NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Chef John Besh speaks with unbridled enthusiasm about New Orleans cuisine, whose uniqueness he says stems from the blending of local ingredients and various traditions in the region.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, led the classically-train chef to focus his culinary identity on the region of his birth.
In his first cookbook, “My New Orleans,” the 41-year-old chef includes personal tales of the city before and after Katrina.
He spoke to Reuters about the city, its history and the diversity of New Orleans cuisine.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your book?
A: “I want people to understand the soul of New Orleans. I want people to know New Orleans is a national treasure with the only indigenous urban cuisine in America. And it’s a very valid cuisine. We need to pay homage to it and to understand what’s behind it. Many people have this misconception that Louisiana is all about spicy food. It’s anything but that. I weaved some of my stories into the book so people can understand the food and therefore the people a lot better.”
Q: How has Katrina changed you as person and as a chef?
A: “Katrina made me much more focused on being a responsible citizen and steward of my city. It’s made me want to pass on what I know to the next generation of cooks and next generation of New Orleanians.”
Q: How is the current wave of immigrants leaving their mark on New Orleans cooking?
A: “When you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you will find Vietnamese po-boys, otherwise known as banh mi, in other parts of the world. It’s a testament to the fact that this cuisine and culture continue to evolve because it is a melting pot. It’s not a homogenous culture by any mean. You have layers and layers of cultures that have weathered through storms after storms. You are left with this patina of cultures of New Orleans.”
Q: You are active in local sourcing of food to your restaurants. How has that affected the way you cook?
A: “I always say ‘What will the weather be like?’ because it always changes. At all my restaurants, their menus change with such frequencies because it’s all about what the farmers have to offer. You pull products from local farmers and fishermen and manipulate them as little as possible as that’s what I call a great plate of food.”
Q: What do you consider to be your signature dish?
A: “There has been this one dish at my August restaurant that I’ve never changed and that is potato gnocchis with jumbo lump crabmeat and truffle. There’s nothing like a combination of an exquisite ingredient with a peasant ingredient. It’s downright New Orleans.”
Drew’s Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo (Serves 10-12)
(Approximate total time 1 hour 15 minutes)
1 cup rendered chicken fat or canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
1 large chicken, cut into 12 pieces
2 tablespoons basic Creole spice mix
2 pounds spicy smoked sausage, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 quarts basic chicken stock
2 bay leaves
6 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
2 cups sliced fresh okra
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
File powder (made from ground sassafras leaves)
Tabasco sauce (made from red peppers)
4-6 cups cooked basic Louisiana white rice
1. Make a roux by heating the chicken fat or oil in a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil. It will immediately begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate and continue whisking until the roux takes on a deep brown color, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, stirring them into the roux with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue stirring until the roux is a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
2. Season the chicken with Creole spices. Add the chicken to the pot, raise heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until browned, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the smoked sausage and stir for a minute before adding the celery, bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and skim off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
4. Add the andouille, okra, and Worcestershire and season with salt and pepper, several dashes of file powder, and Tabasco. Simmer for another 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat off the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice. Pass more file at the table.
Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney