Memories: A Chef at Peace
Now a top New Orleans chef, John Besh fought in the war against Iraq in 1991. The experience changed his life—and, unexpectedly, launched his career.
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 chef—first 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 sacred—not 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 Force—Besh's old unit—and 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 how—although he didn't know it at the time—it made him into a chef.
Besh grew up on a bayou on Lake Pontchartrain, across from New Orleans. His was an old-fashioned Southern childhood—Sunday 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.
Besh joined the Marines after high school, but by the time he went from active duty to the reserves, he knew his place was in the kitchen. He applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he became a star student; suddenly, Besh said, he understood he was going to be a big-deal chef. And not in New Orleans—he knew better than anybody that the city's cuisine was a dead end. Every last chef in town was cooking either his 9,000th plate of oysters Rockefeller or, if he had pretensions to living in the 20th century, his 4,000th blackened redfish. Besh didn't want to be that kind of chef. He planned to move to New York City as soon as he had his diploma.
He had less than a year of cooking school left to finish when he was called to active duty. It was 1990, Saddam Hussein had taken Kuwait, and the President had begun shipping armed forces reserves to the Persian Gulf. "Had it been a few years earlier, I'd have welcomed going," said Besh, who was 22 at the time. "But at that point, I was like, Oh, my God, I'm almost finished here! Nobody realizes it yet, but I'm going to be a great chef. I don't want to die of anthrax in the desert."
Besh and the rest of his company landed in Saudi Arabia around New Year's Eve. Right away, they were shipped north to an outpost near the Kuwaiti border. Because tents would have been an easy target for Iraqi artillery, the Marines slept in holes they dug in the sand. The guys called these holes hooches. A canvas flap kept cold wind and rain out of your hooch—the Americans expected lousy weather, but they hadn't expected to freeze in the desert. If you tied down your flap tightly, it would also keep out the rats. If not, you'd have uninvited hoochmates. A Marine sleeps with his rifle and his pistol; these Marines also slept with their shovels, "to ward off and kill whatever made it into your hooch," Besh said. When the sun was up, they'd train or practice judo to stay fit. At night, it was rifles and pistols and shovels and rats all over again. Every few days—before the enemy could draw a bead on their position—they'd break camp, drive a few miles and dig new hooches. They did this for five weeks while awaiting the order to move into Kuwait.
Sergeant David Foss recalls Corporal Besh as one of his most reliable squad leaders. "I looked to him to teach the younger guys their stuff," he says. "I gave him the two biggest screwups in the unit." Besh straightened them out, although he wasn't exactly a stereotypical jarhead himself. He was famous for having the longest hair in the Marines, which was buzzed on the sides but left floppy on top. (Today, it's floppy all around.) His lower lip bulged with a wad of chewing tobacco; he kept the pouch stashed at a rakish angle in the mesh on his helmet. His New Orleans accent seemed to deepen with every mile he'd traveled from Bourbon Street. "Now, luhky hee-eah," he'd say when he was trying to make a point. "Luhky hee-eah."
The allied invasion of Kuwait took four days. Four days of fighting out of four months in country leaves a glut of downtime. "There was nothing to do," Besh recalled. Meals weren't much of a distraction. The troops lived on MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, little boxes of dehydrated nourishment in a rainbow of colors from gray to off-white. Each MRE came with a bullet-size bottle of Tabasco sauce. "You needed something after eating that junk for so long," Besh said. "But if you're from New Orleans, you have to have Crystal hot sauce." He still has a photograph of himself standing in the desert holding a bottle of Crystal his mother mailed.
If the MREs didn't satisfy, talking about real food sometimes did. "Guys, just imagine this is fried soft-shell crab," Besh would say, shutting his eyes to the harsh reality of chicken à la king à la Pentagon. Or he'd argue with his hoochmate, a Dominican named Mario Ortiz, about the relative culinary merits of New Orleans and Santo Domingo, jambalaya and paella, gumbo and caldo. "It's the common denominator," Besh said. "Everybody can talk about food."
