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John Besh: My New Orleans: The Cookbook

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 07, 2009
Category: Food and Wine

Love shrimp? Crayfish? Crab? Oysters? Gumbo? Fresh strawberries?

Well, here is your new Bible of a cookbook: 200 recipes, French by nature, New Orleans by nurture. 
Like the Bible, it’s weighty: 5.2 pounds. Like the Bible, it’s a story of generations: A boy grows up in rural Louisiana, learns the lessons of his people and tries to keep them alive for his children. And, like the Bible, My New Orleans: The Cookbook is serious at its core — John Besh was not lacking in a sense of mission before Katrina, but he came out of it with a sense of stewardship for his beloved city and its traditional cuisine.
Who is John Besh? The owner and executive chef at Restaurant August (twice named one of America’s restaurants by the now sadly-defunct Gourmet Magazine) and owner of three more restaurants in New Orleans. Honored by Food & Wine. Winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast. And, just as important: son, husband, father of four.
Oh, and a reserve in the Marines. He had to leave cooking school in order to lead troops in the first Gulf War. “My teachers sent me Food & Wine,” he recalls. “My platoon was the only one in the Marine Corps reading food magazines at the front."
In short, a very appealing guy.

And, with the help of Dorothy Kalins, the founding editor of Saveur, a very organized guy. He briskly shares the story of his family, and then, like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan, he lays out some general principles: Use everything (peelings and shells and bones), accept substitute ingredients, don’t overcook. He shows you how to make the basics: roux, stock, rice, corn bread. Then it’s on to crayfish and shrimp — and who knew there were so many ways to cook them?
Small things make a difference for Besh. Cooking red beans and rice? Save bacon fat and add it. Biscuits? They’re better if you use European-style high-fat butter.
And the range of recipes! Strawberry Ravioli with Meyer Lemons and Pistachios. Creole Matzo Ball Soup. A killer Jambalaya (of course). Soft-shelled Shrimp with Sweet Chili Sauce. Pumpkin Soup with Crabmeat. And — because Besh really does use everything — Crispy Pigs’ Feet.
Our culture is always under attack from those who’d like to mass-market anything special. John Besh, bless him, goes the other direction. Clearly, he wouldn’t mind a national presence, but his heart is with the locals. Buy from the farmer and the fisherman, cook like your ancestors (with a bit of training in France for accent), defend the city you love — that’s the Besh way.
There’s a lot of heart in this book, the way there is in Louisiana music — the spicy, rocking blues of C.C. Adcock and Dr. John and Fats Domino. You’ll find the heart in the exceptional photography; you’ll wish you were in Besh’s family. You’ll find it in the stories of Besh’s friends, mentors and suppliers. But, mostly, you’ll find it in the recipes. Like this:
Besh Barbecue Shrimp
Serves six
2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
Cracked black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup butter
1 cup sauce base (below)
Sauce Base
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 cups of shrimp shells (and heads, if attached)
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning (below)
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
2 bay leaves
juice of 1 lemon
Creole Seasoning
(lasts for months in an airtight container)
2 tablespoons celery sauce
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 tabespoons cayenne pepper
½ tablespoon ground allspice

For the sauce base: Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add shrimp shells and heads. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

To cook: Add Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, 2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, cloves, bay leaf and the lemon juice. Add 2 cups water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain and reserve.

Season the shrimp with a little salt and lots of pepper. Put shrimp, sauce base, cream and butter in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Bring to boil. Cook for 5 minutes.
Remove shrimp from skillet and arrange on a platter. Reduce sauce by half, until it’s a rich mocha color. Pour the sauce over shrimp. Serve with French bread.