Chef and restaurateur John Besh (www.chefjohnbesh.com) has opened several restaurants in New Orleans, including Restaurant August, Besh Steak, Borgne, Domenica and, most recently, Pizza Domenica. His cooking expertise has been featured on episodes of Top Chef, Iron Chef and his cooking show on PBS, and recently he put his restaurateuring experience to work on the Spike TV reality show Hungry Investors. In the series' 10 episodes, Besh, Top Chef veteran Tiffany Derry and Bar Rescue star Jon Taffer investigate competing restaurants in need of cash and guidance and choose to invest in one of them. Besh spoke with Gambit about the show prior to its May 4 premiere.
How did you get involved in this show?
Besh: I didn't want to do this show. I love my own little world. I love to walk between my restaurants. I love to film my PBS show at my home. This is out of the box for me.
I lost my father in late January. A week after losing the greatest figure in my life, I was out there doing this. I didn't realize how it helped me cope with my personal life. Going out into the world with the purpose of making people's lives better by helping with their business. Then it made sense. I could do this. It's not just a bar rescue.
I am all about people and relationships and the passion behind the restaurants. People sink their entire lives into these things and just don't seem to know how to make them work.
Jon Taffer and I come to this business from totally different backgrounds, but we want the same thing. We want to make the restaurants work better when we leave. ... Taffer made his name building big national brands. I came up as a cook that became a chef that became a restaurateur. I come at it from more of an artistic point of view. There are mom-and-pop restaurants that we deal with that came up the same way as me. So I can communicate with them. Jon's approach — he has a big, powerful, New York attitude — his approach is sometimes needed to wake people up. My subtle, nice guy, Southern boy approach doesn't always get through to people. That's where you need Taffer's approach: "Wake up, pal, your business is going under and you're happy to let it."
What did you learn going from being a chef to a restaurateur?
B: As a chef, I thought the whole world revolved around me, the food and the guest experience. As a restaurant owner, I realized I can only feed people and entertain people if I keep my costs in line. I can only keep my costs in line, if I value my employees. It works all the way down. I can only do that if I value my customers' experiences.
When I opened the first restaurant (August), it owned me. It needed that. It needed me to pay attention to it morning, noon and night. But what happens is that you end up micromanaging the heck out of it. You can get away with that. I could even do it with two, because my second restaurant (Besh Steak) was right across the street at Harrah's. When I got to three, I realized that I needed a foundation built on investing in employees, in the future chefs, and spending time with them. That's something people don't realize. You have to manage differently. You can't do it all yourself. You need good people who share the same values and have a good understanding of what the end result needs to be. That's what I am trying to pass on to people.
How is it working with the restaurant owners on the show?
B: A lot of people think they just need cash to get through. They don't realize that their business isn't working. It's not just about having more capital. And we're not going to give you capital if we can't trust you with it. We have to see why you need capital. Do you have a market? We are choosing places that are diamonds in the rough, that do have potential but they're barely breaking even, or restaurants that are losing money and finally realize that the only way out is to ask for help.
We are changing people's lives. Like the hamburger place in South Central Los Angeles. Yeah, I am going to fight for Ms. Cynthia because if they listen to what I say, they'll stay in business for another 70 years. It's a matter of survival and employees staying employed, and there's a lot of dignity there.
The people behind it all are the wild card. You never know what you're going to get until you know them. We get to know them in one week. We try to understand the ins and outs in just one week.
We're doing iconic foods from all regions. Of course I get some looks when I am in East L.A. working with a Mexican family on making their tamale/taco restaurant better. They're looking at me like, "What the hell does this guy know?" That's where I need to be the gentle Southerner who says, "I am not saying that all that you're doing is bad, but you're not making a profit for a reason. Your father lived and died to build this restaurant, and you don't want to lose it now, so let me help you." In the process, I can even make your food better, even if you think a Creole chef from New Orleans doesn't know what he's talking about as far as tamales are concerned. — WILL COVIELLO