A week after the National World War II Museum announced it was breaking ties with John Besh , the celebrity chef and restaurateur announced his latest venture: a Mexican-style restaurant in the CBD to be developed with Food Network star Aarón Sánchez.
The restaurant, which will be called Johnny Sánchez, will be the second collaboration for the two chefs, who in April announced plans to open the original concept restaurant in Baltimore as part of the Horseshoe Casino set to open this summer.
The New Orleans eatery is slated to open this fall at 930 Poydras St., a restaurant space in the ground floor of a high-rise tower that was previously home to Sainte Marie.
The two chefs are friends who often travel and participate in charity events together, and Besh said that relationship was the starting point for the Johnny Sánchez project.
“We love to cook, eat, drink and make people happy, and that’s why we’re doing this,” Besh said.
Still, the focus on Mexican cuisine aligns with a national dining trend that industry insiders have been pointing to for years. At a Culinary Institute of America conference in November, for instance, a gathering of high-level chefs and restaurateurs named Mexican flavors as one of the top trends to watch for this year. For his part, Sánchez emphasized the personal nature of this restaurant collaboration, which will revolve around dishes the two chefs have been devising together at social events, hunting trips and other outings.
“This is the food that John and I love to cook when we’re hanging out together having fun, and that’s what resonates with people,” he said.
Chef partnerships have been a key factor in the growth of the Besh Restaurant Group, which now operates nine properties in New Orleans and one in San Antonio. In April, Besh opened his latest, Pizza Domenica, with chef Alon Shaya, his partner in the Domenica restaurant in the CBD.
But last week, the National World War II Museum said it will not renew its management agreement with Besh’s company to operate American Sector and the Soda Shop, two restaurants inside the museum’s Warehouse District property. That contract expires July 31, after which another, yet-to-be-named operator will take over management. The museum explained the change as part of its efforts to meet the needs of a growing volume of visitors.
Meanwhile, plans are well underway for Johnny Sánchez. While specific dishes are still under development, the menu will feature tacos, tostadas and other small items intended to be shared around the table, prepared with a blend of Louisiana ingredients and Mexican culinary styles. Besh spokeswoman Emery Whalen said Johnny Sánchez will be more casual than the chef’s other downtown restaurants.
Miles Landrem, a chef from Besh’s flagship restaurant August, will be chef de cuisine. The restaurant will have a full bar and serve lunch and dinner daily.
Sánchez has restaurants in New York, Connecticut and Kansas and consults on the Crossroads restaurants at House of Blues music venues around the country. His mother, Zarela Martinez, is a cookbook author and restaurateur widely praised as an ambassador of traditional Mexican cuisine in the U.S.
Sánchez, who worked in New Orleans early in his career at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, first met Besh around the same period. In 2007, both chefs competed on the first season of the Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef” series, and they have appeared or starred in numerous food programs since.
In Baltimore, Johnny Sánchez will be a casino-sized venture, with seating for 222 people and live entertainment across 6,100 square feet. The New Orleans version will be a fraction of that size and will be tailored more for the New Orleans market, Whalen said. As Sainte Marie, the space had about 75 seats.
That restaurant closed earlier this year after restaurateur Robert LeBlanc decided to essentially transplant his entire Sainte Marie operation — including chef, managers and staff — to the French Quarter and reopen in the former Meauxbar restaurant space.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.