It's been ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated a 200-square-mile swath of the gulf coast. New Orleans has always had one of the most thrilling food cultures in America (maybe even the world), but it took that serious storm to get much of the rest of the country to tune in to that — thanks in part to tireless rebuilding efforts of a huge community, not least among them chef John Besh. Over the last decade, Besh has served as an unofficial culinary ambassador for the Crescent City, opening a diverse group of restaurants representing all facets of its gastronomic identity, publishing cookbooks that double as love letters to Louisiana, and starting some major charitable endeavors to preserve and support the foodways of the Louisiana Bayou.
He's also a hell of a storyteller. In the fourth episode of The Eater Upsell (transcript below), Eater's podcast hosted by Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, Besh explains just how much New Orleans has changed since Katrina, why he doesn't like to eat Cajun outside of his home state, and the real reason he tries to go incognito whenever he eats at one of Danny Bowien's restaurants.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 4: John Besh, edited to the main interview. Want in on the ground floor on the brilliant food-themed dystopian YA trilogy that Greg and Helen are now obsessed with turning into a reality? You'll just have to listen to the audio above.
Greg Morabito: Right now we’re joined here in the Eater Studios by John Besh, one of the legends of New Orleans cuisine.
Helen Rosner: Yeah. John Besh owns nine restaurants in New Orleans, or is it ten now?
John Besh: Oh my gosh, it's too many.
Helen: A lot of restaurants.
John: It's absurd.
Helen: You need at least two hands to count them. You're also the author of three cookbooks with another one coming out soon.
John: That's right. Number four is on its way in September.
Helen: Chef, in a lot of ways you're sort of the face of New Orleans cuisine for the rest of America right now, right?
John: I've never thought of it that way, but I'm thrilled to death to be a caretaker of this great tradition of New Orleans cooking. It's been passed down to me by a number of great chefs that came before me, and so I feel like being from New Orleans and being a chef there is more being a steward of this, and kind of leaving it in better shape than when you found it? And so, I look at this, like it's much bigger than a trend, much bigger than a chef. It's much bigger than some sort of celebrity that we attach to it. I'm just thrilled to death and have to pinch myself everyday, just because I get to live where I live, I get to cook what I cook, and I get to be a part of something bigger than myself.
Greg: Something I really want to hear your thoughts on, I don't know necessarily that, that food travels very well to New York City. I have not had very good New Orleans food in New York.
John: Yeah, and you really shouldn't. I think that's the beauty of regionalism. I just gave a TED Talk on this whole subject of connectivity and how it relates to the sustainability of one's culture. And if we're not careful, this over homogenization of American pop culture has already really rid ourselves of most of the urban cuisines left in America. We are the last standouts of having the truly, the one, only, authentic urban cuisine that has stood the test of time. That's because we're, politically, isolated from the rest of the country or from the rest of the south for that matter.
Helen: New Orleans is kind of its own country.
John: Geographically. Yeah, geographically isolated; it's not easy to get to and those exist in the proper proportions that has really allowed New Orleans to thrive; independent of its neighbors. What I love is that it doesn't travel well. To get it you have to go there, and you have to really experience it, and also you just get off the plane in New Orleans and you feel like you're in a foreign country without needing the passport. A New York state driver's license is going to suffice; it'll get you in. I'm in a whole different country. I can let my hair down and just be myself. Even us locals feel that way, and that's what I love about it — but it doesn't travel. I've thought about it, and I've had offers to come to New York, and it would be a flop. It would be a flop because I wouldn't have access to the same ingredients — though you can get great ingredients here, but you go there for the Buster Crabs, you know, the soft shell crabs, and those big, plump gulf oysters that you just want to cook. They're great; I grew up eating them on the half shell. I still do that. But with lots of spice and the cocktail sauce and a cold beer and a saltine cracker. It's just a whole different animal. And I don't know if it translates well other places, where they don't have the Andouille sausage or this or that, that we have in our backyard.
Helen: I grew up in Chicago, where there actually is a really phenomenal New Orleans style restaurant, Heaven on Seven.
Helen: It's terrific.
John: Big Jimmy's a good friend of mine.
