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Almost family

© ChrisGranger / Bonnier © ChrisGranger / Bonnier

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Before heading out on Interstate 10 from Lafayette toward New Orleans last summer, I called an old family friend named John Maginnis and asked if he and his wife, Rose, could meet me for dinner. I was writing a feature story on Louisiana gumbo for Saveur, and received a tip that a restaurant called La Provence, in the New Orleans bedroom community of Lacombe, served some of the finest. Lacombe is about a fifteen minute drive from John and Rose's house in Covington, where, for a couple of months in my late twenties, I lived while looking for newspaper work in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. "Gumbo is something you enjoy with your family," a chef in Lafayette had told me a few days prior. And if that was the case, John and Rose were the closest thing I had down there.

John is my best friend Gordon's father, Rose his stepmother. Back in the 1980s, the Maginnis family lived about a mile or so away from my own in suburban Cincinnati. For a brief period of time John was in business with my father. And when my father died of a heart attack at 49, he was a pallbearer, then a de-facto father figure. Once Gordon graduated from college, John convinced Rose to move back to his hometown of Covington, missing, I would guess, the dawdling Tchefuncte River where he used to swim as a boy, the smoky red beans and rice served, according to tradition, each Monday, and the deep fragrant pine forests that make all of St. Tammany Parish, where both Covington and Lacombe are located, smell like Christmas year-round.

That piney aroma hit me the second I got out of my car in La Provence's rear parking lot. The other thing that struck me was the small farm right behind the restaurant. Chickens strutted about in free-range glory; portly Berkshire hogs rested their gargantuan frames in the dust of an ample pen beneath the shade of a live oak as their noisy next-door neighbors, a gaggle of some fifty or more geese, quacked away. There were herb gardens and fruit trees. A rooster tore a plump purple fig from a tree and pecked away at it until it was a palatable mush. At La Provence, it seemed, the journey from farm to table was a mere 100 feet.

John and Rose were waiting for me in the front entryway and as soon as I walked in they greeted me with the tight, comforting hugs I've come to expect. While I had seen them just six months prior at a baptism in D.C., it had been four years since I'd visited them at home in Louisiana. The subtle smell of the Gray Flannel cologne John's worn since I first met him when I was 13 transferred instantly from his pressed Brooks Brothers shirt to my wrinkled Banana Republic. As our hostess led us to the dining room, we passed by a bounteous bar area resembling a French Provencal living room in all its wood-beamed ceiling and stucco wall glory, a series of straight-backed chairs arranged around an enormous fireplace.

I had never been to the restaurant before, but I'd been hearing about it for years: Decades ago, Louisiana boy named John Besh worked here under the guidance of its original owner, a jovial and flirtatious Frenchman named Chris Keragiorgiou. Chef Chris turned what was once a trucker's motel into something straight out of a Peter Mayle book. Besh eventually left Louisiana, serving as a marine during the first Gulf War. But like John—like a lot of Louisiana boys—he came home, where he used the discipline he'd learned in the military to start a restaurant empire in New Orleans that now includes Besh Steakhouse, Restaurant August, and the Italian restaurant Domenica, among others. In 2007, when Besh saw La Provence stumbling financially, he bought the place from Chef Chris, who died suddenly not long after. I would guess that of all the critically acclaimed restaurants Besh now owns, this must be his most cherished: It's the one that helped launched his career; the one that helped form who he is today.

Taking our seats at a round white-linen draped table, the three of us settled in and ordered a bottle of wine. John asked about my job, a job I never would have landed if he hadn't encouraged me to pursue writing as a career—something I remind him of every time I see him. John was a writer, too. The first writer I ever met, in fact. In college, he studied under William Faulkner at the University of Virginia. In his twenties, he spent time in Spain penning an unpublished novel based on the Don McLean song "American Pie." He moved to New York and worked as a reporter for the Associated Press. By the time I met him, he had three children, and exchanged writing and reporting for more lucrative jobs in marketing and advertising. Still, to a kid like me who wanted to grow up and be a writer, John was an inspiration. And in a way, I always felt the need to continue what he started.

