​The heart and soul of chef John Besh's cooking

Great food is a tradition chef John Besh is determined to maintain. Ten years ago he opened his heart and soul to the storm's hungry victims. More recently, he opened his kitchen to our Michelle Miller:

"New Orleans has its own flavor," chef John Besh says. "And I think part of that flavor is the soul that really goes into it."

Besh knows something about the soul of New Orleans. "The food of New Orleans is the only indigenous urban cuisine left," he said. "You come to our city, you open up any menu, you know exactly where you're at."

The Besh Restaurant Group has 10 restaurants in New Orleans, and employs over a thousand people. Besh himself is a fixture on television and has written four cookbooks, including his latest: "Besh Big Easy."

He says in addition to serving up food, his restaurants evoke emotion: "Everything that we do here should take us back to our childhood." For example, with every cookie plate comes cookie batter, just like when you licked the batter off the mixer.

Miller met up with Besh at his newest venture, the just-opened bakery and café Willa Jean. Besh told her he'd always wanted to be "a New Orleans chef."

The 47-year-old Besh could almost see New Orleans from Slidell, La., where he grew up as one of six kids of a stay-at-home mom and airline pilot father.

Besh started cooking after his father was paralyzed: "I was nine years old. And he was hit by a drunk driver, paralyzed for life. At that point, I started cooking breakfast for my siblings. And I wasn't the smart one -- I mean, we got smart ones, I was just, like, the dumb one that liked making breakfast and serving the kids. And so that kind of became my job. I loved to cook."

Chef John Besh is one of the most popular and successful restaurateurs in Louisiana, with a strong appetite for helping the city recover from Katrina.
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And he kept cooking, developing his own unique take on time-honored recipes.

"I would always do, like, riffs on my mom's shrimp Creole. I would add a little something [and] make it my own. And then, when I had a chance to finally stand out on my own, I wanted to honor some of those great dishes that I've had in the past. And so, I'm just trying to bring a little refinement to them, and that's pretty much all I do still today."

Andrews McMeel

Before his culinary career took off, Besh joined the Marines, where he served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. "That was a time that I got to mature a lot. And at a young age, learning how to deal with people that don't look like you, don't talk like you, that really helped me a lot in growing as a chef."

He returned home to start a family and work his way up the New Orleans food scene, eventually becoming the executive chef and owner of August Restaurant.

Life was good, but something was missing.

"I did fall into the trap of being that selfish chef just focused on building this great place. And it was Katrina that really brought me back to my roots of, 'No. We have to live now and really serve other people.' And that's what it really comes down to."

When the storm hit, he shut his restaurant down and left with his family, only to return to a devastated city.

"And then I get here and I see the fires and I see the smoke and I see the water, and you see people in such despair. And I just remember at this one point thinking, 'God has put me here for a reason. I have resources. I have a talent. What am I going to do to help?'"

What he could do was cook.

"And we just started cooking," Besh said. "We'd cook red beans and rice around the clock. And either myself or some of my Marine friends would ride around just scooping and serving these red beans to people."