Helen: He's amazing, and I had eaten at the original Heaven on Seven, the one that's like tucked upstairs in this random office building, for years before I ever made it to New Orleans and ate New Orleans food. Certainly eating in the city is different than eating in Chicago. But it's still, you know, Jimmy captured it, he got that piece of the soul.
John: Captures the soul. He gets it. Jimmy's one that's connected with the people of New Orleans, and so he gets it. I think there's a story there and the story's that you really need to get to know the soul of the food if you're going to replicate it well. For that matter, we can all try to cook Italian all day long, but unless you understand how the Italian grandmother cooks at home, then you'll never really grasp it and the same goes for just about any great cuisine. Jimmy, when it comes to New Orleans, it's not all about eating at the fancy restaurants — he's in there in the dives. He's eaten at the mom and pop little po' boy shops and he's in there eating the Yaka mein in the bad neighborhoods. And he's getting to know what this cuisine's really all about. I think, in my culture, food is that common thread that brings us all together. Rich, poor, black, white, red, yellow — we all love our gumbo. We all love the étouffées, and we all eat the same food. Whatever problems we have, food is normally the one thing that kind of brings us all together at the table.
We all love the étouffées, and we all eat the same food. Whatever problems we have, food is normally the one thing that kind of brings us all together at the table.
Helen: It's like a real commonality.
Greg: I actually lived in New Orleans. I was a Tulane University student for four years.
John: We're like brothers then.
John: Cousins anyway.
Greg: I actually graduated in 2004.
John: And you left? They let you leave?
Greg: I know, it's like the biggest mistake I ever made was leaving that city. You were coming up right when I was there, but I wasn't totally aware of Restaurant August and stuff like that, but I'm just really curious, it seems like the New Orleans of today, I haven't been back, sadly —
Helen: Since before Katrina.
Greg: Before Katrina, but the food scene, the restaurant scene —
John: Oh, it's on fire right now.
Greg: Seems totally different and to have evolved in this interesting way since, let's say when you started in, what, 2001?
John: Yeah, it opened August in 2001, the week of September 11th actually. It's scary how fast time flies and now, looking back and it's like, wow, what happened? I'm from there. I grew up in Slidell, right down the same road from where I started. It's awesome to see, because for so long...like for me to be a cook, I thought I'd have to work for one of the great restaurant families of New Orleans. And I would always be just...I was happy. I was hoping that I would get to be one of the great chefs in one of these great restaurant.
Greg: Like work for the Brennans or somebody like that?
John: Yeah. People like Emeril Lagasse and Susan Spicer rewrote the rules, where now chefs get to have role in the restaurant itself. And that whole generation came in and just changed everything, which really allowed me to do what I've done. I opened up in 2004, I bought my partners out in 2005, and I nearly lost it all — or I thought I would've lost it all, with the Hurricane Katrina. We had a 120 employees, then; and now we have about 840 employees, which is beautiful.
Helen: It's like a small town.
John: It also made me realize the importance of people and connecting and investing in people. I grew because my dream team of chefs wanted to grow, and those line cooks are now my partners in all the restaurants. We just opened up Alon Shaya's namesake restaurant, Shaya. He's an Israeli born fella, just like a little brother of mine. Lived in my Land Rover Defender with his two cats and myself and a dog for about two weeks after the storm, as we were working, trying to get reopened. And now he's my partner in Domenica, and my partner in Pizza Domenica. He's my partner in Shaya, bringing Israeli street food to New Orleans. Who would've ever thought that would happen? But it's great. I think like what Katrina did — and from the time that you left New Orleans — what's happened is that we've written our own rules. The status quo wasn't going to work any longer, so here's a new a generation of people that are...we live there because we want to make a difference. You're not there because you're transferred, or you have to live there. It's a pain in the ass to live there. There's certain things, you know — it's hard. It's hot. But it's also the most beautiful thing in the world to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I say that and I refer to that often, because that culture is big and real, and there's something to be said for being caretakers of that. I've partnered with Aarón Sánchez; we opened up Johnny Sanchez. So Aarón’s down there once a month working with our chefs and like killing it, like really bringing authentic Mexican to New Orleans. Downtown, this neighborhood where I have almost all of my restaurants, the big companies all up and left when the tough got going. And so that void was filled by people like myself, people like Donald Link, people like all these other up and coming great chefs, the Phillip Lopezes and a bunch of them that have worked for me over the years and now on their own, separate from me, doing great things. Michael Gulotta with MOPHO, doing fun food. We're kind of rewriting New Orleans and rewriting another chapter, where I'm not going to turn my back on the food that I grew up with, and that's what this last cookbook that I wrote is really all about; let's get rid of all of the chefy crap in it and really get down to the essence of how did the grandmothers cook, you know? You go to New Orleans, you have like, who was it that wrote that horrific article in the wake of —
Greg: It was Alan Richman.
