In his brand-new book called Cooking from the Heart, chef John Besh tells a wonderful anecdote.
It was 1995 and John had been sent by his boss and mentor, New Orleans chef Chris Kerageorgiou, to visit Chris’ family in Provence. The idea was for John to learn about the roots of Provençal cooking, from real local cooks, at the source. At this point in his career, John thought he knew more than a little about French cooking…“but not according to Chef Chris!” So John was shipped off to Marseille, with his brother Steve from Memphis tagging along for fun.
So there were les deux Americains, down by the port in Marseille, with Chris’ cousin Pierre and a big bunch of his dock-worker friends, all of whom had been more than happy to take time off work to demonstrate the right way “to make the moules.” (One of the very first things I learned about cooking in Provence is that everyone has their way of doing a dish…and their way is, of course, the right way.)
But first they had to source their ingredients and find something to drink while cooking. And as luck would have it, some things had just fallen off a boat. “The wine, as it turned out, was about to be shipped to Japan,” John recalls. “However since this was French wine, these Frenchmen decided to just keep a palette for themselves. For the sake of national pride, of course.”
Struggling to decipher the thick Provençal accents all around him, John somehow understood that the three large jugfuls of “the finest olive oil produced in France” were apparently obtained the same way, the friendly natives doing their national duty by rescuing it for La Belle France.
Next, it was time to collect the moules: 50 pounds of prized Bouzigues mussels from further down the coast, which someone’s friend had just acquired “from some unknown source.”
And finally it was off to the locale municipale where Pierre had set up large propane burners and enormous “crawfish-boil sized” pots. Using pounds and pounds of garlic, plus shallots, crushed red chiles, fresh thyme and bottles of Vermouth--all the while swigging pastis and that stolen wine—the rowdy locals and their visitors from “Nouvelle Orleans” made themselves a mountain of moules the Marseille way.
“I’ve never had so much Ricard in my life,” John remembers, “nor did I ever consume so many mussels, both raw and cooked.” Meanwhile poor Steve was doing his best to blend in, downing shot after shot of pastis and getting drunker by the minute.
Then word got around that Steve was a doctor and the locals began to line up, everyone ready to be diagnosed for some disease or another. “One by one, those short, stocky dock workers began taking off their clothes to show Steve a scar, or wound, or infection,” John recalls. “That’s when I noticed my brother (who treats cancer patients) had started smoking Gauloises...smoking the cigarettes backwards, lighting up the filtered end. To this day whenever I smell pastis and cigarettes, I think of my brother and the best mussels in the world.”
Cooking from the Heart, John’s third book, is a gorgeous 308-page hardcover that comes out in a couple days. (Just like the two books before it, it was produced by Dorothy Kalins, the former editor of Saveur.) It’s filled cover to cover with memories and tales like the Marseille one above, drawn from John’s years of cooking, travelling and learning, in America and abroad. Provence is featured prominently as it’s one of John’s very favorite places. Among the 140 recipes, you’ll find Provençal leg of lamb, brandade, anchoïade, aïoli, fish soup, bourride, bouillabaisse, fried squash blossoms, lavender honey ice cream and on and on… plus step-by-step cooking lessons, 375 photos and more.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, and raised in Southern Louisiana, John knew by age or nine or ten that he wanted to cook. He joined the Marines, went to culinary school and cooked in top restaurants across the South. Then he took himself off to Germany and France to learn from local cooks and master chefs…and returned to Europe again and again at different points in his career.
“Those experiences transformed me forever,” he says. Whereas John’s first two books were more about his life and work in Louisiana, the newest one is an homage to all those who inspired, taught and mentored him along the way.
Today John is a wildly successful restaurateur (nine restaurants at last count), a James Beard Award winner (Best Chef of the Southeast, 2006) and a frequent face on TV. He and his wife, Jenifer, have four boys. Through his restaurants, books, TV and philanthropy, John works to preserve and promote the authentic and seasonal foods of the Gulf Coast region of the American South, while helping to support the people who make, farm, raise, harvest and cook them.
To celebrate the new book, John hit on a clever idea. He rounded up ten foodie friends (chefs, food bloggers, etc.) and assigned each of us one chapter, asking us to choose any recipe we wanted, prepare the dish, take some photos and write about it. In return, we’d get a link back from John’s website and an advance copy of the book. Since John is one of those folks who’s always jumping in to help others, I immediately replied, “Oui, chef!”
