Chef John Besh is famous for his inventive takes on classic fare served at his nine restaurants, eight of which are near his New Orleans home. But like the spices that flavor a complex gumbo, the context of Besh’s inspiration is global.
Early in his career, Besh trained with groundbreaking Europeans chefs. He learned to appreciate the unique flavor contributions of local ingredients and how they reflect the cultural values of those who are sustained by them.
Besh conjures the sights and smells of Germany’s Black Forest and the Provence region of France in his new book, Cooking From the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way. Affectionately written and beautifully illustrated, it is an unabashed love letter to those who taught him, drank with him, and ultimately shaped his career.
“I was very blessed to have these experiences, and to retrace my steps to share them with others,” Besh says.
Besh hopes that the book will inspire home cooks to cook more often to gain confidence in selecting and preparing ingredients, and in feeding themselves and others.
“Cooking teaches important life lessons. It’s taken me a couple of decades to figure this out, but it will transform the way you view food – the way you view everything,” he says. “Too often, there’s almost a snobbery associated with great food. I wanted to be careful to dispel that and bring the humanity back. I don’t want people to not cook because they are afraid of making a mistake.”
Most of the recipes can be made by even novice cooks. This is especially true of the “A Leaf of Lettuce” chapter, which inspired a colorful triple-play dinner at our house with mâche salad with pumpkin oil vinaigrette, roasted beets in vinaigrette and carrot and chive salad with the distinctive crunch of toasted caraway seeds.
Besh approved of my tweaking the salad vinaigrette with walnut oil I had in the pantry instead buying a $16 bottle of pumpkin oil to use just two tablespoons. “Absolutely,” he says. “My message is these are blueprints, starting points, for making great food.”
Still, the man is a world-renowned chef. He peppers the collection with some recipes only the brave are likely to attempt, such as fat-studded sülze: pork head cheese. Besh says he includes these to demonstrate how they are both flavorful and sustainable.
“I don’t really expect many people to attempt Wild Boar Head Pate,” he says, referencing a recipe introduced with a startling image of German Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs singeing the dangling beast’s coarse fur with a blow torch. “I was a little worried that people might look at that first chapter and think, ‘Hell, no.’ One thing I learned from Karl-Josef is that if you are going to take an animal, you must use all of it.”
Besh also draws inspiration from time spent in North Carolina, where he was stationed while serving with the U.S. Marines during the Persian Gulf War. His connection goes much further back, however. His paternal grandfather ran the dairy operation at the Biltmore Estate for the Vanderbilts.
“He and my father lived in a little white house that used to be where the winery stands now,” says Besh. “Every now and then I return and take pictures of the improvements to show to my dad.”
The Besh family often vacations in small towns in western North Carolina, where he and his brother-in-law enjoy fishing and hunting. “Western North Carolina has been like a second home to us,” says Besh, who caught duck for Thanksgiving last year while canoeing on the French Broad River. “My wife’s family had a place at Lake Toxaway, so we all have strong connections. It doesn’t take much to make us come back.”
Reprinted with permission from Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way by John Besh/Andrews McMeel Publishing.
I’m so pleased by the presentation of this tian, where the shell of the squash becomes the baking and serving vessel that you bring to the table. If you don’t want to bother with the shell, you can bake the scooped out pumpkin and custard in a shallow casserole.
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the top off the pumpkin, about 3 inches below the stem, and reserve to serve with the squash. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds. (You can roast the pumpkin seeds for a nice snack: toss the cleaned seeds in olive oil and a pinch of salt, spread on a baking pan, and roast in a 350-degree oven for 15–20 minutes, until golden brown.) Use a spoon to scrape out as much of the pumpkin as you can, leaving the shell intact. Chop the flesh.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the garlic and pumpkin flesh and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, cayenne and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sautéed pumpkin back into the shell.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, and Parmesan and pour into the pumpkin shell. Place on a baking pan and bake until the top is golden brown and the custard is set, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve right from the pumpkin while it’s still hot.