John: Richman, like really, and this is just the epitome of stupid, because most of my people weren't even living in homes.
John: I had people, when he wrote that article, that were living in what had been our dry storage, like we were putting people up, and he's complaining about not having a certain vintage of wine that we had printed on the dadgum menu that we couldn't even get.
Helen: I think people didn't totally understand how devastating Katrina really was. It wasn't just like some homes flooded and some people had to move.
Helen: It was you pulled the rug out of an entire city.
John: Out of not even the city, but two-hundred square miles surrounding it.
We found out, with hurricane Katrina, that you got to take care of yourself. You've got to write your own rules. You've got to figure this out, because nobody really has the answer.
John: Where not even an ice machine is left at a dock for the shrimpers to use, so how were the shrimpers going to shrimp and bring the shrimp back? Everybody's like in the same boat, so to speak, and so it was one of these situations where through that we found out, real quick, that your government, look, we were just as liberal of a city as we can get, okay? Nobody's going to take care of you. And so we found out, with hurricane Katrina, that you got to take care of yourself. You've got to write your own rules. You've got to figure this out, because nobody really has the answer. When you just push away the dependency and start embracing the fact that, you know what? We're all in this together and we want Creole food and we want this Creole culture to exist. I think in that same article he mentioned he had never seen a Creole before and he interviewed Leah Chase, by the way, the queen of Creole cooking. That pointed out to me that we're the only ones that are going to take care of ourselves and so we need to make sure that the school systems are fixed. We need to make sure, and even as a chef this is important, make sure that public transportation's done the right way. Make sure that public housing is...that we rethink all of these different things because it affects all of us and that's where connectivity really comes into play. I love the fact that we started a foundation just after the storm because I look around the ranks, and I'm bringing people in from all around the country. And I love white boys from the suburbs, but I'm bringing in white boys from the suburbs all over this country — and oftentimes suburbs from other freaking countries — to cook Creole. There's something wrong with that, and the problem is that it really comes down to education and how many black kids in the projects in New Orleans can afford to come to CIA and pay 50 thousand dollars, whatever it is, for a great education, which you absolutely need. So we started this and we started a program with a good friend of mine, Jessica Bride Mayor, who went to the French Culinary Institute. Now it's ICC and we now send two students a year up here. Not only are they going to school, but they're working full-time for people like Danny Meyer, Michael White, and Marcus Samuelsson. Rachael Ray's done a great job, and my buddy Aarón Sánchez is there to mentor these students along the way. You leave New Orleans and that one neighborhood that you've probably never have left. And then you come to the Big Apple and then you're getting this great education. Then you're developing these relationships with icons in the industry. At the same time that you're working full-time for one of the greatest restaurant groups ever, and then you're coming back to New Orleans as an inspiration for others. What we're doing is now we're on, what's this, like our sixth class of students coming up here, that are now going back home to New Orleans, making a difference.
Greg: Wow, so what do they come back with?
John: With vigor and enthusiasm.
John: They come back with a perspective that we can do better, we can do better than just that neighborhood that I came from. They come back with the idea that they need to get involved in those little outreach programs, whether it's Liberty's Kitchen or Café Hope or Café Reconcile, where they're targeting at-risk, inner city youth. And they're the success story that can say, "You know what? There's another world out there and you can beat this."
Helen: Well there's also, I think, something very essential to the idea of keeping food in the hands of the people who originally made it.
John: Right. For that matter, because you'll always have people that come and go and that New Orleans was another port city, just like New York, and so we were a port of entry. So people didn't come to us via Ellis Island. They came to us via the Ninth Ward wharf.
