Some soldiers tell war stories, and some keep their stories to themselves. John Besh, a Marine in the Gulf War in 1991, is in the second category. After he came home, Besh got a job in a restaurant, then another, and eventually made himself into a highly respected New Orleans cheffirst at Artesia, where FOOD & WINE named him a Best New Chef in 1999, and now at Restaurant August. He married a lawyer, who patiently indulges his obsession with cooking the perfect crawfish bisque. He taught his oldest son to hit a baseball and negotiated with casino operators who would like him to open a steak house. But he kept quiet about what had happened in the Arabian desert. "As a former Marine, I look at combat as somewhat sacrednot something you talk about with someone who wasn't there," he said recently.
Then, this spring, the United States went to war with Iraq again. A Fox News cameraman was traveling with the First Marine Expeditionary ForceBesh's old unitand on the first day U.S. troops rolled through Baghdad, Besh watched the war on TV, and it all came back to him. As a midafternoon thunderstorm slanted against the windows of his office, above the restaurant, he agreed to talk about the war he'd lived and howalthough he didn't know it at the timeit made him into a chef.
Besh grew up on a bayou on Lake Pontchartrain, across from New Orleans. His was an old-fashioned Southern childhoodSunday dinners at grandmother's house; hunting ducks, deer and quail with his grandfather and father. John's father, a former Air Force fighter pilot, flew for Delta. When John was 9, his father was hit by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle and lost the use of his legs forever. While he moved from hospital to hospital, his six children helped out in the kitchen; John, the second youngest, made breakfasts.