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INTERVIEW: James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne® Honoree John Besh

Nicole Barylski

James Beard Award-winning chef, author, philanthropist, and restaurateur Chef John Besh. (Photo: Maura McEvoy)

On Saturday, July 23rd, the James Beard Foundation will fête multiple James Beard Award-winning chef, author, philanthropist, and restaurateur Chef John Besh during its 2016 Chefs & Champagne® event at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack.

"I'm really excited to head out to the Hamptons," Chef John Besh told Hamptons.com "It's actually my first time there ever."

We caught up with Besh to talk about his culinary influences, Louisiana background and being honored during Chefs & Champagne®.

How did your love affair with the culinary world begin?

At a really young age, probably as early as 9-years-old. Growing up with the food culture of New Orleans, it just brought people together. It was something that black, white, rich, poor, everybody has their opinion about their gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, and po' boys, so at a young age that was spoon fed to me, and I just devoured it. I built a consciousness of what food means, not only to me, but to everybody, and how we can use food to do great things, which is what we really strive to do today.

When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?

And again, that was probably about the same age. Some time around 10 or 11-years-old I met Chef Paul Prudhomme for the first time and he was literally bigger than life. I recognized, hey, this is a guy from the Louisiana countryside, just like myself. He was the first chef ever to be on the cover of Time Magazine. He took our culture of food and hospitality and shared it with the entire world, putting Cajun, Creole food on the map internationally. At that time, I felt like, wow, I met this guy and I thought this is what I want to be one day; I want to be a chef.

What's your go-to dish?

I've very provincial about that because as a father of four, I want to make sure that I'm leaving my kids with the taste of our culture. At home I cook a lot of soulful country dishes, the jumbos, jambalayas and étouffées. I want to pass that on to them. So, in general, my understanding of food comes from the Louisiana French perspective and that's kind of my comfort.

Have you had any mentors or chefs that have influenced your career?

I have. I made my apprenticeship in Southern German and in Southern France as well. Those chefs really brought about this understanding idea of localism, before it really hit America, and how important it was and what sort of a difference it can make in our communities. And, not to mention how much better it is for you to eat as local as possible. So, that idea launched me into this direction of partnering with farms and farmers, and creating much more of a dialogue between the chef and the producers, which has led to a micro loan program that we have today where we offer area food producers no interest loans to make sure we're still producing as much food locally as we can because our culture kind of rests upon that.

What was your response to finding out you were this year's James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne honoree?

I was tickled to death and really tickled because so many of my friends have gone there before me, and I'm also thrilled because they've kind of broken the mold a little bit choosing a chef from South Louisiana. New Orleans has always been a great food city. I don't think any chefs from there have been honored, so I was thrilled to represent not just myself, and our restaurant group, but our entire culture here.

You'll be opening up your first restaurant in Houston next year. What made you want to expand the Besh Restaurant Group there?

Well, we already have restaurants in Texas. Houston is like the next-door neighbor to New Orleans, so we share a lot of the same culture. Probably outside of New Orleans, Houston contributes to the vast majority of our clientele. So, we're heading to Nashville and we're heading to Houston, and we want to continue to expand, only through investing in passionate people. Over the years we've developed 14 restaurants and they're all essentially partnered with the chefs that have come up through our kitchens and the chefs that have given so much of themselves to my success. The idea is to invest in people that have percolated up through the ranks and are ready to take on and become a partner in their own restaurant. As young chefs continue to want to grow within our group, we'll continue to invest in them, and that's really what it's all about.

Where do you see the Besh Restaurant Group in 10 years?

You know, that's a good question. We created a hotel food and beverage program just last year, and that's growing exponentially. So, I see facets of our company growing as fast as they want to. I try not to make predictions, but I just love the idea of creating an opportunity for others. I was blessed to have people around me that helped with opportunities and to pass that on to the next generations of chefs is really important to me.

Since this will be your first time to the Hamptons, do you have anything special planned?

Well, I'm letting all my friends there do all the planning. We're planning some clambakes and just some fun, casual times with friends. I just can't wait. It's way too hot down here, I can't wait to get up there. I'm thrilled to death to be there.

Tickets to James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne® are $200 for members and $275 for the general public, and grants attendees access at 6 p.m. VIP Premium Admission (from 5 to 10 p.m.) is $375. Along with honoring Chef Besh, the evening will feature endless champagne and bites from a select group of over 40 celebrated chefs, many from JBF Award-winning restaurants.

Wölffer Estate Vineyard is located at 139 Sagg Road in Sagaponack. For more information, visit www.jamesbeard.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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