John: That's where people entered in and so we have all these waves of immigrants that have made their way and have added their indelible imprint or ingredient in the proverbial gumbo pot. I think unless we all participate in this cultural economy, then we won't sustain it and so we need to make sure that if it's education we fix that.
John: If it's our foodways, we make sure that we shore that up and we fix that and make it profitable for our farmers, fishers, foragers, and to new generations to come in. Because without that, without the people and without the food, what do we have?
Helen: Yeah. I mean that's all powerful, critical work to be done and it really speaks, I think, to the preservation of, not the preservation in the sense that we have to sort of freeze these cuisines in amber, like not that they can't evolve. What you're doing is you're taking people who've grown up in the milieu of Creole cooking and who have New Orleans in their blood; who aren't these white suburban dudes coming over from L.A. and saying, "Oh man I really love New Orleans because I saw some episode of a TV show," but it's actually the people whose parents and grandparents and great grandparents having been making this food and they get to have ownership of that culinary identity.
John: Yeah. It's our job to make sure that the opportunity is there and that I still want the white dudes coming in from L.A. who connect, because we need them too. But we need to make sure that we don't leave anybody behind. I don't want to, it sounds so damn political, but to make sure that everybody, at least, has the apparatus to achieve it if they want it.
John: Being a chef isn't for everybody — you know that. It's grunt work. It's blue collar work. It's rough, and unless it's like part of your soul, then this isn't for you because we're working when other people are having fun, but I notice that there are tenacious, smart, hardworking people out there of that inner city community that just never had a leg up, educationally speaking, and that's what we want to make available to them.
Greg: You made some really interesting moves in the past few years with the restaurants you've opened and I'd say that they all seem very creative and different from each other and interesting concepts.
Helen: Really expanding the notion of what New Orleans food is.
John: Also, I create things that I craved, too. We have the whole Creole thing — we've done that. I love what Luke is doing. I love that Borgne pays homage to the Isleños, the Canary Islanders that settled in Louisiana. The Spanish via the Canary Islanders probably had more of an impact than probably any one group from one country ever on our city and our culture and the way that we cook, but it's very seldom talked about. I love that aspect, but who doesn't love a great taco? As an artist you crave another creative outlet as well. I want to create food that other people might crave also.
Greg: When you're building one of these new restaurants do you think, "Alright do we want to take a risk here?" Or are you thinking, "We want to give the people what they want." Or, how do you put it together, like the food idea of it?
John: I generally like, "What do I crave?" Unless a dish tastes great to me, then I'm not going to serve it to you. Likewise, I want to create a restaurant that feels really good to me; that it's settling a need in me creatively. And then I have to trust that you're going to enjoy it. It really comes down to the personalities of the people behind it. I'm investing, like I say, in the dream team that I had five, 10, in some cases, 15 years ago, of people that have been with me through thick and thin, now I can help them. I can give them the marketing support and the financial support. I can give them the culinary support, the administrative support, the front of house support, and kind of help them in a way that I never was helped. I had to figure this stuff out on my own.
Now, if they want to partner with me, then I can make life a lot easier for them to realize their creative dream and passion. So that's why I've kind of done what I've done and where I've done it. The truth is we had all these opportunities outside of the city and it took the storm to make me realize that, you know what? This is where I want to be. I'm going to die there. This is my happy place. I love to travel, I love the world, I love all these other cultures, and that's why I try to bring them to New Orleans too. I still have dreams of creating this great Vietnamese restaurant, and we have a huge Vietnamese population. But I just haven't found that personality that's like, "Oh yeah, I'm Vietnamese, and I want to open this great restaurant." So as I see these opportunities and as I see a need in the marketplace for like...I've been to Israel a number of times and just absolutely loved the way food kind of brings people together there as it does in my hometown. Alon had the need and the desire to cook the food that he grew up on, and to really show us who he is through his food. He had been my Italian chef, but the truth is he's born and raised in Israel and so he wants to bring that. I want to support that and that's kind of how we made some of these decisions, like with Aarón Sánchez. He has been one of my best friends for the past 10 or 15 years.
The truth is we had all these opportunities outside of the city and it took the storm to make me realize that, you know what? This is where I want to be. I'm going to die there
Greg: How did you guys meet?
