A father’s iron will, deep faith a recipe for success

finney    The fighter pilot in Ted Besh epitomized a man who knew intuitively that preparation and precision were matters of life and death. Ted’s 20-20 vision was more than a mere physical gift. He had a plan for everything and everyone, especially for his six children and what they ultimately would make of themselves.
    But as Ted rode his bike one day in 1977, a drunk driver smashed into him and left him paralyzed. There was no plan for this.
    Ted’s son John was just 9 years old then, and the boy who attended St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell saw his own world rocked. For 2 1/2 years, while Ted convalesced in a rehab hospital and his wife juggled to keep the kids together and care for her husband, John shuffled from house to house with friends whenever his mom was on an extended hospital visit.
    Periodically during his convalescence, Ted would come back home, and John’s job was to cook for his father.
    “It was just some crazy concoction that I’m sure tasted absolutely disgusting,” John said. “But as a kid, just throwing things together for him would make him so happy. I connected right then that food equals happiness.”
    John Besh is 44 now, and he and his wife Jenifer have four sons of their own. That aromatic equation – food equals happiness – has made thousands of people happy across the globe.
    Besh operates nine restaurants, is the author of two biblically proportioned cookbooks and appears regularly on national television as the fresh face of indigenous south Louisiana cooking. But as a Catholic who takes seriously his faith, Besh says he sees a deeper purpose in his life’s vocation of bringing people together around the family table.
    “I’m going to issue a disclaimer,” Besh told the Spirituality in the City first-Tuesday lunch gathering Nov. 6 at Immaculate Conception Church on Baronne Street. “I am a stumbling human being. I am solely at the mercy of one very merciful and loving and living God. Faith is a gift I’ve been given – just being born of incredible parents with an incredible attitude toward life.”
    Ted Besh always told his children to pursue their passions, and, yes, always to make a plan. When Ted saw his son’s eyes light up in the kitchen, he took note. He brought his son to a book signing by Paul Prudhomme, whose blackened redfish had become an international sensation.
    “Paul Prudhomme took the time when I was 11 to talk to me about being a chef,” Besh said. “I thought, ‘Wow.’ He was bigger than life in every way, shape or form. I knew then that I wanted to be like Paul Prudhomme.”
    But first, right after graduating from St. Stanislaus High School, Besh took an adolescent flyer and enlisted in the Marines.
    “My dad was the Great Santini, and that was just another step of trying to be like dad,” Besh said. “But the interesting thing is, before food was cool, before cooking schools were cool, my dad would do his research and point me in the right direction. He would tell me, ‘This is where you want to go to school. Let’s make a plan on how you’re going to do that.’”
    Besh may have joined the Marines on a teenage whim, but he stayed rooted in his Catholic faith. Because there were few priests to go around, he volunteered to be a minister of Communion, carrying the Eucharist inside his flak jacket along with his machine gun, hand grenades and chewing tobacco.
    “I don’t chew tobacco any more,” Besh said, smiling.
    After being discharged from the Marines and training as an apprentice chef in New York and France, Besh returned to New Orleans, again with a plan. He became hugely successful.
    “Then you get on your high horse,” Besh said. “It’s like, ‘I want to be a chef. I want to be a famous chef. I want to be a chef with a TV show. I want to be a chef that can create food that nobody can recognize – and, truth be told, nobody wants to eat. You just want to say you went to the restaurant.’”
    That is, Besh said, “until Hurricane Katrina.”
    Besh had just finished paying off his investors who helped him buy his first restaurant, and now, everything he had planned was either sideways or submerged.
    “Maybe it was the Lord in my life saying, ‘Slow down. What’s really important? Why is it that you cook?’ It wasn’t audible, but I heard, ‘Why is it that you do what you do?’ And then it hit me – I could use all the resources that I have to make a difference in our world.”
    A few days after Katrina, Besh broke into the city to secure whatever cooking equipment he could scrounge from his restaurant. Then for the next several months, he set up soup kitchens and feeding stations around the area.
    “I knew we were definitely going out of business,” Besh said. “I thought, ‘Well, we’re going down in style. We’re going to go out at least being good people.’ I was compelled at that moment to use my talents to make the world better.”
    On one trip to Mississippi to “hunt for supplies,” Besh and Alon Shaya, his Jewish friend, executive chef and partner, ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
    “We’ll just pray about it,” Besh said, recalling the irony of a Catholic and a Jew praying in Dark-30, Mississippi, for deliverance.
    Besh remembered the chainsaw in the trunk, which they had used to clear the road.
    “The chainsaw is just about out of gas,” Shaya told him.
    “OK, God, you’re in charge,” Besh said, rolling up a magazine to make a funnel for the small mixture of chainsaw gas and oil.
    “That mixture got us about 90 miles – after we had already run out of gas,” Besh said. “Now I’m sure there’s a scientist in here who says there’s a reason for this.”
    Besh knows better.
    The way Besh sees it in his book “Chef John Besh’s Family Table,” sharing a family meal around the table is a sacred event.
    “The family table in the home is the altar – that’s the place that ties us together,” he said. “It’s the place that keeps us firmly rooted. Maybe we can even humble ourselves to say we’re blessed to have this bread, blessed to have this food. One reason New Orleans is really special is that we’ve held on to our faith and held on to our families and held on to the family table.”
    Sometimes, Besh says his wife Jenifer will give him a silent kick in the shin when he tries to break in on one of his son’s problems and try to solve it.
    “The family table is where the walls come down a little bit,” Besh says. “Our defenses settle. That’s where my wife is smart enough to tell me, ‘Just let them talk. This is good stuff.’ You never know what tidbit you’re going to receive.”
    Just like the lessons Besh received from his father.
    “I think his faith, drive and determination is the key to my success,” Besh said. “The little bit of success that we’ve had is because of just being raised with that understanding that life isn’t always going to go the way we might want it to. We can’t control everything. But in the end, if we’re living to sit with God, hopefully, that perspective allows you to make the most out of many different situations. We understood how faith played a role in my dad’s life and in our lives. That helped shape my life.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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