This month, Restaurant August celebrates its fifth anniversary. During those years, John Besh, the restaurant’s chef and now owner, became one of the city’s most celebrated chefs and a rising national star. He was named best chef in the Southeast at the 2006 James Beard awards, often called the Oscars of the food industry. He bested the Italian celebrity chef Mario Batali on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, a popular series that turns cooking into a competitive sport. This fall, he’s competing on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, and the winner will become a regular competitor on Iron Chef America.
Over the last year, Besh doubled the number of restaurants he runs. In addition to Restaurant August and Besh Steak inside Harrah’s casino, he opened Lüke, a brasserie in the CBD, and bought the Northshore’s La Provence from his mentor, the late Chris Kerageorgiou.
Do you have an ideal customer in mind when you cooking and designing the menu at Restaurant August?
When you come to August, you’re surrendering control over your meal in some ways. That’s a great gift to the chef that our judgment is trusted. People come here and do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do in their neighborhood joint. They’ll expect something to push the culinary envelope. They’ll expect a few whimsical approaches. It’s taken years to get there.
The first day we opened, I’m making paneed veal for this one, I’m doing breaded trout topped with crabmeat for that one. Whatever it takes to make the customer happy. Through years of giving the customers what they want, they’ve chosen to really surrender to what we would like. Now pretty much everyone that comes in will order off the tasting menu. The menu is constantly evolving, but week-to-week the huge changes are taking place with the tasting menu. That client that we supported has turned around and supported us.
How has August evolved over the last five years?
We opened as too stiff of a restaurant. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance in the type of dining room we ran. It was very formal, yet my food was kind of country. It wasn’t the restaurant that I wanted at that time, and it’s taken years to evolve it.
How have you evolved as a chef over the last five years?
Five years ago I cooked for reviews. Now I get to cook for myself.
Is that because you got the good reviews and now have that freedom?
It’s hard to say. It is easy to say that, because I’ve received good reviews. As a chef, though, you go through a maturing process. When you delve into your first chef job, you feel the need to pull out every expensive ingredient you can find and throw it all on one plate. Over the past five years, my food has become a lot more soulful and a lot less influenced by the people that I’ve worked for in the past. It’s something that flows more easily.
It burns me up when I see bloggers jump on a restaurant. Jared Tees is our chef and my partner at Lüke. The first week we opened, we bought everybody’s dinner. We didn’t sell one dinner. And yet on day two, somebody comes in and doesn’t have the experience of a lifetime. They’re not charged for it, but they start blogging the hell out of it. We’ve overcome that. It’s doing fine in spite of the negative blogs. But you know, it is an evolution. Restaurants, just like everything else, take time.
That kind of pressure from the Internet happens to everyone. How do you deal with it?
I ignore it. I almost never go online. I don’t follow any of them, not even when I travel to other cities. They are anonymous people on the Internet. Alan Richman [the food critic for GQ magazine who wrote a blistering article on New Orleans food in 2006] can come here and trash the city, but we know who to hold responsible. I’ll never buy another GQ as long as he’s writing in it.
Do you think there was any legitimacy to what he said?
In anything there are some legitimate concerns, but you have to live with us and understand what is going on. Alan Richman’s article says that we’re corrupt and a bunch of drunks. I take exception to most all of it. Look at who the drunks are—they’re the people that leave their Middle Americans homes to come down here. They’re prim and proper there and here they’re rowdy and drunk as hell. You’re going to be hard pressed to find my mom and your mom out on Bourbon Street late at night. We’re a city that puts family and relationships before progress. We tend to stay here, and we’re very cloistered. I knew when I married a girl from New Orleans that I was never leaving. That’s who we are. I think Richman doesn’t understand that. I think articles or sound bites on TV don’t do us any justice. We’re deeper than that.
New Orleans is a city where restaurants, if they survive a few years, last for decades. How do you make August a restaurant that will be around 20 years from now?
It’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla of great press and a few television appearances. The way to keep August here for the next 20 years is to never forget what put us here: our local clients. We can’t outprice our local client. We must always save room for as many local guests as we can. We keep the food quality at the same level and serve people from the heart. If we do that, we’ll have a place here forever. The business only drops off because you took your eye off the ball.
