Sunday, April 3, 2011

NOLA chef takes hometown recipes national

PBS cooking show takes John Besh's recipes nationwide 
By Dave Walker, Times-Picayune 

It was around lunchtime, and John Besh had just prepared a pot of shrimp Creole. Next up was stuffed shrimp, and my thoughts were:

One, where's a fork?

And two, if there were any way the high-definition cameras in WYES-TV's studio could transmit the aroma from that pot, "Chef John Besh's New Orleans" would be a huge hit. 
It probably will be anyway. The new cooking show, recorded during marathon sessions in spring 2010, premieres locally at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on WYES. Its 26 episodes will air on more than 75 public-television stations around the country.

Based on the recipes from Besh's cookbook "My New Orleans: 200 of My Favorite Recipes and Stories from My Hometown," a 2010 James Beard Foundation Award nominee, the series extends WYES' long cooking-show legacy.

"WYES has had a TV food show, heck, since I was a young boy," Besh said.

Filmed in the same studio where Justin Wilson and Paul Prudhomme colonized the world with Creole and Cajun flavors, Besh's new series "spotlights our unique culture and traditions" as interpreted by "the best of a new generation of New Orleans chefs," said Beth Arroyo Utterback, executive producer.

She noted that the nationally distributed series "Great Chefs" and "The Academy's World Cuisine" also originated at the station.

"WYES' track record of producing first-rate cooking programs goes back for nearly three decades and includes hundreds of episodes," Utterback added.

The Besh recipes highlighted in the next 26 shows range from black-eyed peas, popcorn rice and smothered cabbage (featured in Saturday's premiere) to slow-cooked grillades to buttermilk-fried quail. There are jambalayas, etouffees and gumbos on the menu, too.

Gulf seafood is practically a costar of the series, whose unstated motto could be "Hunt, fish, shop and eat local." 

Which, Besh pointed out, applies to wherever a viewer might be tuning in.

"Everybody can find shrimp these days, but crawfish, that's a different story," he said. "There are substitutions for that, but there's more than that. There's a train of thought of using what you have in your neck of the woods, using what's indigenous to you."

Besh will illuminate the recipes with personal stories from his life in Louisiana. 

"Understanding the recipe and understanding the soul (allows you to) cook with authenticity," he said. "I want it to have the quality of the great Julia Child moments where it's just you and her in the kitchen. I'm cooking and you're there, and I'm just conveying to you what I'm doing and why this is important or valid or worthy."

Besh has been eating or cooking many of the recipes used in the series his whole life.

"So much of what I have been cooking has been old family recipes," he said. "We're cooking things that still mean a lot to me, like the stuffed shrimp that we're doing next.

"Every joint in town used to have stuffed shrimp on the menu. Now, it's become so passé, nobody has stuffed shrimp unless they're pre-stuffed and they're fried and being served by some chain restaurant. I want to convey what stuffed shrimp meant to me as a kid, using the whole shrimp and stuffing them."

Also featured in the episode I observed -- the 11th in the series, according to the roster on the 
show's website, -- will be a recipe for soft-shelled shrimp, for which there's also a personal story.

"If you've ever shrimped in Lake Pontchartrain, every 100 shrimp you come across will have a soft shell on it," he said. "So we'd save those and fry 'em whole."

By this time, I had obtained a fork.

"This," Besh said as he served up bowls from the pot to the crew and others between takes, "is not my grandmother's shrimp Creole."

But the lemongrass on its ingredients list spotlights south Louisiana's Vietnamese population, "which doesn't get a lot of representation nationally," Besh said. "Many people aren't aware that this community exists."

No stranger to the national airwaves, thanks to appearances on "Iron Chef America," "The Martha Stewart Show," TLC's "Inedible to Incredible" and "Treme," Besh said he consulted with Prudhomme before embarking on this new project, to be distributed by American Public Television.

"I talked to chef Paul about it as a chance to be that ambassador for New Orleans," Besh said.

"To get out there and say, 'Hey, this is worthy cuisine and this is worthy culture and this is why,' and share our culture with the world through our food.

"These PBS stations will take this everywhere, and to a much greater audience than any cable show.

"These shows will kind of live forever." 
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