One Year Later
I spent the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with my friend and noted New Orleans chef, John Besh.
We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner while filming a television program. Besh cooked breakfast at his home in Slidell, took us to lunch at Café Reconcile, and finished the program with a nine-course feast at his flagship establishment, Restaurant August.
One year earlier, Besh was riding out the storm in his restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans. The next day he headed into Mississippi, chainsaw in hand, to look for supplies. Back in New Orleans two days after the storm he commandeered a boat, fired up a makeshift cooking station using a propane-fueled crawfish boiler and delivered red beans and rice by boat as he and a co-worker paddled around New Orleans rescuing people from their homes. A rescue mission with food— that’s pure Besh.
The 38-year old Besh is one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. A former member of the U.S. Marines and a Gulf War veteran, he worked under battlefield conditions to be the first white tablecloth restaurant to reopen in New Orleans, all the while feeding over 1,200 displaced people breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.
What endears me to Besh is that, with his talent, knowledge, and skill set, he has every right in the world to be haughty and arrogant, yet he is the last who would ever be so. As the days drift away from August 29 th, 2005, I continue to discover stories of his heroism and bravery, but always from others. Besh would never focus on any of his accomplishments in the course of an everyday conversation, and would actually go to great pains to steer the dialogue in another direction.
Besh welcomed us into his home that day and, as the cameras rolled, cooked breakfast from the hip— nothing planned, nothing pre-cooked, a pure unadulterated case of winging it. It would be one of the more memorable breakfasts I have eaten.
He chopped onions, bell pepper, and celery and sautéed them in a skillet with a little bacon fat. Next he added garlic and a few seasonings. He then pulled out two of the sweetest tasting heirloom tomatoes I have ever eaten, chopped them, and added them to the pot. It wasn’t until then that we realized that breakfast was heading in an etouffee-like direction. He cooked a simple pot of grits and then pulled a plate of crawfish from the refrigerator. The main course was crawfish etouffee and grits topped with a fried egg. He prepared homemade biscuits and served preserves made from the fruit trees in his backyard. A highlight of the meal was a small plate that held house-made sausage from August and a few pieces of Allan Benton’s bacon shipped in from Madisonville, Tennessee.
Not to the reader: If you take nothing else away from this column, go to the website: www.bentonshams.com and order some of Allan Benton’s smoked country bacon. It is by far the best bacon I have ever eaten, hands down, bar none, end of story.
For lunch we traveled to Café Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant formed to teach at-risk youth a trade and life skills. There we ate fried catfish and a beautifully prepared shrimp and okra dish.
The dinner at August was— as all dinners at August are— amazing. Besh sent out nine courses of culinary brilliance. No one in the entire South is performing on a higher level than John Besh, post Katrina. He purchased the restaurant from his former partner a few weeks before the storm hit and, with his name now on the note at the bank, saw New Orleans’ long-standing convention business dry up overnight. Most chefs would have thrown in the side towel. Not Besh, he stepped it up a level and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef Southeast (for those unfamiliar with Beard Awards, if Besh would have been in the movie trade, his mantle would now be sporting an Oscar).
John Besh and the restaurants of New Orleans came through after Katrina. They rescued us, they fed us, they sheltered us, and they performed one of the most important functions in the post-Katrina environment— giving us a sense of normalcy, and a look into the days when New Orleans was truly the city that care forgot.