No one has done more to keep Louisiana’s seafood traditions alive than John Besh. The 43-year-old chef, who grew up hunting and fishing along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, had just opened his second restaurant in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He found himself cooking vats of red beans and rice in his driveway for emergency responders, and his life has been a blur of fundraisers ever since—first for Katrina relief, lately for fishermen forced out of work by the April 2010 BP oil spill. Besh, who now owns eight restaurants in New Orleans, makes it a point to use seafood from Gulf Coast waters, hundreds of pounds every day. That large-scale locavorism, combined with a willingness to stray from Louisiana’s tried-and-true recipes, has proved hugely profitable. The Besh empire now includes TV shows, three books, and a contract supplying meals for government emergency responders. I spent a day fishing with Besh last fall on Lake Pontchartrain, then cooking up the catch back at his house. (OK, he cooked—I ate.) We talked shop, and eventually I pried his gumbo recipe out of him.
OUTSIDE: What was your introduction to these culinary traditions?
BESH: So much of my cooking is rooted in my childhood. I love this marsh. Love being out here at sunrise. Fishing and hunting—that’s how I fell in love with food. The adventure of it all. It doesn’t stop with landing the fish. You catch a redfish: How you gonna cook it? That’s how this culture developed. It’s still like that today. You eat what you have. You shouldn’t see crawfish or soft-shell crab on a menu unless it’s in season.
What was your reaction to the spill?
I was pissed off. Food is the thing that ties this culture together. When that’s threatened—not just livelihoods, but the actual food sources that we’ve all grown up with and reveled in—that’s scary.
Has the press gone overboard in its scrutiny of the Gulf?
The truth is, we need to be skeptical of our food supply. But we also need to ask these questions of the foreign fish and shrimp that are raised in unsanitary conditions in Southeast Asia, being fed who knows what.
What are your feelings about messing with tradition in your own cooking?
One thing that worries me is when people start saying, “Oh, you can’t do it that way.” What we have in Louisiana is the ultimate fusion food. It came about because of all the different people who settled here. There’s nothing pure about it. It needs to continue to evolve. That being said, I think gumbo’s too important to deconstruct. You don’t fool around with that sort of thing.
What’s the key to good gumbo?
I look for two things: first, a deep shellfish flavor, which I accomplish by allowing quartered crabs to cook for at least 45 minutes before adding any other seafood. Second, I’m looking for the seafood—shrimp, crabmeat, and oysters—to be perfectly tender, not overcooked, just as the gumbo is served.