home, my region, my family. This book goes a little deeper where I get to talk about those great mentors who passed on all these delicious life lessons. It’s taking readers on a journey and I retraced some of my travels to some of the most memorable places.
Q: What were those early days as a chef like for you?
A: That time in my life, transitioning from combat to this civilian world of the restaurant business, was a hard position. It was frustrating because I wasn’t surrounded by Marines anymore, that took some time to work through - to come from the Marines and to work for some of the ‘prima donna’ chefs ... there were a lot of bad experiences with them. I also was able to learn what not to do and (who) I didn’t want to be.
Q: You wrote extensively about chef Karl Josef Fuchs. Why was he so influential to you as a chef?
A: He was the advocate for localism, something which I didn’t know anything about. That didn’t exist. We didn’t have the farmers’ market in New York when I was in New York. And this great man who would be my teacher, he changed all of that for me. He gave a perspective I could take come home and try my best to emulate and to create in my own area.
Q: What did you learn from the ‘prima donna’ chefs?
A: Remember this was in the day when you were berated for nothing. It was typical you were yelled at, cursed at like a dog and that was how things were in the restaurant business. That’s not what I wanted and I had a hard time, sitting back and watching that.
From that came a philosophy of respecting and giving esteem to work and hiring the right people so they would flourish properly in the environment. Coming up, cocaine and other (drugs) were in rampant use, which I absolutely hated. It was an environment I didn’t belong in and didn’t fit in as a Marine.
Q: The dishes in this book are considered ‘classic,’ but they seem dated. In the old days, there was an emphasis on balance in flavor especially with salt and fat. Now it’s about punching up a dish with acid and spices. Do you agree?
A: It does seem like it’s from another age. Most of the book is predominantly French. I wanted to write it in an effort to revisit some of those great things ... I like the timelessness of these recipes and the lessons I learned ... Deep down, what I love about this is that technique will never go out of style.
Q: How have you changed as a chef?
A: It’s fun now because I don’t have to adhere to any one style. When I was coming up as a young chef, I was cooking other people’s food. When I branched out on my own, I was still imitating what my mentors did. It took time, confidence and a little bit of work before I could really be myself and play with my food.
Q: What do you consider indispensable in a home kitchen?
A: One thing I use on a regular basis is good heavy, sturdy cookware that will last. There’s a timeless quality to that.
Apple & Pear Tart with Walnuts (serves 8-10):
Basic Sweet Tart Dough (see recipe below)
3-4 Gravensteins, Honeycrisps or other tart apples, peeled, cored and cubed
2 Bosc pears, cored and cubed
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup butter (1 stick) cut into pieces
½ cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 C). On a well-floured surface, roll the tart dough into a large oval a little less than 1/4 inch thick. Transfer onto a baking pan.
2. In a large bowl, toss the apples and pears with the walnuts, brown sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice. Add the butter and toss again.
3. Mound the fruit and walnut mixture on top of the dough and wrap the dough over the fruit, covering most of it. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about one hour. Remove and cool a bit before serving.
For Basic Sweet Tart Dough (makes enough for at least 1 large tart):
½ cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into pieces
2-¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
⅓ cup sugar
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
In a large mixing bowl, cut the cold butter into the flour until the flour has the consistency of semolina. Add the sugar, milk, egg, zest and salt and mix by hand until a crumbly dough is formed. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour before using, or freeze for later use.
Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney, G Crosse