John: Actually, we met about 20 years ago when he was working for Paul Prudhomme.
Helen: Paul Prudhomme, who's one of the towering titans of the history of New Orleans cuisine.
John: Yeah, he's the icon of Cajun cuisine and he had K Paul's for years. He's got like the big spice companies and whatnot, and so Zarela, Aarón's mother, got her start through Paul Prudhomme years ago.
Helen: I didn't know that.
John: She sent her mouthy, teenage, I guess 18-year-old son Aarón to be straightened out by Paul. She sent him down to New Orleans to live and work with Paul Prudhomme, and so I met him then, and then we got to be really close when we competed on Iron Chef. We had a number of battles together and it was a great time. Myself, Aarón, Michael Symon, and Chris Cosentino — just a great group of people. We all knew each other prior, and then we got to be best friends through the process of trying to eliminate one another.
Helen: It's so rare to hear a chef say that reality TV was awesome.
John: You know what? A lot of chefs love dissing on it, but they're making pretty good livings right now because they've made themselves available through this media and that media. At the time, Iron Chef was just king. There was a purity to Iron Chef; two chefs walking onto a stage, not knowing that the secret ingredient was. You have your contingency plans, like I would always know I was going to make a soup out of it no matter what. I was always going to stuff it into a pasta, so I always had the ravioli down. I had these formulas, but damn, once you're in there and the cameras on, that's one hour when you have to cook.
Helen: You cook like seven courses or something, right?
John: Yeah, and I was always going to outdo the other, as far as I wanted to throw in an extra course or two and maybe even an amuse if I could.
Helen: Does it like kick your ass? Is it really hard?
John: It was hard as hell. And so I'm just a sweaty fricking mess when I walked off every battle, but it was so much fun. What I don't like now is like now is that everything's like a mock competition, and now, okay, cook while standing on one foot. Well, yeah, right.
Helen: When are you going to actually do that? I mean, like you know.
Greg: We're actually going to ask you to do that right after this wrapped up.
Helen: Yeah, no we're going —
John: All right. All right.
Helen: No, I agree. I think Iron Chef was one of the early food shows for me, like when I was starting to get interested in food. We're talking like 2005/2006-ish.
John: Dude I'm talking like even before that, with like the Japanese Iron Chef.
Helen: Even earlier? Oh God, no.
John: I mean that was the shit.
Helen: Yeah, but it's real. That's the thing, like you were saying, you're actually cooking real food.
John: I remember when my buddy Ron Siegel went and battled, he was the first American to go and battle an Iron Chef in Japan and they like killed him, stomped him.
Helen: Oh my God.
John: It was just amazing just to see. I just love the artistry. I love to cook and is that why I cook? No. Does it trivialize?
Helen: Not to destroy the opposition.
John: I want to destroy you. Yeah, truth be told, I try to make people happy, not destroy somebody through food.
Helen: Basic hospitality.
John: Now on that fame note, if Aarón Sánchez or Michael Symon come to one of the restaurants, I will say, "Kill him." Or better yet, it's, "Kill him and comp him." And so that means I'm going to send you one of fricking everything on the menu and then you're just going to hate me afterwards and love me in between.
Helen: I've heard of a chef refer to this as, excuse my French, the "hate-fuck tasting menu."
John: Now when we go to places that we know our friends own, it's like, shit, I hope they don't recognize me. I'm just going to sneak in and order off the menu, like, all I want to do is order off the menu.
Greg: Never works though, right? They do it to you when you come to their places.
John: Don't ever go see Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese when he's there or you're screwed.
Helen: He'll just drown you in Kung Pao pastrami.
John: That's right. David Chang, same thing, he'll torture your ass.
Helen: It seems like it's an act of love, but it's really like, "Kill him."
John: Kill him.
Helen: I love that.
Greg: Were you aware of a different kind of customer coming to your restaurants after the TV stuff or was it just kind of a gradual, steady thing?
John: A whole lot more of them.
John: We had a lot of customers start to come. I'm not going to say that the celebrityism isn't nice.
Greg: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean you're only human. Yeah.
