The Big, Easy Christmas
It’s the last-minute run-up before Christmas dinner, and New Orleans chef John Besh is hard at work. He assumes total control as he simultaneously works the stove, oven and countertop staging area. Garlic-scented kale sizzles in a pot. A foil-tented standing rib roast—rubbed with an herb, garlic and horseradish butter that has formed an irresistible, crispy crust—rests on a carving board. The aroma of baking popovers wafts through the kitchen.
As the oven door slams shut, a member of Besh’s kitchen crew impatiently signals for the chef’s attention.
"When are we eating?"
Besh smiles down at five-year-old Luke, hard at work picking out perfect mint leaves for a dessert garnish. Besh stoops down to hug his son, dressed up and a bit fidgety in holiday "good clothes."
"As soon as the popovers are done," he says. "Just a few more minutes."
The chef’s other three sons scuttle around the kitchen, eager to help. Brendan, 11, starts spooning the now-wilted kale into a heated serving dish. His six-year-old brother, Jack, set his sights on the dinner’s main dish as a test of strength: "I wanna carry the roast."
For Besh, a Louisiana native who grew up on a bayou near lake Pontchartrain, Christmas dinner is an opportunity to make the traditional holiday dishes he’s eaten all of his life. This year, simplicity is particularly important to him, because 2007 has been busy with several significant new projects. In between Today show appearances and competing on Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, Besh (an F&W Best New Chef 1999) expanded his operations in New Orleans, adding two more restaurants to his mini empire.
At the beginning of the year, Besh had his hands full running his restaurants August, in New Orleans’s downtown area, and Besh Steak, nearby in the Harrah’s casino complex. His work at six-year-old August—serving cuisine that reflects both the traditions of south Louisiana and his love of French and German food—has brought Besh much acclaim.
But as the city’s restaurant scene rebounded from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Besh saw the opportunity to pursue two projects near and dear to his heart. With characteristic enthusiasm and resolve, the former Marine launched both within a single month: In April 2007, with the help of chef Jared Tees, Besh opened Lüke, an Alsace-style brasserie in downtown New Orleans, focusing on classics like homemade pâtés and cold shellfish platters. He also reopened the 36-year-old La Provence, a landmark French restaurant in Lacombe, about 45 miles outside New Orleans, serving rustic, slow-cooked dishes like crispy duckling with honey and spring onions.
"Opening both places at the same time was the dumbest thing I’ve done in my life," says Besh with a laugh. "I didn’t sleep for a few months there. But it had to be done. Sometimes opportunities come up that can’t be planned for.
"The first year after Katrina, we just survived. The second year, we really rebuilt. Now, in the third year, we’re reinvesting in the city, creating new things, preserving our history."
As Besh finishes the last preparations for Christmas dinner, a few guests gather near the tree for cocktails. Octavio Mantilla, co-owner of Besh’s restaurants, mixes a second round of Champagne mojitos, a variation on the classic drink, while Besh’s wife, Jenifer, passes around little tarts filled with briny Gulf oysters smothered in creamy béchamel; the recipe is a childhood favorite that Besh adapted. Blake LeMaire, another Louisiana native and the general manager at Lüke, dips a subtly spiced shrimp into a cup of tangy remoulade sauce, spiked with just enough horseradish.
Sensing the imminent start of dinner, guests swarm the kitchen, eager to help load the buffet. Yvette LeMaire, Blake’s wife, makes a beeline for the lush, bacon-studded "Christmas potatoes," a simple but outrageously decadent recipe from Besh’s mother-in-law, Barbara Berrigan. With much fanfare and no small amount of caution, young Jack ushers the 16-pound roast into the dining room without incident.
Finally Besh enters the dining room with the popovers, steamy and hot from the oven—the last-second dish that signals the beginning of the feast. The recipe is from Besh’s father-in-law, Pat Berrigan, who uses drippings from the rib roast to make the batter. "Pat treasures this recipe," says Besh. "They’re a good alternative to the more traditional Yorkshire pudding." Pulling a popover from the platter, Besh catches his youngest son’s attention and lobs a pass ("Here Drew...catch!"). Drew catches the popover with a high-pitched shriek, and the meal is served.
Besh carves thick slabs off the roast; each slice is perfectly pink in the center, with a crackly, caramelized edge. Heaping spoonfuls of hot buttered cauliflower, silky and rich and perfectly spiced with cayenne pepper, are served on the side. Crispy oyster dressing, a recipe adapted from one by Besh’s mother, is fragrant with Creole flavors like cayenne and garlic.
Dessert includes Père Roux’s cake, another Besh tradition. Every year since 2000, Father Randy Roux, a local priest and friend, would surreptitiously leave one of his cakes on the family’s doorstep with a simple note reading, "Bonne Noël! Père Roux." Roux learned to make this dessert when he worked as a prefect in a French cloister, where an elderly nun entrusted him with the recipe but swore him to secrecy. The cake pays homage to New Orleans’s classic bananas Foster with a filling of sautéed bananas, cinnamon and dark rum in between each layer of fluffy genoise cake, capped with cream cheese frosting.
As dinner winds down, Besh sits back and, finally, relaxes. And his kitchen crew, their labors over, their meal a success, powers down for a nap.
Pableaux Johnson is a New Orleans–based writer and the author, most recently, of ESPN Gameday Gourmet.