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Big Faith in the Big Easy

Image courtesy of Maura McEvoy

The fighter pilot in Ted Besh epitomized a man who knew that preparation and precision were matters of life and death. Ted’s 20/20 vision was more than a physical gift. He had a plan for everything and everyone, especially for his six children and what they would make of themselves.

But as Ted rode his bike one day in 1977, a drunk driver smashed into him and left him paralyzed.

There was no plan for this.

Ted’s son, John, was just 9 years old at the time, and the boy who attended St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell, Louisiana, saw his own world rocked. For over two years, while Ted convalesced in a rehab hospital, and his wife juggled to keep the kids together and care for her husband, John shuffled from house to house with friends whenever his mom was on an extended hospital visit.

Periodically, during his convalescence, Ted would come back home and John’s job was to cook for him.

“It was just some crazy concoction that I’m sure tasted absolutely disgusting,” John recalls. “But, as a kid, just throwing things together for him would make him so happy. I connected right then that food equals happiness.”

John Besh is 45 now, and he and his wife, Jenifer, have four sons of their own. That aromatic equation—food equals happiness—has delighted thousands of people across the globe.

Besh operates nine restaurants, is the author of two cookbooks, and appears regularly on national television as the fresh face of indigenous south Louisiana cooking. But as a Catholic who takes his faith seriously, Besh says he sees a deeper purpose in his life’s vocation of bringing people together around the family table.

“I’m going to issue a disclaimer,” Besh told an intimate crowd of Catholics and people of other faiths who attended a recent “Spirituality in the City” lunch at Immaculate Conception Church, a Jesuit-run parish in downtown New Orleans.

“I am a stumbling human being. I am solely at the mercy of one very merciful and loving and living God. Faith is a gift I’ve been given—just being born of incredible parents with an incredible attitude toward life. I have parents with a phenomenal attitude toward stewardship.”

Ted Besh always told his children to pursue their passions, and, yes, to always make a plan. When Ted saw his son’s eyes light up in the kitchen, he took note. Despite his disability, he brought his son to a book signing by Paul Prudhomme, whose blackened redfish had become an international sensation.

“Paul Prudhomme took the time when I was 11 to talk to me about being a chef,” Besh says. “He was bigger than life in every way, shape, or form. I knew then that I wanted to be like Paul Prudhomme.”

But right after graduating from St. Stanislaus High School in nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, “I was sent away to reform school with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart,” Besh jokes.

He enlisted in the Marines.

“That was just another step of trying to be like Dad,” Besh says. “But the interesting thing is, before food was cool, before cooking schools were cool, my dad would do his research and point me in the right direction. He would tell me, ‘This is where you want to go to school. Let’s make a plan on how you’re going to do that.’”

Calm after the Storm

Besh may have joined the Marines on a teenage whim, but he stayed rooted in his Catholic faith. Because there were few priests to go around, he volunteered to be a minister of Communion, carrying the Eucharist inside his flak jacket along with his machine gun, hand grenades, and chewing tobacco.

“I don’t chew tobacco anymore,” Besh says, smiling.

After being discharged from the Marines, Besh followed his father’s careful plan and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated in 1992. He also studied at the Romantik Hotel Spielweg in Germany under Karl Josef Fuchs, and in southern France under Alain Assaud.

After his apprenticeships, Besh returned to New Orleans with a plan. He became hugely successful, recognized by Food & Wine in 1999 as one of the “10 Best New Chefs in America.”

“Then you get on your high horse,” Besh says. “It’s like, ‘I want to be a famous chef. I want to be a chef with a TV show. I want to be a chef that can create food that nobody can recognize and, truth be told, nobody wants to eat.’ You just want to say you went to the restaurant.”

That is, Besh says, “until Hurricane Katrina.”

Besh had just finished paying off his investors who helped him buy his first restaurant—Restaurant August in downtown New Orleans. But everything he had planned was either sideways or submerged.

“Maybe it was the Lord in my life saying, ‘Slow down. What’s really important? Why is it that you cook?’ It wasn’t audible, but I heard, ‘Why is it that you do what you do?’ And then it hit me: I could use all the resources that I have to make a difference in our world.”