How soon after the levees failed were you back in the city?
We were back in the city three days after.
What made you come back?
To feed people. We decided to come in and set up shop in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Tchoupitoulas where the NOPD’s 6th District set up. We cooked for them and anyone else who needed food because nobody was supplied. They had to use the Wal-Mart for supplies. We decided that we would make this our mission until they told us to leave.
What were you cooking?
Red beans, black beans, white beans, lima beans. Any kind of bean that you can imagine. And rice. We had no refrigeration. That was what sustained our people for years, and it sustained us once again.
After the storm, were you in danger of losing August?
Oh yeah. I thought for sure we would be out of business. I don’t come from any money, and our debt service on the restaurant alone is unbelievable.
The saving grace was a contract that we struck with Turner Industries, which was cleaning up the Murphy Oil spill. We started feeding those workers three meals a day. The banks gave us a leeway for a few months of not having to make payments, which really got us on our feet. And then locals were dining out like crazy. We didn’t make any money, but we didn’t lose as much as we thought we would. It was about 14 months before we made any money.
With your range of restaurants, you have a broad perspective on the restaurant scene in the New Orleans area. How healthy are area restaurants?
I don’t know if we’re ever as healthy as we think we are. We’re like the person with cancer just before the sickness is diagnosed. We have a lot of problems in this city, some of them due to the levees and others due to years of neglect. I think water, streets, gas and electric are huge problems for the restaurateur in the future. Something drastic also has to be done soon about taxes.
On the other hand, I’m amazed how the city has bounced back with tourists. It depends on what part of the city you’re in, and I feel for my brothers and sisters across Canal Street (in the French Quarter). We need to solve some of our problems internally. This is a time where we can’t take it for granted who we vote for. The restaurateur needs to be a lot more civically minded today than they ever had to be throughout history.
Do other restaurateurs and the Louisiana Restaurant Association realize that that need to take a greater role in the politics of the city?
People definitely realize that. The LRA still has a ways to go because it’s composed of chapters from around the state. The rest of the state, including our governor and a lot of the lawmakers, tend to negate the needs of this city. Somehow we’ve got to mobilize ourselves. But as far as the state of restaurants, I never imagined they would be so good. I also never imagined having a restaurant in a casino. I’m the biggest hypocrite. I voted against casinos every time the vote has come up.
What convinced you to work with Harrah’s?
I met the casino people. They’re great guys. They want the city to prosper and then they prosper. Actions speak a thousand words. After Katrina, Harrah’s could have been just wiped off the map. They lost Lake Charles with Rita, they lost New Orleans, they lost everything. But they paid full salaries, wages and benefits for their workers for three months, even knowing that they were never going to reopen Lake Charles and that it would be years before they could open anything on the Gulf Coast. Also, they committed to the contractors. There are a lot of people in this little economy that depends on Harrah’s. I was one. I’m a partner with Harrah’s in Besh Steak. They could have easily gotten out of that contract, but they committed to helping me. So they paid me my minimum, whatever the contract says. That also helped keep the business up and running.
Two years ago I was struggling, honestly not thinking I would survive. I never thought that now I would have this little empire. I just wanted to be a one-restaurant chef. The way things work today, if I’d done that, then I wouldn’t be here.
Why can’t you be a one-restaurant chef? Your mentor, Chef Chris, at La Provence spent his life at one restaurant.
A couple of generations ago, chefs didn’t own their own restaurants. Chefs were poor, blue-collar laborers. Just last generation, chefs didn’t have marriages that lasted. Chefs’ kids didn’t know them. I don’t want to live like that. I want to have a chance to put some money aside so that I can retire one day. It’s a lot harder to do that with just one restaurant. If I had one restaurant, I couldn’t afford to have an assistant. I had to do it all. So that means that now I get to have date night at least once a week. Maybe we get to the point where I’m making enough money that I can take Sundays off.
I love the idea of one day retiring and having just one restaurant. If I do well enough, that restaurant could be not for profit. It could be a brother or sister restaurant to Café Reconcile, where it truly has a meaning or purpose. A chef retired last generation by working for a big hotel until he was old and then having a pretty crappy retirement.