Between meals, the Marines trained relentlessly, running through various combat scenarios, like a chemical weapons attack. Among the agents in Saddam's arsenal was the lethal nerve gas tabun. This held a special terror for the boy from Bayou Bonifuca. As tabun takes hold of the nervous system, it causes a powerful olfactory hallucination: the sweet aroma of toasted almonds. If you smelled toasted almonds, you were supposed to hold your breath and run like hell for your gas mask. The problem was, in the Besh household, the smell of toasted almonds meant John's dad had caught a bunch of speckled trout and was down in the kitchen cooking trout amandine. How could Besh resist something that brought back childhood memories so powerfully?
Besh kept two journals in the Gulf. One was personal. The other was professional, a notebook in which he worked out notions for the dishes he wanted to cook after he was discharged. The night before he rolled into Kuwait, he burned most of his papers and letters so they couldn't be used against him if he was captured. He even burned his Dear John letter. (Almost everybody in the platoon got a Dear John letter, but his was literal.) It was hard to imagine even the most heartless Mukhabarat agent torturing him with recitations of his theoretical menus, however, so the food notebook was spared.
He still has it today. A pad from Price Chopper, it is a snapshot of a young chef learning what matters to him. Besh crafted a mission statement for a hypothetical restaurant that would be called the New American. Everything, down to the coffee, would be made in America. "No longer will America's cuisine be looked down on by other nations," the mission statement begins. "It's time for America's cuisine to reflect its people and personality."
Besh cringed when he reread that for the first time in a decade, and not just because some Americans have been giving culinary patriotism a bad name lately. As he recognized, it could have been written by just about any Culinary Institute student in 1991. But he had sketched out two other concepts. One was called Bistro Louisiana, and would traffic in modernized Creole dishes. The second, Café Bonifuca, hewed even more closely to regional traditions, with poached trout, crabmeat on Creole tomatoes and beignets. Besh still meant to be a great chef, but his thoughts were starting to turn homeward.
"I figured out that it's not all about what they're doing in New York or Los Angeles," Besh said. "It's about learning what we had back in Louisiana. That woke me up—that I miss Mom and Dad, I miss the food, I miss all the things that give me comfort."
Besh was shipped back to the States in early May. On his first leave, he flew to Louisiana to see his parents. Friends from cooking school had mailed him care packages filled with food magazines (including the January 1991 issue of FOOD & WINE, which he read so many times he had it just about memorized), so he knew the hot restaurants in New Orleans were Commander's Palace under Emeril Lagasse and the Windsor Court's Grill Room under Kevin Graham. Besh meant to apply to both, but he got to the Grill Room first, and Graham hired him.
At the Grill Room, Besh began the project that's defined his career: studying Louisiana's traditional ingredients and figuring out how to fit them into a modern cuisine. His inspiration for this would not be the ossified Creole kitchens of Antoine's and Galatoire's. Instead, his role models were Alice Waters, Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer, three chefs who were busy shaping a new kind of American cuisine that brought French and Italian treatments to ingredients of their own regions. Even the year Besh spent cooking at the renowned Hotel Spielweg in the German Black Forest, he said, taught him "that you can create a local cuisine that's eclectic, that doesn't fit into regional stereotypes."
By this point in Besh's recitation, the monsoon had blown over. Downstairs, the kitchen was piled with crawfish, Gulf pompano, buster crabs. Not everything was local—Besh left the absolutism of the New American behind him in Kuwait—but the dinner crowd that night would have no doubt that Besh had built a great New Orleans restaurant. A few hours later, a gentleman dining at the bar thoughtfully sampled a dish of crawfish agnolotti with bacon, sweet peas and morels, and offered his opinion. "You know," he said, "this guy is the best sumbitch in the city right now."
Before leaving his office to take on the dinner rush, Besh offered one more thought about how he'd traveled halfway around the globe and, when he got there, discovered his home. "I'm not sure how much of it was just homesickness," he said. "But the food—it does find you." ³
Pete Wells is a senior editor at Details.