Celebrity Chefs

Celeb chef and former Marine John Besh on giving back to veterans and students

Before he was serving up sophisticated Southern cuisine, native Louisianan John Besh served his country in the United States Marine Corps for six years.

Today, Besh owns seventeen restaurants across Louisiana, thirteen of which are in New Orleans.

Named as one of the Top 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine and winning the James Beard Foundation Award in 2006 for Best Chef (Southeast), Besh says his experience in the Marines, which started at the age of seventeen, helped him cultivate his culinary skills and run his restaurants with an entrepreneurial spirit and a give-back attitude.

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In 2011, Besh established his non-profit, The John Besh Foundation, to protect and preserve the culinary heritage of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region by providing culinary scholarships and micro-loans to minorities in the area. Through his Chefs Move! Scholarship program, Besh sends scholarship winners to New York City’s International Culinary Center, under the condition that they promise to return to New Orleans to work in the restaurant business for at least two years. His non-profit also assists farmers located within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans.

Besh frequently gives back to the military, too, as he credits the Marine Corps for helping him for his career as a chef.

Fox News: Tell us about your experience serving in the military.

Besh: As the son of a fighter pilot, I was raised with a keen sense of service to our nation. With an appreciation of patriotism and a thirst for adventure, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps just after graduating from high school. I served both in active duty and reserves from 1986-1992. I was an Infantry Squad Leader and Non-Commissioned Officer serving in combat in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and surrounding areas during the Desert Storm and Shield campaigns. I served in the 1st Marine Division, the 4th Marine Division, and I Marine Expeditionary Force.

How did your service in the U.S. Marine Corps help shape your career?

It instilled in me a sense of leadership, mission, focus, organization skills, and selfless service, which has become the hallmark of the Besh Restaurant Group. Combat also gave me a perspective that allows me to keep everything in context by not sweating over the small stuff, leading a team focused on serving others from the heart, and making those happy who walk through our restaurants’ doors.

How was the transition from military life to civilian life? Did anything help ease the transition? 

After combat, it took a little getting used to the cushy life. But I adjusted well by having those who had been there for me in my life prior to the military mentor me and support me.

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Tell us about some of your initiatives that give back to the U.S. military.

I give back to the USMC and veteran communities. The John Besh Restaurant Group hosts a free street party for the Marine Corps Birthday every November, where thousands of warriors from ages 18 to 90 come together to celebrate our brotherhood over food and drink.

As a Marine, I’m proud to have partnered with Arkel International, the emergency reconstruction specialists, where we prepared quality ready-to-eat meals for distribution to thousands of emergency response teams, as well as to strategic operations in the U.S. and around the world.

In the past, I've been active with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, the oldest and biggest donor of need-based scholarships for military students, as well as the UDT-Seal Association, which offers scholarships to the children of fallen warriors. I’ve also given back to the Delta Veterans Foundation, which helps with the transition of wounded warriors into civilian life. 

I’ve worked with the Wounded Warrior Project and USO’s partnership with Jeep for their Operation SAFE Return campaign to create family centers for the loved ones of wounded warriors as they get medical care.

Why is community service so important to you?

Besh: It’s the visceral part of my being, believing that we are all placed on this earth to serve one another. It's what we do as warriors, and it's what I do as a husband, father and chef. 

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When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

By a very young age I already knew I wanted to be a chef. My family would hunt and fish growing up and we’d cook everything we brought home. I fell in love with how food brings happiness to others. 

Being from Louisiana, what are some of your signature dishes?

The older I get, the more I revert back to those dishes of my childhood, such as the big pots of seafood gumbo, jambalaya, court-bouillon, étouffée, and delicious country goods found in Louisiana.

Tell us about your non-profit, the John Besh Foundation.

The mission of the John Besh Foundation is to sustain our culture through minority culinary scholarships by our John Besh & Bride Mayor Chefs Move! Scholarship Program and our Milk Money initiative, which provides micro-loans for local food producers. 

Eva Fedderly is a travel, culinary, and political journalist who writes for Travel+Leisure, Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She lives in Savannah, Georgia and can be found on the road and overseas.