By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Andrews McMeel
New Orleans chef John Besh’s new cookbook, My Family Table, is loaded with pictures of him, his wife, Jenifer, and their four sons cooking and eating in beautiful Louisiana settings. There’s a jazz brunch, complete with photogenic friends, and a Christmas dinner with goose liver pâté and gourmet latkes. What you won’t find on the pages though, are photos of American family evenings, frazzled with homework disasters, after-school car shuffles, an empty fridge and no time to cook food even if it were there.
You’d think the Besh family dinners cook themselves—until you found out the truth.
“A few years back, I made the mistake of asking my wife about what she was feeding our children,” Besh writes in the book. “She replied that if I was half as concerned about feeding my family as I was about serving my customers, I’d do a better job of helping her with menu ideas that were easy for her to prepare and…something the lads might actually eat. What she said hit me like a ton of bricks.”
“It’s not that I didn’t cook at home,” he says. “I’d make these epic ‘me meals.’ I was showing off.”
My Family Table is the result of Besh’s repentance—an easygoing homage to Southern home cooking, with some Asian, Spanish and eclectic touches thrown in. This means not one, but two fried chicken recipes, as well as ways to turn one chicken into several meals.
“In parts, a chicken might feed six to eight people, but you can get more out of a whole chicken,” Besh says. “Not just the meat, but this great carcass. In the restaurant business, we do not throw out carcasses. Turn that carcass into stock. Freeze the stock in ice-cube trays. Use the roasted meat in chicken noodle panfry or incorporate it into curried anything.”
It’s not all school-night food, either. Chapters are devoted to barbecue wisdom, cooking with cast iron and how to cook a fish, among other subjects. “It isn’t very romantic, but I don’t care,” Besh says. “Most chef’s books—even my first book [My New Orleans]—look good on a coffee table, but I want you to take this one into the kitchen and use it. I hope it ends up looking like my old River Road cookbook [River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine]. I cooked my way from one end of that book to the other.”
The thought of making breakfast for buddies during deer season still makes his eyes light up, and the new book contains “a doozy of a pain perdu,” but it’s hard to find the time. Besh runs a seven-restaurant culinary empire—including the recently opened Lüke on the River Walk in San Antonio. He appears regularly on the Today Show and the Food Network, was a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters and even played himself on Treme. But he doesn’t trust his own publicity.
“I worry that the more cooking becomes entertainment and a spectator sport (instead of a family activity), and the more we fetishize celebrity chefs, the awful result is that we discourage folks from even setting foot in their kitchens,” he writes.
Compared to all that, My Family Table’s message is simple: you don’t have to settle for drive-through. Not on a school night, not for Sunday supper, not even when you’ve worked so late in a restaurant kitchen that no one’s awake to greet you when you get home.
“I’ve been drinking iced tea out of quart containers all night, and I’m high on caffeine,” he says. “But we usually have cooked udon, ramen or spaghetti in the fridge. I’ll make some variation of a pho, with stock, star anise or some 5-spice powder, maybe a touch of ginger, always basil or cilantro, chop up some protein and drizzle some sambal or sriracha. All of a sudden, you’ve got a meal.”
Besh loves to drink wine and eat noodles, late at night, with only a 1930s safari novel or Mark Twain for company. “I’m usually gnawing my way through a book,” he says. “If we're not careful, we forget about the importance of Tom Sawyer.”
JOHN BESH'S VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP
“On almost any night, we love nothing more than a big, hot bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup—pho. Don’t worry about the number of ingredients in this recipe. Pho is nothing more than a flavorful broth, often perfumed with star anise. Since that’s not easy to find, we use Chinese five-spice powder (which has star anise in it).”
1 T. sesame oil
4 green onions, chopped
2 T. peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 t. Chinese five-spice powder
3 qt. chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ lb. rice vermicelli noodles, cooked
1 lb. sliced cooked meat
1 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves only
2 limes, quartered
2 handfuls bean sprouts
Sambal chili paste
Heat the sesame oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the green onions, ginger, garlic and five-spice powder and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken broth, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Taste and season with salt and pepper, and cover the pot.
Divide the cooked rice noodles among 6 soup bowls. Over each bowl of noodles, scatter equal portions of sliced meat, then pour the hot broth over the noodles so that the meat is barely covered. In the center of the table, put plates of the fresh herbs, limes and bean sprouts. Each person can add his own fresh herbs and bean sprouts to the soup. Squeeze limes over the top, season with hoisin and chili, stir well and start slurping.
From My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, by John Besh