Is there a point where a chef with multiple restaurants becomes more of a restaurateur than a chef?
Sure. It’s easy for that to happen, and I don’t know if it’s always a bad thing. Chefs get tired. I plan eventually to open restaurants with all these guys that have all sacrificed so much for me. One day, I’m going to be the old man that isn’t cooking, and they continue the tradition that I’ve started.
Do you think customers go to La Provence or Lüke expecting that you’re there cooking? Is that reasonable for them to think that they’ll see the marquee chef in the kitchen?
In my mind, Jared Tees is the marquee chef at Lüke. I hope that people will realize that I have this vision, but I can’t do it all myself. I used to love Kolb’s. You walked in there and you were just transported. We’re not Kolb’s at Lüke, but I wanted to nod towards the history of that German/Alsatian/New Orleans style of restaurant that had been very prevalent here. Also, I wanted people to have great dining without paying an arm and a leg. Jared shares that vision. The same thing at La Provence. That was my home growing up. It’s not just a cookie cutter restaurant, which especially inundates the Northshore. I wanted to continue Chef Chris’ vision there, and I found the right people to progress it even further. But I can’t do it myself. I’m cooking here [at August]. I want to be committed to staying at August and that the flagship doesn’t falter in any way.
You’re part of the second generation of chefs who have owned multiple restaurants. Did you learn something from that first generation, people like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse?
It’s fashionable now to be a celebrity chef basher. But the average, Middle American truck driver, let’s say, knows who Emeril is and will talk about food now. That didn’t exist years ago. He’s broadened the market for chefs. People like Emeril and Wolfgang Puck have made it possible for me to live like I live. I’ve also learned that I don’t want to follow a certain school of thought where we’re expanding everywhere. I don’t want an August anywhere else. August belongs here. And if we happen to build a Las Vegas restaurant, my partner in that has got to be someone who really wants to live in Vegas, because I don’t.
When I left Artesia, I knew how to cook and I knew the basics of running a dining room, but I didn’t know squat when it came to the business of a restaurant. What if one day I created a restaurant group that took great young talent, invested in them, gave them administrative and financial support and in exchange took some of the risk and a percentage of the business? There would be fewer restaurants going out of business if young chefs have somewhere to go for support rather than finding all these investors.
Chefs aren’t smart when it comes to money. We need people around who know something about it because our pride gets in the way. We want to put the greatest thing out there regardless of the expense. We want the finest ovens. We want the finest china. So chefs truly need some support.
You’ve recently appeared more on TV. You’ve been on the Today Show several times, you won a battle on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America against Mario Batali, and you’re part of an upcoming Food Network series. How much does all that take you away from the kitchen, and is the trade-off worth it?
The power of television is obvious now. I don’t think we understood it last generation. If I can get out there and make a great name for myself and our little fledgling restaurant group, if I can continue good work and positive publicity for our city and this region, then when something come across the desk, who am I to turn it down? Some people work their entire lives and never have some of the blessings that we’ve been given. I never imagined a lot of this. And as it’s grown, yeah, it’s taken me from the kitchen.
On another level, I know I came back after filming this year with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm that I needed. At the same time, I do need to be careful, because there is a slippery slope. I want to make sure that I do what I do for the right reasons. And my first priority in life needs to be being a husband and father. Until it starts to interfere with that, then I’ll continue pushing forward, because I think it’s good for all of us here.
You’re friends with the New York chef Rocco DiSpirito. Four years after he starred in the NBC reality series The Restaurant, his national reputation is still in tatters. How do you avoid that?
You have to be careful about what you do and why you do it. You know, Rocco had an entourage back in 1999 when we were both Food and Wine best new chefs together. If you’re surrounded by people without the same values who don’t have your best intentions at heart, then you’re prone to fall into situations that won’t be good. Whereas Emeril is surrounded by like-minded people, and he’s managed to do pretty well by it. Mario Batali is another. Very few and far between will you have a bad meal at any of his restaurants. He’s surrounded by people that understand the vision and have the same intentions as him.
So I think that, one, you can’t get too caught up in it. Two, it’s only media and it’s very fickle. Three, I have to be a sound person. I still need to be the chef who cares about his client, and not about what I’m doing on TV next week.