From the bayou to Beaver Creek
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Check back next week to read the final installment.Beaver Creek is a far cry from south Louisiana’s bayou country. It’s about 9,000 feet higher, 90 percentage points less humid and, to this transplanted Louisiana native, has infinitely better weather. Many may disagree with me on that point, but try skiing in Louisiana! So when I discovered Louisiana born-and-bred culinary treasure chef John Besh and his team were breaking camp in New Orleans and heading back to Beaver Creek, I smelled a fun story behind the scenes at Allie’s Cabin.Weeks of planning ensued with the expected education of the Besh team about what I do behind the scenes. People have a hard time grasping the notion of a reformed attorney doing unpaid blue-collar work in a restaurant just to get a story. But after emails flew through cyberspace between New York, New Orleans and Beaver Creek, all was set. This Louisiana girl’s dream came true when I was approved to go behind the scenes at the Besh dinner in Allie’s Cabin during last month’s Food & Wine Magazine culinary weekend in Beaver Creek.
From the moment I met Besh in Splendido’s kitchen 18 months ago, I knew culinary stardom hadn’t tainted what Louisiana bred in him. And yes, I am biased. Though I left the bayou country more than three decades ago, I still cling to my roots buried deep in the state’s black mud. I love Louisiana and I’m proud when her native sons and daughters, like Besh, make it big but remain true to themselves and the region. Anyone who’s ever walked near a TV when the Food Network is on knows about Besh, but I wonder how many fans out there in TV land know just who he is and the contributions he’s made to his craft and his home state. An evening in the high-pressure environment of a restaurant kitchen serving 74 diners is when facades are shed. But there is no facade on Besh. He is what he is – one heck of a nice and funny guy! Like anyone whose bare feet walked the Louisiana mud as a child, Besh has a love of and appreciation for the pelican state’s bounty. His childhood experiences, such as meeting Paul Prudhomme at a crab festival and cooking in his mother’s kitchen, cultivated his passion for transforming the state’s coveted seafood and game into epicurean delights now found at any one of his nine dining venues in New Orleans and one in San Antonio. But with Besh, it’s not solely about building a culinary empire. It’s also about giving back and preserving the culture and rich history of the region. Through micro-loans to local farmers, his foundation’s Chefs Move scholarships (awarded to aspiring chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds), as well as grants and loans to individuals, Besh has been a key player in the cultural renaissance of the Big Easy. Many people are unaware that Besh the chef is also Besh the U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He honed his leadership skills through eight years of active duty from 1986 to 1992. During the first Gulf War, Besh was a squad leader in the liberation of Kuwait International Airport. Although it seems like odd training for a chef, it’s great training for a leader. Leadership skills combined with culinary prowess are the stuff of great chefs, particularly those who survive the financial reverberations of tragedies like Hurricane Katrina. Post-Katrina, Besh sprang into action to help the city rebuild its culinary core. His downtown restaurant, August, was the first restaurant in the city to reopen after the storm ravaged the city. New Orleans has always been defined by her culinary heritage, and Besh is one of many New Orleans culinary professionals who used that heritage to help save the city. Today, through his partnership with the Baton Rouge-based emergency reconstruction specialists Arkel International, Besh is a leader in feeding emergency responders in the Gulf Coast region. On the eve of the seventh anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, Hurricane Isaac made a direct assault on New Orleans. Besh and his team became part of the emergency response effort as they served in excess of 10,000 meals to emergency responders and government workers throughout the beleaguered city for eight days. So now that you know a bit more about chef Besh, how did it all come together for the Allie’s Cabin dinner?
I have yet to meet a celebrity chef who travels solo. Besh brought his brother-in-law and best friend, Patrick Berrigan; partner and Borgne executive chef Brian Landry; and La Provence executive chef Erick Loos. Unlike other experiences I’ve had, Besh didn’t send his team to the kitchen while he played on the slopes in the afternoon – nope, they all played together. Then they came into the Allie’s kitchen, where the work began. But the good-natured kidding and fun never ended. Allie’s Cabin executive chef Kirk Weems already experienced the fun of having New Orleans chefs in his kitchen at last winter’s Food & Wine Weekend, when Besh and company paired with Weems for one of three Friday night dinners. This year, Weems and his team developed the menu for hors d’oeuvres and a salad course. Besh and his team first developed their menu assignment, the last three courses. When I asked him about the menu, Besh was adamant that he wanted to make this a memorable dining experience for festival attendees. Diners were braving the cold and mist for the ride up in an open sleigh. The food had to be, as Loos said, “hearty, filling and fresh, but not too heavy.” With Besh’s menu in hand, Weems and his team set about designing their contributions to the dinner. With the strong French influence of Besh’s three courses, the Allie’s team developed the three hors d’oeuvres and salad course to complement those styles and flavors. Bringing together the opening dishes for this menu is really quite an impressive feat when you consider the four chefs involved – Besh, Weems, Landry and Loos – hadn’t met before the event. A flurry of emails and one conference call, focused mostly on logistics, were the only threads tying the chefs together as they created the seamless menu. After weeks of preparation and the challenges of mountain dining logistics, it was showtime. Early on the afternoon of the event, I skied through the fog, down icy Gold Dust and into Allie’s to take my place in the kitchen. It’s where we’ll resume our experience next week, as I take you behind the scenes for 10 hours of culinary work. Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, chambellan provincial of the Southwest Region and bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com