Sitting Down with John Besh: Part 1-Syrena and Café Reconcile
The Monday after the International Food Blogger’s Conference ended, I decided to visit Restaurant August and sample their $20.11 pre-fixe lunch (an amazing deal, for one of the city’s top restaurants) before I sat down to interview its chef and owner, John Besh. Chef Besh had spoken to the conference attendees on the previous Saturday night. He won me over right then and there with his good looks and charisma. More importantly, I was so impressed with the plan he had cooked up to help all the employees who had joined him in returning to New Orleans in the earliest days after the flooding caused by the levee breach post-Katrina. They started out feeding the National Guard and other emergency personnel, for free at first, and then he secured lucrative contracts to do so.
“I shouldn’t say that” he joked, as he shared with us what he called his “Communist plan.”
“I’m an American, and I was a Marine,” he was quick to point out, as he proceeded to tell us how he had used the money he made then, to set up each of those key employees as co-owners with him in restaurants around the city. “When they’re able to take over on their own, I’ll turn the restaurants over to them.”
After feasting on an incredible lunch, I sat down to speak with Chef Besh.
When I started out by asking him what Café Reconcile (I had just seen it mentioned on a brochure in the restaurant) was, I learned the plan he told us about at the conference wasn’t his only social engineering (and I mean that in the best sense of the phrase) project.
“A couple of organizations have joined together to target at risk inner city youth and give them a future in the restaurant business. But it really teaches more about life skills than anything else. These are just great kids taken off the street, and they’re given dignity. They’re given great lessons, from how to balance a check book, to how to apply for a job. We have a thriving hospitality industry, but yet, we have completely dropped the ball on preparing young people for its workforce. So, how do you break that cycle that so many people are in? That’s something that means a lot to me. And our foundation kind of took it to the next level. What about those in that system, that really have a shot at making the big time? That really have the drive, really have the focus, really have the smarts, and the book smarts necessary just to get through culinary school, so that they’re able to move into the management side of things, and make a great living for their family. That’s what our scholarship is all about.”
“Do you mind if I introduce you to someone?” he jumps up to run to the kitchen.
He returns leading a young dread locked woman with a huge smile towards me. “This lady just had the drive and tenacity that it took to win the scholarship, and she’s headed up there (to New York where she’ll be studying at the French Culinary Institue). Both Marcus Samuelsson (Chef/Owner of Red Rooster, Street Food, C-House and Marc Burger in New York City) and Aarón Sanchez (chef/owner of Centrico Restaurant and Tacombi in New York City) have been tweeting about “can’t wait for Syrena to get up here. We’re going to show her the city.”
“I’m just-I want to go like right now… get my stuff together down here, but I can’t wait ‘til I get there. I’m looking forward to seeing something other than here.” Syrena gushes.
“Syrena joined our restaurant – she’s been here for about a month, maybe a bit longer – just to kind of acclimate herself. Restaurant August is one of the more French run restaurants in the city. She’s working garde manger, working on all sorts of different things. Garde manger in this restaurant is much more than just salads (your LA2LAChef can certainly attest to that, having opened her lunch there with a fabulous pâté plate). And here, even a salad is this incredible undertaking,” Besh adds.
“Thank you so much,” Syrena tells me as I wish her good luck in the Big Apple. “I’m looking forward to everything. Thank you so much (she turns again to Chef Besh), for giving me this opportunity. And I can’t wait until the next one’ll pop up.”
“So, I think the whole, my point of what we’re trying to do now is to use food, as a tool-we can create meaningful change in all of our communities. It’s the fact that food is much more important than what you ate today.” Besh continues.
Yes, and I’d say the food I ate was pretty darn important, too.
Post script- After I posted this, I spoke with the publisher of Besh’s latest cookbook, My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, which Library Journal calls a “stunning volume … filled with intimate photographs of the Besh family in the kitchen, at the table, and outdoors with friends.” She offered to donate a signed copy, which she told me she’s given away very few of, to a contest I have devised. The entry to the contest is a donation of any size to the John Besh Foundation, whether it’s $2 or $200. Just click on the Give Back link, and then come back and leave a comment (at this post or the following one-Sitting Down with John Besh-Part 2-The Diverse Richness of New Orleans Cuisine) which includes your confirmation number.
For a second entry, you can tweet about the contest and your donation, and encourage others to enter, too, then let me know in a second comment with the URL of your tweet. You have until midnight on March 31st, 2012 to enter. On April 1st, some lucky fool’s name will be drawn (and that’s no foolin’). The time to enter has been extended to April2, 2012 at Midnight. On April 3rd, some lucky person’s name will be drawn. The pool is tiny, so you have an excellent chance to win, and support a great cause.