PLEASING THE CROWDS: Award-winning chef John Besh grew up fishing and hunting on the bayou, not far from the Slidell home he shares with his wife, Jenifer, and their four young sons. From it, you can see Honey Island Bayou flowing gently behind his yard. But Besh, on his rare days off, doesn’t just sit back and enjoy the view. Owner or executive chef for a trio of upscale local eateries — Restaurant August, Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino and, most recently, La Provence in Lacombe — Besh likes to cook at home, too, preferably in his cutting-edge outdoor kitchen.”I have a rigorous schedule,” the chef said on a recent Sunday afternoon as he sliced ingredients and warmed pizza dough on the outdoor grill. “I am not the 9 to 5 dad who can stay home in the evenings with my children. That is why the time I do have off is so important to me.
“Sundays are sacred. It’s a time when we get to sit down together as a family. The outdoor kitchen is a place where I can cook outside and the children can play outside.”
“Family” is a broad term for the Besh clan: John is the fifth of six children, Jenifer the oldest of five. The two grew up within three blocks of each other. Jenifer’s brother, Patrick, was her future husband’s best friend, and the two men still hunt and fish together. With four boys of their own and an array of nieces, nephews, in-laws and cousins, the couple finds that their Sunday entourage continues to expand. Besh, suffice it to say, comes by cooking for crowds naturally.
ENVIRONMENTALLY CORRECT: The chef’s outdoor kitchen outshines most indoor ones, both for high-end appliances and high-end views.
“I wanted to bring in New Orleans architecture, brick, cypress and slate, and use this space between the house and the bayou where the kids could play outside and I could cook outside,” Besh said. “I have always enjoyed a beautiful view in a gorgeous locale. I like creating spaces inside my home that bring the outdoors in, and in this case, we did just the opposite.”
The outdoor kitchen, dining area and pool blend seamlessly with the environment. A wall-less kitchen of cypress planks covered with a tin roof overlooks the bayou, poised to capture the natural beauty without detracting from it. The slate pool, just a few steps away, blends in with the environment as well. A casual wrought-iron table sits nearby, while a more formal outdoor zinc dining table is situated closer to the house, under a candled chandelier and wrought-iron canopy where wisteria has begun to climb.
Besh was careful to incorporate his love of place and history into his outdoor rooms. The Viking range is 21st century and top-of-the-line, but the brick oven is made of old Chicago bricks from a demolished Bywater warehouse. The floor and counter tops are made of slate tiles. More modern touches include a stainless-steel refrigerator, cabinets and keg.
BACK TO NATURE: Besh’s use of native materials, like his decision to live on the bayou, reflects his appreciation for the landscape of his youth.
“It was my mission to find a place where my children could be in nature,” he said. “They fish and hunt where I fished and hunted growing up. My life is so crazy that I wanted my children to have something normal. My sons go to the same school that Jenifer and I went to.”
Having young children has led to a casual dining lifestyle and spending a great deal of time outdoors, Jenifer added. “We have a no-TV rule on Sundays, except for the Saints,” she said. “Usually the children and their cousins are in the pool, fishing or playing football.”
Outdoor meals are simple, too, created around fresh local ingredients. “My cooking is minimalistic,” Besh said. “I don’t believe in wasting an animal, so I use all the parts. I like to make sure the flavors speak for themselves.”
Besh studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and served an apprenticeship at the Michelin-starred Romantik Hotel Spielwed in the Black Forest. “My experience in Germany taught me a lot,” he said. “They were stewards of this small area of the country with large amounts of wild beauty and the sensibility to use all products that came from this little corner of the Black Forest. Cream came from the local creamery; everything was local. It gave me a sense of appreciation for where everything came from and what our place in nature is supposed to be.”
For Besh, nature and cooking are intertwined. He wants to pass his deep appreciation for both on to his children. “I want my children to become conservationists and treat nature with respect,” Besh said. “The bayou is one of the few places left of its kind, and thankfully Honey Island is federally and state protected. I want my children to value the natural beauty that exists in their own back yard.”
— STEPHANIE HEPBURN