|Photo: Andrews McMeel
By John Besh
Photographs by Ditte Isager
Andrews McMeel -- 2009
Buy it on Amazon
Chef John Besh's magnum opus on the food of his hometown could easily be mistaken for a coffee table-style photography book edited by someone with one heck of a food fetish. That'd be only partially correct.
Besh celebrates and contextualizes New Orleans cuisine within a reverent, passionate travelogue and memoir based around the ingredients and food rituals of a full year in the Big Easy. In this 374-page volume, the chef, restaurateur (including August, Lüke, Besh Steak, Domenica, La Provence and the upcoming the American Sector at the National WWII Museum), "Next Iron Chef" contender, former Marine and father of four weaves an intimate, illustrated narrative of a life lived deliciously in one of the world's most important food cities.
Through touching vignettes from his childhood, emergence into chefhood and post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, as well as informative sidebars about key Creole and Cajun ingredients and paens to his favorite food haunts, Besh stokes and slakes a multitude of hungers for lovers of this city on the mend.
It's also one hell of a cookbook.
See what we tested and find out whether the book's worth buying after the jump.
Takeaway tips: Visit New Orleans. Stay for a while and eat as much as you possibly can. Wander down odd little streets and take a chance on unfamiliar dish names and humble digs. And bring back as much spice, seafood and produce as you can fit in your suitcase. You're going to need them.
Quality of pictures: The photographs alone took five years to amass, and it's evident why. Yes, the hero shots of completed dishes, ingredients and process are soulful and unfailingly appetizing. What makes the book a fully realized work of art are the archival images of New Orleans architecture, celebrations and food purveyors, as well as warm, intimate contemporary photographs of Besh family feasts, portraits of local food figures and farms, and stunning depictions of the natural surroundings, from which spring the region's distinctive ingredients.
We tested: Pork Shoulder Rillettes, Pork Cheek Dumpling, Ham Hock Pot Liquor and Mustard Greens, Pumpkin Soup, Fall Greens Salad with Blue Cheese and Pumpkin Seed Brittle
Dinner was served late. After midnight late. These are not recipes for busy weeknights, cooks who mind a trip or 10 to the local market or online store in service of culinary authenticity, or those daunted by labor-intensive, multi-step recipes. That said, they're utterly worth the devotion of an entire weekend day.
Complex flavors, while hard won, were undeniably worth it. Though we were half asleep once we finally sat down to dinner -- having started prepping at 3 p.m. -- both my husband and I kept stopping and closing our eyes, savoring the smoky undertones of the porky pot liquor, silken sips of chill-staving pumpkin soup and fat-be-damned indulgence of smooth-spreading rillettes. I wasn't just dreaming, he confirmed -- that was the best salad either of us had ever made.
Chef Besh includes building block recipes for roux, core stocks and basic sauces, doughs and spice blends. Get to know them. Even if one of the more ambitious recipes isn't on the menu, any one of his stocks, some aioli or a versatile vinaigrette can loft the tenor of a meal, or even transport it right to Creole country.
Worth the investment: Without question. It's a stunning gift for anyone who's ever lived in, loved, passed through or known what it's like to miss New Orleans.