Answering the Call

By John Besh

I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1986, just after I graduated from high school in Slidell, Louisiana. I went through boot camp and joined a reserve unit in my hometown. Then I got my first civilian job—as a beginning cook in a local seafood restaurant. It was a start on what would become my career.

I’m not sure that I expected to be called up anytime soon. But in 1990 my unit was activated for Operation Desert Storm and sent to Iraq. I led an infantry squad that helped liberate Kuwait International Airport, and I was part of the first U.S. force to enter Kuwait City. I spent ten months in the Middle East before I came home.

Then came two years with the CIA—in this case the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York—which has turned out some of America’s finest chefs. I interned with internationally known chef Karl-Josef Fuchs at the Romantik Hotel Spielweg in Germany’s Black Forest, and then trained in France’s Provence region.

Today, at 42, I own six restaurants in New Orleans area, including “Restaurant August.” I’ve written several books on Louisiana cooking, and I frequently appear on television. I often wear a chef’s coat, but I’ve never forgotten the Marine green that I wore in the Corps—or lessons that I learned while wearing it.

Broadly, the Corps taught me a lot about service and self-sacrifice. It imbued me with a sense of duty—that when you embark on a mission, you’re obliged to complete it. Because of that I know that I can go the extra mile, even when my mind is telling me otherwise. That knowledge and confidence helps me inspire young workers today.

I don’t run my kitchen like a military unit, but what I learned in the Corps often shapes the way I train my chefs. How do Marines set up their defensive positions? They must pack everything they need to get the job done, anticipate the need for extra ammunition, acquire full knowledge of their sectors of fire, and call for help when they find themselves overwhelmed.

I tell my cooks that they must plan for the extra food they may need, must know the recipes they’ll be responsible for, and must be ready to shout out for help before they get into trouble. Don’t go down in flames because you’re too proud to call in reinforcements, I admonish.

We also train everyone on our staffs in what I call “mission awareness”—providing them with a well-ingrained sense of what we’re trying to do so that when the pressure starts to build, they’ll all be able to keep our overall goals in the forefront in anything they do.

Being in combat gives you a certain perspective on what you do in the civilian world. You’re always aware that what you’re doing in your civilian career—running a restaurant, for example—isn’t a life-and-death matter, as combat is. So it’s easier to keep a cool head when things heat up.

As they always say about Marines, I’ve never stopped being one. I’ve kept in touch with my friends from the Corps. In 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina, I began receiving text-messages from my Marine friends about marshaling resources and feeding the thousands of New Orleans residents who had been unprepared for the storm.

Together, my team and I made plans for feeding and sheltering hundreds, then thousands of people, in residential and commercial areas. Our good deeds ultimately became a business venture. Three years later, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike arrived, we fed 40,000 people a day. Today, we can serve 100,000, anywhere in the world.

Most recently, I’ve been charged with overseeing all food and beverage operations at the National World War II Museum here in New Orleans, just blocks from our other restaurants. At the museum we’ve created the “American Sector” restaurant and the “Stage Door Canteen.” And we’ve provided 100,000 square feet of private catering space.

In recent years I’ve had the honor to cook for and entertain the last surviving Medal of Honor recipients from World War II in a special celebration on board the USS Midway museum in San Diego. I’ve cooked for presidents, heads of state, first ladies, and celebrities. My links with the Corps are always there with me.

I’ve also maintained a love for my country and a loyalty to my comrades. Right after 9/11, if someone had asked me to go back on active duty I would have dropped everything and shipped out immediately, and I suspect many others who had served in the military would have done so as well.

Had it not been for my experience in the Marine Corps—and my time in combat—I doubt I’d have had the confidence, determination, and leadership skills that have served me well in everything that has followed. It’s a connection that only those of us who have served can appreciate. And it’s a recipe for success.

Answering the Call is a monthly series of short articles by prominent men and women discussing the impact of their time in the military on their later achievements.

Answering the Call is a monthly series of short articles by prominent men and women discussing the impact of their time in the military on their later achievements.

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