John: I'd be the biggest damn hypocrite. The truth is that at a time when we needed customers the most, I got a little bit of press through doing that sort of stuff and those people came to New Orleans and they just didn't eat in my restaurant. They ate in mom and pop restaurants and little Po' boy joints. They ate at Willie Mae's Scotch House. They would eat at my competitors and it's all good. When I was coming up, people would always diss Emeril and they were dissing Emeril because he's a TV chef. You know what? Because of him, because of the Wolfgang Pucks, we get to live in nice houses now, and we get to enjoy a pretty nice life. And there's something to be said for that, and those people that went before us that are often villainized for doing what they do. And that's just...there's a lot of immaturity there because the truth is we all benefit from an elevation of this craft to a profession.
Helen: There's something on that that you had mentioned in one of your cookbooks, I think it was in My Family Table, which you wrote many years ago, so maybe your thoughts on this have evolved, but I remember reading that in the intro to this cookbook and really sticking on it because where I was in my career as a food writer was a place where I was grappling with sort of similar questions. I remember you talking about how sort of the fetishization of the chef and the fetishization of the restaurant kitchen was keeping people out of their home kitchens.
John: I think that now chefs have become the standard bearers for culture and for feeding, and we kind of have a pop culture thing. There are some drawbacks to that. It's not because of the chefs that people don't cook at home. It's because we've all bought into this BS vision of whatever the American dream is now. Feeding yourself at home, at a table, breaking bread, especially if you have children — and that's where this book was really coming in. Now I'm just not the chef trying to win awards and have my face plastered on magazine covers. Now I'm a dad. And at that point it was like: I have got to feed those closest to me, or if not I've failed as a human being. And if I don't at least attempt to make the effort of starting with just one day a week, finding the time to have that Sunday supper, then what am I really passing on to them? We're all in such a hurry these days and we're running and doing this and doing that and even though we have more technology and we have so much at the palm of our hand, literally speaking, that too often this is a distraction and it's distracting us from actually getting into the kitchen and cooking. My Family Table’s all about trying to bring people back to the table.
Greg: The book that you're working on that's coming out this fall, it sounds like part of that is you saying you don't have be this crazy restaurant chef. You don't have to do a million things.
John: Right. There is an evolution. You see these gray hairs? I've earned then. And so when I cook I don't want it to be like it used to be when I was a hot chef. In my mind, like I wanted to be blah, blah, blah, blah James Beard Award-winning chef. When I cooked at home, I cooked and I just soiled every pot and pan that I had. I made these huge meals and it was all about me. Now when I cook, I want to use one pot, maybe two, and I want it to be something that's soulful and delicious and all about passing something on to whoever I'm feeding. I don't want to clean up after me, and my wife's not going to, and so I don't have a team of people prepping and cleaning behind me when I'm at home. When I'm cooking at home it's a whole different sensibility. I grew up with, my grandmother, who maybe had salt, pepper, and a touch of cayenne pepper in her pantry. She didn't have all these spice blend and no, you don't fricking need them — just bay leaf here, a dash of dried thyme there, and you're going to be good. I wanted to bring that soulfulness back to cooking the food I grew up on. Again, it's another thing trying to entice people to come into the kitchen. My fancy books had all been like these fifty-dollar somethings that most people probably sat on their coffee table. This book that I've just done is going to be twenty dollars and a paperback.
Helen: Designed to get dirty.
John: Right. I hope that it's splattered and the pages are then folded and noted and all that good stuff.
Helen: I think you've hit on a really interesting point of tension in the food world, like in the last couple of years I feel like there's been, I want to say, bro-affication, but that sounds like a judgey word, but there's been a lot of media.
John: It sounds very sexist the way you're saying it.
Helen: Well, we wouldn't want that. No, I think there's been an increased focus in the media on men who cook at home and sort of bringing attention to the fact that it's not just a feminine thing to be domestic, to nurture and nourish your family.
John: In New Orleans it's never been a feminine thing, it's always been like men cooked their things and the women cooked their things, and I think that throughout Middle America that was taboo.
Helen: Oh yeah.
John: Thirty, forty years ago, like man does not cook.
Helen: He grilled.
John: Unless it's a grill in the backyard and a beer right next to it. Yeah, so I see that changing a lot and I think it's a good thing. I think it's an evolution of who we are and we're, as a country, I think a lot more — we’ve matured to the point. All of us need to share in the cooking and the breaking of the bread.
