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John Besh Brings the Funk (and Culinary Scholarships) to NOWFE This Weekend

 Photo courtesy of John Besh
Photo courtesy of John Besh

On Saturday May 25, the John Besh Foundation will throw what will probably be the funkiest party since George Clinton took the stage on the final day of Jazz Fest. As part of the two-decade-old New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, "Funkin' It Up" will feature local chefs such as Susan Spicer and Donald Link, as well as other chefs like Michelle Bernstein from Michy's in Miami and Michael Anthony from Gramercy Tavern in New York who've flown in for the weekend because they've heard all the rumors about our tasty local seafood. Like any good springtime event in New Orleans, "Funkin' It Up" will feature an excellent use of appellation innuendo, great food, and music you can really embarrass yourself dancing to. It will also feature two pretty awesome award ceremonies: Leah Chase will receive the Ella Brennan Award for being generally wonderful, and the John Besh Foundation will also award the John Besh and Bride Mayor Chefs Move! Scholarships for Culinary Arts and Pastry Arts for the International Culinary Center in New York. Be there, or be hopelessly, irrevocably square.

Where do you think NOWFE ranks among the many spring festivals in New Orleans?

It's funny how NOWFE has developed into such a big event that it extends the spring from about mid-May to the end of May. Now, you'll even have events like Tales of the Cocktail that'll extend the season even deeper into June. It kind of wakes us up.

Towards the end of the season like this, we have a really great opportunity to let loose and have a little fun. That's what "Funkin' It Up" [the fundraiser with NOWFE] is really all about. Since we see all of the same people at the same events throughout the year, we wanted to bring in a group of really cool, hip chefs from other parts of the country. I couldn't be any happier with the fact that Michael Anthony, who's a good friend from Gramercy Tavern, and Danny Bowien will be there, as well as some old friends like Aaron Sanchez, John Currence, and Michelle Bernstein. With good close, local friends like Donald [Link], Susan [Spicer], and David Slater, for that matter, the whole thing is shaping up to be the really fun event I wanted it to be. We can come together, let our hair down, and pay tribute to the great city of New Orleans.

Is it cool for all the chefs to get a chance to come together for a purely fun event like this? How many other opportunities do you get to just hang out with your peers?

It's a very small fraternity, as far as chefs go. Oftentimes, we're really just a degree or two removed from each other?we've worked for the same chefs in the past, we've come up through the same kitchens together, and all of our paths have crisscrossed more than once. To have all of these people come together is so much fun. I think it is a chance for us all to exchange some ideas, what with local chefs and chefs from other parts of the country bringing completely different styles of food together. It's not just about having a star-studded event, though?it's about throwing a party that we'd all want to go to.

Donald, Susan, Emeril, and I are always doing events together, and Emeril's David Slater is just one of the best people around. We're really great friends through our families and travel, so we do a lot together on a social basis. "Funkin' It Up" is kind of social, kind of professional. I think it's more fun than work. Really, we're just excited to show off our city to the movers and shakers in the food industry from other parts of the country.

Speaking of Emeril, he just won the James Beard Humanitarian Award.

I know, how beautiful was that?

Do you think some of the bigger chefs and the city, like you, Emeril, Susan, and Donald, have a responsibility to get involved with the community?

I think every human being has a responsibility to get involved wherever they can. I don't think getting involved is necessarily relegated to chefs, but I do think that we've all been given this incredible gift of coming from New Orleans. If I was John from Missouri, I don't think I'd be as relevant, but what makes me relevant?what makes Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, and many generations of chefs before us relevant?is this city's culture, which we're sharing with people all over the world.

The only way we're going to sustain this culture, in my view, is if we invest in it by taking whatever steps we can and using whatever resources available to us to do whatever it is we can do to see that the city keeps progressing. Chefs Move!, the scholarship fund I created with my friend Jessica Bride, has a simple mission: providing education to the minority youth of New Orleans. Education is the key. Looking around the city, we have so many great chefs, but, unfortunately, very few of them are truly representative of the population of New Orleans. Culinary schools cost $50,000 a year, which is insane?that's like an Ivy League tuition. How is an inner city kidd, for instance, going to find a way to attend one of these schools? What happens to the young adults with the drive and tenacity to become a chef? Education is the key, which is why Jessica and I created this Chefs Move scholarship, so we can help change the lives of a couple New Orleanians each year.

The kids who win these scholarships go everywhere to learn and hone their talents. When they return, the perspective they gain will change New Orleans, it will change the neighborhoods that they come from.

Seeing young chefs go through programs like Chefs Move!, how important do you think it is for aspiring chefs to have mentors and other programs in place to help guide their way?

I think chefs happen to be great stewards. We have to support our locale, or else we're going to lose the shrimpers and fishers and farmers that allow us to do what we do. I've hit a certain point in my life where I've been really and truly inspired by Emeril. A lot of people don't know this, but Emeril got out there and has been really making a difference. Seeing the humanitarian effort Emeril put forward really made me realize that I needed to focus my resources in such a way that I effect positive change in the city.

How does Leah Chase receiving the Ella Brennan Award on Saturday help knit those generations of New Orleans chefs together? It seems like she's been such a prominent personality in this city for a long time.

Leah's not just a New Orleans icon and the grand dame of Creole cuisine, but also, I think, our hope for the future. She's such a beautiful human being, and she's inspired so many people without ever really seeking the limelight. She's been so selfless in the way that she's run her business and cared for her family. It's a beautiful thing to honor her, and, at the same time, during the same event, bring the focus to the scholarship fund and all these new applicants. It's a great thing, and I think, in a lot of ways, it shows New Orleans coming full circle.

· NOWFE [Official Site]
· Chefs Move! [Official Site]

Hyatt Regency New Orleans

601 Loyola Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70113 504 561 1234

Hyatt Regency

601 Loyola Ave New Orleans, LA 70113