That dream escaped me for a while. After college, and throughout most of my twenties, I worked a series of odd jobs at Cincinnati coffee shops and restaurants, factories, and retail chains. I worked the dry-mount press at my stepfather's blueprint company. I was the assistant manager at a Pier One. But after being fired from a job as a paralegal—a termination that came down hard after the head lawyer of the case I was working on found me asleep at my desk, a Johnny Cash cassette blaring from a desktop stereo—John gave me a call. I don't remember the exact words he used, but it went something like this: "Keith, what the hell are you doing with your life? I thought you were going to be a writer."

He told me to move to Louisiana; he would introduce me to some editors he knew down there. He helped me find freelance work at the Baton Rouge Advocate and the Times Picayune; the Baton Rouge Business Report and Gambit Weekly. Before long, I was writing for just about every publication in south Louisiana, eventually landing a staff position at a weekly business paper in New Orleans. After about five years in Louisiana, I left for a job at a trade magazine in New York. But I never forgot the person, or the place, that gave me my start.

After numerous well-intended attempts by the waiter to distract us from our conversation and place our order, we opted to share a crisp butter lettuce salad that arrived with a creamy dressing made with herbs from that garden out back, salt and pepper Gulf shrimp served with juicy watermelon and grilled avocado, and oysters with crab fat butter, sprinkled with saffron and chili flakes. As we ate, the three of us continued to reminisce over the three decades we've known each other, recounting stories both new and old. John told two of my favorites: One about the time his flamboyant Uncle Gordon befriended Tennessee Williams after walking off with the playwright's full-length coonskin coat from a party, mistaking it for his own; then the time back in 1967, when he stood next to Muhammad Ali outside his Louisville house waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether or not the prizefighter would be convicted for draft evasion. With each perfectly paced story, John would tilt his head backward a bit and cast his eyes into a downward glance. He would only look up at me once he reached the climax of the tale, and, once he was finished, punctuate it with an almost inward laughter.

We were on our second bottle of wine when the gumbo arrived in what we all agreed was a curious manner. Three large platters, each holding a single, rather lonely looking, roasted quail were delivered to our table. I remember John raising an approving eyebrow at me as we watched our waiter pour what turned out to be a rich puréed gumbo of duck and sausage over each one like thick gravy. The quails were stuffed with dirty rice, and when we sliced into them with our forks, the rice poured out, and the meat shredded into the gumbo, creating one of the most elegant versions of the dish I've ever tasted.

Devouring the gumbo, John talked about how far I'd come since moving to New York. He told me he was proud of me, but was curious how I'd gone from a business reporter to a senior editor at a food magazine. I thought about that for a minute. I told him my interest in food was inspired by a lot of things: the fact that my father was such a great home cook after having grown up working in his family's Italian-American catering company; the fact that while I was growing up in Cincinnati, my mother had taken me to the city's best restaurants, educating me on everything from haute French cuisine to English high tea. And after Hurricane Katrina, I mourned all that was lost in New Orleans by making countless jambalayas, red beans and rice, and shrimp remoulade dishes in my Brooklyn kitchen. But the main reason I wrote about food, the thing that made it both gratifying and, at times, therapeutic, was that it was an attempt to recapture moments just like the one John and Rose and I were having that night. Sitting at a table with people I love, sharing food, and talking about things—stories, memories, jokes and jibes—we've shared throughout our lives. After traveling the state and interviewing strangers all week, this dinner reminded me of what it felt like to be part of a family. I felt reassured. Tended to. Secure.

John's son Gordon and I are both 44 now. He lives in Washington and is going through a divorce; I am still in New York, recently married, and struggling to have children after waiting far too long to start a family of my own. Gordon has alimony payments. I have a cardiologist. Which is to say that we are older; that time goes by; that things change. I am past the age now that John was the day I first met him. I am, I suppose, an adult, but I still need John. I always will. As much as I think of him as a father, I hope he thinks of me as a son. And if that's the case, I want to do him proud. Leaving La Provence that night, I noticed a not-so-old photograph of Besh and Keragiorgiou hanging on the wall. Though a grown man with a restaurant empire of his own, Besh looked like a starry eyed child next to Chef Chris. Walking alongside John as we passed by the photo, so did I.

La Provence
25020 Highway 190
Lacombe, Louisiana 70445
985/626-7662

See the recipe for Stuffed Quail Gumbo »




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