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October 17, 2010

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Chef's stormy experience makes business sense

CHEF John Besh's two restaurants were spared when Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans five years ago, but the storm almost wiped him out anyway.

Besh had just taken out a large loan to pay off his partners when the storm shut him down and sent his customers looking for dry ground. "We came back fast and furious, but we were here with a refrigerator full of food and no one to cook it for," Besh recalled.

At the suggestion of an old US Marine Corps buddy, Besh decided to cook the food and serve it to stranded residents and first responders brought to New Orleans by the hurricane. That effort led to Besh's latest commercial endeavor, ArkelBesh, in which he has partnered with Arkel International to create high quality ready-to-eat meals that will be distributed to emergency response teams.

It is the most direct outcome of the 2005 storm for Besh, but only a small part of his growing empire that includes several new restaurants, a James Beard award, TV appearances and cookbooks. "In retrospect, things worked out really well," Besh said. "But no one thought it would at the time."

Besh, whose likable persona is a mix between southern good old boy and friendly Boy Scout, is now involved in six New Orleans-area restaurants - August, Besh Steak, La Provence, Domenica, Luke and American Sector - with a seventh, Luke River Walk, to open in two weeks in San Antonio, Texas. Except for his earliest outposts, all were established with a corps of chefs who returned to New Orleans to help him get back on his feet after Katrina.

"They had all lost everything, but they came back to help me," Besh said. "Working together through that time created an esprit de corps. These guys realized if we worked together we could move ahead."

One in that close-knit crew, chef Steve McHugh, was diagnosed with cancer and went to San Antonio for treatment. Besh said McHugh fell in love with the city, and will now be at the helm of Luke River Walk.

"It was a life-changing event for all of us," said Alon Shaya, who was the chef at the steak house before the storm. "I had only known John for a short time, and we really just had a professional relationship. But I tell you, when we were stirring pots of red beans in his driveway at four in the morning, it created a bond for all of us."

Preparing food and delivering it to hospitals, rescue workers and stranded residents - and "every civil servant in St Bernard Parish for a year-and-a-half," was the start of everything that followed, said Shaya, who now leads Domenica.

Simone Rathle, who until recently handled Besh's publicity, said a Katrina fund-raiser in Washington DC, shortly after the hurricane, was one of the first things to put Besh on the national radar.

"He hadn't shaved, he was tired, he knew what was going on in the city, and everyone wanted to talk to him," Rathle said.

That day Besh and the other 19 chefs making po-boys, the traditional New Orleans sandwich, raised US$27,000 in two hours, Rathle said. But the event also made Besh a spokesman for his stricken hometown.

Since Katrina, Besh has won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2006 and more than 100 other honors, including those from Food Arts and Gourmet Magazine, for his cooking and restaurants.

At 42 now, however, Besh said he is at a point where he is ready to change direction.

This summer Besh took up the crusade to help restore confidence in Gulf seafood, which consumers were avoiding after a massive oil spill.

He is considering several other philanthropic moves, ranging from a foundation to funding scholarships to cooking programs at colleges to hands-on work with youngsters to teach skills they need for restaurant careers.

"I love what I do. I love the art of fine dining," Besh said. "But I just love cooking for people and want to share that with others."


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