“I thought today might be a good day to cook fish heads,” Chef John Besh announced as he kicked off his culinary demonstration on Thursday, Halloween Day, at the International Culinary Center to a room packed full of students from all the programs as well as a few alumni like me and a couple of my classmates. Taking advantage of a day off from the catering kitchens where I usually work, I slid into a seat in the front row, anticipating some delicious treats and looking forward to stories and tips from this celebrated chef, who was in New York City with his team, touring and promoting his new cookbook “Cooking from the Heart,” which talks about his own personal journey and growth as a culinary professional.
Regaling us with stories of his own (and his chefs’) cooking exploits, Chef Besh walked us through not just the process of making a classic Provençale fish soup and how layers of flavor are built at each stage of the cooking process. Seared crab bodies lend a subtle nuttiness to the finished product. “Fish heads add a great viscosity to the soup.” The soupe de poissons is also the base for a classic bouillabaisse, so a good flavor profile in the base is important to the final dish. He added lots of saffron to the broth as well as other aromatics: “using dried herbs and spices work well with long, slow braises,” he advised. To accompany the soup, Chef Besh whipped up a classic rouille, a mayonnaise with garlic and harissa and served it to us with toasted bread rounds.
He also talked to us about his own personal development in becoming a chef after attending culinary school. “It was important to me to know the stories behind the food,” he explained. This journey took him to Germany to the Black Forest region and to Provence in France. At each step he worked with trained masters of their profession who challenged him, let him make mistakes and learn from them. He also spent time with home cooks in those areas, too, capturing even more of the feel of the local cuisines. These stories and the recipes that he developed from these lessons are captured in “Cooking from the Heart,” a copy of which we received at this demo.
It was very clear from the demo and the passion and delight that Chef Besh’s showed in his cooking on Thursday, that this is a very special book. It’s a fond look back at the road that a bright, young culinary graduate took in order to become a chef, a recognition of all the people and places that have inspired him along the way. This is a book that makes you just want to curl up on the couch, as I did, and read it as a piece of literature. At the same time, the recipes are also inspiring and heart-warming, the terrines, soups, vegetable dishes, and desserts that capture useful techniques and terrific tastes and are rooted in the heritage of the countries in which he studied, and can also translate to meals on your table for family and friends.
We wrapped up the demo with a piece of a Pear Clafoutis, another classic dish, and a simple and tasty dessert that is very easy to make. It’s super flexible as well, as Chef Besh explained, as it can be made using almost any seasonal fruit that you have available. Throughout the demo, Chef Besh highlighted the efforts of his team of chefs and discussed how he sends them to get further training with some of the same chefs who taught him along the way. Of course, he also ribbed them a bit as well for their own culinary exploits, including one of them who had dumped a whole vat of soup on a prominent chef. He ended the demo by recognizing the folks who work with him, “There’s no way that I could do the work I do, have the life I have, without this team.”
Normally, at this point, I might offer this book as a giveaway item on this site, but I’m hanging onto this one, folks. You should put it on your holiday gift book list, too.