Chef turns Katrina experience into new venture

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chef John Besh’s two restaurants were spared when Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans five years ago, but the storm almost wiped him out anyway.

Besh had just taken out a large loan to pay off his partners when the storm shut him down and sent his customers looking for dry ground.

“We came back fast and furious, but we were here with a refrigerator full of food and no one to cook it for,” Besh recalled.

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At the suggestion of an old Marine Corps buddy, Besh decided to cook the food and serve it to stranded residents and first responders brought to New Orleans by the hurricane. That effort led to Besh’s latest commercial endeavor — ArkelBesh — in which he has partnered with Arkel International to create high quality ready-to-eat meals that will be distributed to emergency response teams.

It’s the most direct outcome of the 2005 storm for Besh, but only a small part of his growing empire that includes several new restaurants, a James Beard award, TV appearances and cookbooks.

“In retrospect, things worked out really well,” Besh said. “But no one thought it would at the time.”

Besh, whose likable persona is a mix between southern good old boy and friendly boy scout, is now involved in six New Orleans-area restaurants — August, Besh Steak, La Provence, Domenica, Luke and American Sector — with a seventh, Luke River Walk, to open in two weeks in San Antonio.

Except for his earliest outposts, August and Besh Steak, all were established with a corps of chefs who returned to New Orleans help him get back on his feet after Katrina.

“They had all lost everything, but they came back to help me,” Besh said. “Working together through that time created an esprit de corps. These guys realized if we worked together we could move ahead.”

One in that close-knit crew, Chef Steve McHugh, was diagnosed with cancer and went to San Antonio for treatment. Besh said McHugh fell in love with the city, and will now be at the helm of Luke River Walk.

“It was a life-changing event for all of us,” said Alon Shaya, who was the chef at the steak house before the storm. “I had only known John for a short time, and we really just had a professional relationship. But I tell you, when we were stirring pots of red beans in his driveway at four in the morning, it created a bond for all of us.”

Preparing food and delivering it to hospitals, rescue workers and stranded residents — and “every civil servant in St. Bernard Parish for a year-and-a-half,” was the start of everything that followed, said Shaya, who now leads Domenica.

Simone Rathle, who until recently handled Besh’s publicity, said a Katrina fundraiser Washington, D.C., shortly after the hurricane, was one of the first things to put Besh on the national radar.

“He hadn’t shaved, he was tired, he knew what was going on in the city, and everyone wanted to talk to him,” Rathle said.

That day Besh and the other 19 chefs making po-boys, the traditional New Orleans sandwich, raised $27,000 in two hours, Rathle said. But the event also made Besh a spokesman for his stricken hometown.

Since Katrina, Besh has won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2006 and more than 100 other honors, including those from Food Arts and Gourmet Magazine, for his cooking and restaurants.

Besh also became a rising television star, finishing second in the first season of the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef” and competed on the popular “Top Chef Masters” series on Bravo. This summer, TLC aired a series called “Inedible to Incredible,” in which Besh traveled around the country working with home cooks to help them improve their cooking skills. He has also filmed an upcoming 26-episode series for PBS, “John Besh’s New Orleans.”

Besh’s first cookbook, “My New Orleans: The Cookbook,” was published last year. He also has a modest line of products — a variety of vinaigrettes and a steak sauce — for sale through his website.

But at 42, Besh said he’s at a point where he’s ready to change direction.

“I get to live my dream every day,” Besh said. “I live in the same town as my mom and dad and my in-laws. I love what I do. My mission now is to work at being the dad I really want to be and doing things that will help people.”

During his 20 years coming up through the ranks and building his businesses, Besh said he’s had little time to spend with his four sons, especially his 14-year-old, the oldest. The others are ages 6, 7 and 9.

Now he intends to change that.

At August last week, he was happily looking forward to going to one of their soccer games between lunch and dinner services. He’s also started started work on a second book, “My Family Table,” which he hopes will inspire people to re-establish the family dining tradition.

This summer Besh took up the crusade to help restore confidence in Gulf seafood, which consumers were avoiding after a massive oil spill.

He’s considering several other philanthropic moves, ranging from a foundation to fund scholarships to cooking programs at colleges to hands-on work with youngsters to teach skills they need for restaurant careers.

“I love what I do, I love the art of fine dining,” Besh said. “But I just love cooking for people and want to share that with others.”