A few days after Katrina, Besh broke into the city to secure whatever cooking equipment he could scrounge from his restaurant. Then, for the next several months, he set up soup kitchens and feeding stations around the area to serve first responders and returning homeowners.

“I knew we were definitely going out of business,” Besh says. “I thought, Well, we’re going down in style. We’re going to go out at least being good people.

“I was compelled at that moment to use my talents to make the world better.”

On one trip to Mississippi to hunt for supplies, Besh and Alon Shaya—his Jewish friend, executive chef, and partner—ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

“We’ll just pray about it,” Besh recalls, noting the irony of a Catholic and a Jew praying in Mississippi for deliverance. Besh remembers the chain saw in the trunk, which they had used to clear the road.

“The chain saw is just about out of gas,” Shaya told him.

“OK, God, you’re in charge,” Besh said, rolling up a magazine to make a funnel for the small mixture of chain saw gas and oil.

“That mixture got us about 90 miles, after we had already run out of gas,” Besh says. “Now I’m sure there’s a scientist in here who says there’s a reason for this.”

Besh knows better.

The Family Table

The way Besh sees it, in his book My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, sharing a family meal around the table is a sacred event.

“The family table in the home is the altar. That’s the place that ties us together,” he says. “It’s the place that keeps us firmly rooted. Maybe we can even humble ourselves to say we’re blessed to have this bread, blessed to have this food. One reason New Orleans is really special is that we’ve held on to our faith, to our families, and to the family table.”

Besh says that his wife, Jenifer, will sometimes give him a silent but swift kick in the shin when he tries to break in on one of his son’s problems to solve it.

“The family table is where the walls come down a little bit,” Besh says. “Our defenses settle. That’s where my wife is smart enough to tell me, ‘Just let them talk. This is good stuff.’ You never know what tidbit you’re going to receive.”

Just like the lessons Besh received from his father.

“I think his faith, drive, and determination are the keys to my success,” Besh says. “The little bit of success that we’ve had is because of being raised with that understanding that life isn’t always going to go the way we might want it to. We can’t control everything.

“But, in the end, if we’re living to sit with God, hopefully that perspective allows you to make the most out of many different situations. We understood how faith played a role in my dad’s life and in our lives. That helped shape my life.”

Besh carries his father’s torch whenever he sits down to eat with his family. The price of fame and out-of-town appearances means less time at home, but Besh makes sure every day at home counts. He converted part of his expansive house on Bayou Bonfouca in Slidell into a commercial kitchen, complete with TV lights, so that he could tape a show and play dad on the same afternoon.

Besh says the grace and power with which his father lived after his life-changing accident gave him an example of how to submit to, and redeem, inscrutable suffering.

“Sure, he got angry. And when you’re angry, you’re angry at God sometimes,” Besh says. “But we also had a great relationship growing up where we talked a lot about faith, and we talked about what he was going through. We had wonderful dialogues, and I began to understand how faith played a role in his life and in our lives. We always had the idea that we were all going through this together. I’d like to pass on to my sons a little bit of what I was given. And the gift I was given was really centered on the family table.”

Food Equals Happiness

The family table parallels with Besh’s Catholic faith.

“These moments bring me back to what our religion was founded on,” he says. “It’s the holy Eucharist we celebrate every Sunday. It’s food and the table—the altar. That’s the place that keeps us firmly rooted.”

Besh says My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking is filled with “subliminal Catholic messages,” particularly the sense of “bringing people to the table.”

“And at that table should be a parent,” Besh says. “If you can have two parents there a couple of nights a week, that’s even better. This is the foundation of what our entire society should be. I know that families come in so many shapes and sizes these days, but I’m advocating that coming together as a family to break bread is what it’s all about.

“That’s one reason New Orleans is really special,” he says again. “We’ve held on to our faith and to our families, and we’ve held on to the family table. We have the only indigenous urban cuisine left in America because we adhere to these values.”

Since his early Pythagorean theorem days of “food equals happiness,” Besh has created a new equation that brings life with his father back to its lowest common denominator.

“His favorite meal is ‘seafood anything,’” Besh says with a laugh. “You give him trout with crabmeat on top and he’s happy.”

So, distilling life to its savory essentials, “crabmeat equals happiness.” No wonder they call south Louisiana God’s country.

To learn more about Chef John Besh, click here.

Banner image courtesy of Wyes.