I live most of the year in St. Remy, an hour north of Marseille, so the chapter called “Mussel Madness in Marseille” was an obvious choice for me. Given that mussels are good and cheap in many restaurants all over Provence, I rarely prepare them at home--unless I'm having a dinner party. So let’s just say it’s been some time since any shiny black bivalves saw the business end of my stove. Making John’s Moules Provençal would get me off the computer and into to the kitchen, the perfect opportunity to make a dish I love.
Since cooking is always more fun à deux, I turned to my Belgian friend Catherine Burtonboy, who recently said au revoir to her big fancy job at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. and bought herself a beautiful 19th-century home in Tarascon, a not-yet-gentrified town on the Rhone River, 15 minutes west of St. Remy. After doing some minor renovation, she’ll be opening it as a B&B and cooking school in January. In addition to teaching workshops herself and bringing in guest chef/instructors, Catherine plans to host cooking parties, ethnic food evenings and all sorts of other foodie festivities. And she agreed that a mussel feast would be a terrific way to inaugurate her new digs.
“I paid to ship over something like 80 boxes of cookware and dishes from the States,” she said, “so I might as well start using it!” Truth is, Catherine looks for any excuse to shop the markets and cook. And since her kids won't arrive until the holidays--her daughter cooks at Daniel in New York, her son’s in the food business in Washington--she's hungry to fill her new home with friends, laughter and good cooking.
Without boxes of stolen shellfish to work with—or drunken dockworkers to boost them for us--Catherine and I had planned to get our mussels at the outdoor market in Tarascon or nearby Beaucaire. But yet another option—and the one we ultimately chose—was to buy them at the grocery store, still alive but vacuum packed. A couple local chef friends encouraged us to go this route as they’re already cleaned and easier to cook. Catherine felt the same way…and far be it from me to argue with a serious Belgian cook when it comes to making moules!
While dry white wine works perfectly well in the dish, John says he favors Vermouth…so that’s what we chose as well. And Catherine likes it because it reminds her of mussels with pastis, a dish her daughter sometimes makes. “Really delicious!” she proclaims.
The rest of the ingredients were easy to find or were things we already had on hand. It’s a simple, straightforward recipe, a dish that’s fun and easy to make; the only real time involved is chopping the green onions, fennel, garlic and herbs. We fired up Catherine’s big Gaggenau range at 12:30 and were tucking into our excellent lunch just after 1 pm, mopping up every drop of sauce with terrific bread we bought in town. We both agreed the dish is a winner and one we would cook again. Then Catherine shelled the leftover moules and popped them in the freezer, happy to have them for mussel soup later or perhaps a seafood gratin.
Our moules adventure in Tarascon may have been less colorful—and was definitely more sober!—than the one John had years ago in Marseille. But the surroundings were sublime and the company I chose was too. And I can’t imagine that their mussels were in any way more delicious than ours: briny, plump, perfectly prepared, pretty-to-look at, deliciously sauced and classically Provençal. To see the recipe, click here.
For more info:
Cooking from the Heart (Andrews McMeel Publishing) comes out October 29, 2013. The $40 hardcover and other editions are available from Amazon by clicking here.
The book’s dedicated website with stories from other participating foodies is here. More are being added over the next few weeks. John’s regular website is here and his book tour schedule is here. For more info on John, you can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Pinterest. The hashtag for the book is #cookfromtheheart.
Catherine’s B&B in Tarascon will be called Le Mas de Lilou and she’ll be welcoming guests as of January. While her website is under construction, email her (firstname.lastname@example.org) for info and updates.
Photos: 1. Our finished dish. 2. John's new book. 3. Our chapter. 4. On the way to Catherine's...I've always loved this field! The light changes dramatically throughout the day. Sometimes there are sheep here...sometimes horses...sometimes nothing but big sky. 5. No small Provencal town should be without a chateau, don't you think? This is Tarascon's, built between 1401 and 1449, after the previous castle was destroyed. 6. Catherine in her element! The kitchen is definitely the heart of her new home in Provence. 7. Lots of Catherine's little friends moved from DC to Tarascon with her. 8. Our ingredients, ready for their close-up. Yes, that's olive oil from California on the far right. Please don't call the Provence food police...sometimes these things just happen. 9. Almost ready. 10. Cath (with the big camera) shot me (with the small camera) grabbing one last shot before lunch. 11. Let's eat!