For John and Jenifer Besh, a bountiful retreat
John Besh owns or operates 10 restaurants in New Orleans and has opened three more in San Antonio, Nashville and Houston, which is quite a baker’s dozen for a global chef on the run, a man whose Catholic purpose is bringing families together around the table, where cell phones resting next to the dinner plate are as anathema as Velveeta.
Besh believes real conversation and real conversion begin with a uniquely eucharistic act, breaking bread with the family and sharing stories of the day and the heart, big and little, joyful and painful.
In between creating television shows and blackened cauliflower soaked in olive oil and sea salt, the face of New Orleans food is first a husband and a father of four boys.
When John and his wife Jenifer joined 48 other pilgrims, most from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, on the Clarion Herald’s two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land, their joint decision to make the trip was memorable in many ways.
Neither John nor Jenifer could recall the last time they had been together – alone – for two consecutive weeks, away from their boys and their menus.
“For years, I couldn’t take a holiday or a weekend off, so it was very taxing,” John said on the bus leaving Capernaum, where on the Sabbath Jesus healed a demonic man in the synagogue, infuriating the Pharisees, and then walked a short distance to Peter’s house, healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. “If it wasn’t for Jenifer – and for me marrying someone very strong and secure – then there’s no way we would have lasted this long.”
John said there were two reasons he and Jenifer decided to lead the pilgrimage, which included rubbing elbows with some of his chef friends in the Holy Land. First, as much as they “need to have family time, we also need to concentrate on our faith” and share it with their fellow pilgrims.
“Second, it was a chance where we’re not having to worry about our children (boys ranging in age from 20 to 12),” John said. “We can focus on each other and build our faith at the same time. That’s just something we don’t do often enough. I was looking at this as, more or less, a retreat with delicious food and great wine.”
This was John’s fourth trip to the Holy Land and Jenifer’s third. He came for the first time about 10 years ago with the National Jewish Federation. He was introduced to the holiest places in Christianity by Bradley Hirschfield, an orthodox Jewish rabbi who began “a ministry of tolerance and love for others.”
“Consequently, he’s one of the most Christian men I’ve ever met in my life,” John said. “I came here as a Catholic, and he knew I would want to see certain things, and he went out of his way to bring me to every important place of our faith. He knew the New Testament as well as any Jesuit scholar. My faith was strengthened by that of a fervent Jew.”
When John served in the Marine Corps in the early 1990s, he was missioned to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and southern Iraq, bringing the Eucharist he kept under his flak jacket to his fellow soldiers. In many cases, the Communion services had to be conducted “under cover in a tent, hidden away.”
Being so close to the Holy Land fueled a hunger in him to walk where Jesus walked.
“I didn’t need to see where Christ died, but it has had a monstrous impact on my life and the passion I have for those written words now,” John said.
John always had wanted to bring his entire family to the Holy Land, and he was able to do that three years ago when his oldest son Brendan graduated from Jesuit.
“The boys were dumbfounded – they were just in complete awe,” Besh said. “Every Sunday now, one of them will nudge me in the ribs because they are still making a connection with this visit. I think anything that can help our sons better understand or better visualize these things allows them to more fully participate in the prayer. To understand the fullest meaning of the Gospel is a great thing.”
John also has begun a close relationship with an interfaith group of chefs from the Holy Land called Chefs4Peace. The idea is for Jewish, Muslim and Christian chefs to model how peace and harmony can be achieved in the kitchen and around the table. The group recently operated a “pop-up” restaurant for eight days in Tel Aviv on the site of a terrorist attack that claimed four lives.
“This has really made me think about food and my profession in a different way,” Besh said. “We have a pulpit that we can use by bringing people together in a way that makes a direct impact on the world. This is not just a profession. I like to think of it as more of a vocation, to talk about reconciliation and mercy.”
John’s immediate pulpit is to the 1,400 people he employs throughout his restaurant empire. He takes that responsibility seriously.
“I have 1,400 employees that I can influence, and I can try to be a good example and promote family and promote faith, whatever that faith happens to be,” he said. “I don’t need to convert people. I just need to live my life right and instill the mindset of self-service and sacrifice for others, pushing that agenda that Jesus pushed of continuous love and mercy.”
If there’s one commandment in the Besh household, it’s that all cell phones are safely locked and stowed away from the table when it’s time to eat.
“We have a rule where everything’s off,” he said. “When it’s time for supper, when it’s time for breakfast, every device is off, and we’re totally focused on the moment.”
As we know – both from tradition and Leonardo da Vinci – there were no cell phones at the Last Supper.