Helen: Yeah, that's the thing that brings us all together. Cool.
Greg: One of my last questions for you is, you know —
John: You're kicking me off?
Greg: No, we'd love to have you all day.
Helen: This all depends on well you answer this question. We're going to keep it rolling.
Greg: Yeah, it depends on this question.
John: It looks like he's saying, finish this sucker fast.
Greg: You've opened a bunch of restaurants. You've written a bunch of cookbooks. You have a charity. You've done TV. What is next on your career list?
Helen: Be done.
Greg: You done? Is there any or you want to like, I want to go and —
John: God lord, no. Put a fork at him. I want to continue to...this charity is so important to me. Years ago we started partnering with farmers and, well, just food producers, but I'd love to really focus in on farmers in particular. We created a micro loan program called Milk Money and it's where a lot of the farmers that we work with have no access to capital. It's giving them access to capital at virtually no interest and partnering them with MBA students, who can then give them the business acumen needed, the marketing help, the sales support, and the distribution support to make their farming, foraging, or fishing business work for them in today's economy. It's really important for me to focus in on the Milk Money part of our foundation, as well as the Chefs Move part, and that's targeting minority kids from inner city New Orleans.
Helen: That's the program that sends them up to New York to go to culinary school.
John: Yeah. I have my work cut out for me, I think, to grow these things and to continue to teach and inspire. This year I turned down a really big television deal because I wanted to be closer to home to really focus on this.
Greg: Was that a tough decision?
John: In a way I think like, man, I've really screwed up, because I've turned down some big doozy deals, but I couldn't be dad and I couldn't be a chef and I can't be a philanthropist if I'm not there to actually get involved. This has been one of the best years of my life because I'm actually able to roll up my sleeves and focus on the things that are most important to me.
Helen: That's really inspiring. I feel like I should be doing more.
Greg: It is inspiring. I know, I feel like I should.
John: No, but we have a great team around us and so it's like this snowball that's just gathering force and it's beautiful when you inspire you, and you inspire them, and everybody's kind of spurring each other on to do something great. Then you see like the changes that are happening in New Orleans now, which are freaking incredible. We have more restaurants now than we ever thought of having, even before the storm, and so we're in such a better place. It's like, okay, you see the momentum and you see the ground that we've gained and I start thinking like, yes, we can actually change this; we're making headway. Let's not take our eye of the ball.
Helen: Restaurants are a great crucible for that because they do touch so many elements of our lives. I mean there's the fundamental emotional core, where it's, to use your word, connectivity, and it's a place where people come together and you break bread and you share the table. What happens in a restaurant has like tentacles, it spreads out. It affects the farms, it affects real estate, it affects residential stuff, it affects education.
Helen: It's such a sort of central, what is the word, it's a brain and then the whole sort of neural system of the world expands from that.
John: No, I love what you're saying about the tentacles and I totally get it because it's not just what happens right then. It's just not what you're celebrating even at the table.
Helen: It's not like here's three bucks, here's a taco. It's like such a bigger transaction.
John: When it's done responsibly, there can be such a great impact and that's why I talk about the over-homogenization of society, because I want us to continue to grow and to continue to evolve without all the outside influences of the big box brands and national chains and this and that. That will inevitably be the doom of these cultures like this.
Helen: Also the nationalization of trends, like does every single city need a kimchi taco? You know, does every single city need the kale salad? I mean the Kimchi taco and the kale salad are delicious, but are they New Orleans? Are they Charleston? Are they Chicago? The sense of place is so key.
John: Right. No, I think you brought up a great point, because you want to travel, you want to go to other places and have a taste of that location, of that people, of that culture.
Helen: Yeah, restaurants describe the place they are.
Greg: Definitely. Well, Mr. John Besh, want to thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell. You're an inspiration to at least Helen and I.
Helen: We really like your food.
Greg: We really like your food.
John: Well enjoy that shrimp remoulade in front of you.
Helen: Yeah, we have these amazing jars of shrimp remoulade.
John: You don't share it with anybody unless you love them.
Helen: Yeah, I'm not sharing this with anyone, this is awesome.
Greg: Thank you.
John: Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.