New Orleans, 2005, the site of the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, seems hardly the most promising of situations for a chef to reinvent himself. But according to chef John Besh, "Hurricane Katrina was really the catalyst for what we're doing today." His flagship restaurant, the celebrated August, was one of the first to reopen after the hurricane hit.
"After the disaster, I saw trying to stimulate any sort of local economy as my duty." Although he was a player in the U.S. food scene prior to Katrina (he was named one of Ten Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine in 1999), his restaurant group's actions in the wake of the hurricane are what certified him as a local food hero.
Besh is no stranger to the ways in which large-scale disaster can affect business. The original opening date of August was set for September 11, 2001, but got bumped back a week due to the terrorist attacks. "Obviously, tourism was crushed. But endurance and willingness to stick through the tough times"—a trait he attributes largely to his time spent as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm—proved invaluable.
"The thing is, if you can create good practices during the hard times like perfect customer service and running a kitchen efficiently, then you allow good principles to guide your growth," he says. "Even if you're just barely managing to hang on for a while, when the good times come 'round and the economy picks up, you will thrive."
Four years later, just as Besh finally finished paying off initial August investors, Katrina struck. "Overnight, I went from 150 employees down to exactly four." It was a sobering time. Besh went from being a “starry-eyed chef trying to conquer the food scene" to a leader in reconstruction and revitalization efforts. It was the struggle to put his business back on its feet that led Besh to realize the importance of goodwill and a strong local economy.
"Forget fine dining," was his first thought. With so many disaster-relief workers in the area and the government dragging its feet, converting the business to a mass catering company was the logical solution. "We started feeding oil-refinery repair crews before any of the big contracts and Federal money started coming in," Besh says. "We found our first niche feeding crews up and down the river."
Today, the catering business Besh started during Katrina is helmed by one of his former Marine buddies. "He just had a great understanding of logistics in disaster situations like that." Besh Restaurant Group Catering now partners with emergency reconstruction consultants Arkel International to bring ready-to-eat meals to emergency-response teams everywhere from Afghanistan to Haiti.
While the catering business had no shortage of mouths to feed, "the restaurants were struggling. With overheads costing us more than $50,000 a month just to keep them open, there was no way we were going to make money.” Instead, Besh focused on harboring goodwill both with employees who were grateful to find work anywhere they could and with customers. "We started a program where, if you helped reopen another restaurant as a laborer, then we’d feed you for free," he says, explaining that his belief in the power of goodwill is what made him willing to operate at a loss for the time being. "At one point, more than half the dining room at August was eating for free." Soon afterward, Besh opened Lüke, a casual restaurant down the street from August.
During the subsequent two years of regrowth, this notion of solidifying future business through goodwill became a model not only for customers and employees but for suppliers as well. "Supporting the economy also meant supporting the people who provide us with the basic ingredients." Besh started buying out shrimp hauls from local shrimpers even when he wasn’t sure he could move the product. His restaurants started delivering seed to farmers with the promise of buying back any produce grown from them. It was a gamble that proved to pay off in the end. Besh Restaurant Group now comprises six restaurants and a catering company. Besh was named Best Chef in the Southeast by the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2006 and won the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in 2009 in recognition of his role in the revitalization of New Orleans.
But for Besh, the results have extended beyond the financial and critical recognition. Through working with local producers, Besh, a New Orleans native, has returned to the roots of his cuisine. "These days I’m cooking things like étouffée and jambalaya. The foods I grew up with that stimulated my palate at a young age." As the father of four boys, this last point is particularly poignant to him. "The American food scene is progressing toward a more homogenous cuisine," he laments. "I want to cook food from here. Food that means something so my boys can grow up with a culture they identify with."
"Families and communities take different forms, but my mission is to get more people to understand the social benefits of sitting down and having a meal together," something which many people take for granted. "I’ve seen what can happen on any given day, and it’s given me perspective. I know the power that food can have on the growth or re-growth of a community, mentally and economically."