Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award: John Folse
Thriving in the Environment
John Folse is a difficult guy to categorize. Is he a chef? Undoubtedly. He made a name for himself with Lafitte’s Landing, an ambitious Cajun restaurant in an out-of-the way spot capable of drawing customers in from far and wide. An author? Sure. His “Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine” is a standard text in home kitchens and culinary schools. He is a food personality, with a slew of radio and television series promulgating his distinct style. As a businessman, his food manufacturing companies produce a staggering array of Louisiana-themed products. Add to this his role as an international ambassador for Cajun cuisine and the namesake of one of the nation’s most highly regarded culinary programs and what you have is one exceptional individual. So when NOWFE officials met to decide who would receive this year’s Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award, the decision was easy. Like Ella, there is nobody else out there quite like John Folse.
One might be tempted to describe him as self-made, but Folse would be the first to point out that he could never have become what he is today without a lot of help. One of eight children born into to a Cajun family in the swamps of St James Parish, his father made a living as a trapper. “Hard work was a part of life,” Folse recalls. “He taught us to cook and especially to cook what you trapped. He’d say if you took the hide off the animal, you’d have to eat it.” Folse was just eight years old when his mother died and his father was left to raise the family alone. It was then that a woman named Mary Ferchard came into his life. “A few weeks after we buried my mother she came to door. She said you have eight kids and I’m here to help,” Folse says. “This lady helped raise us for the next 25 years.” Mary was a skilled cook, not merely talented but also inventive, and she shared with John techniques from African American traditions that played a pivotal role in his later development. “Mary showed me that cooking is not only a great way of life, but also a great gift. Mary is the reason I’m who I am today.”
Despite such early appreciation, hospitality was not Folse’s first career choice. It was the early 1970s, and restaurant work held little appeal for a young man in the south. In fact, he had to be talked into his first kitchen job. It was in 1971. Soldiers were returning from Vietnam and jobs were tight. At this time Folse was sitting in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Baton Rouge sipping coffee and reading the classified ads. “One morning the general manager came up me and asked if I liked to cook. I said yes but I wasn’t interested in restaurant work,” he says. “But she wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually she forced me into an interview – I took the job because I couldn’t figure out how to tell her no.” It would turn out that Howard Johnson’s had that unique DNA that helped set John up for future success. It gave him organizational and corporate experience. It had culinary bonafides – Jacque Pepin was one of their executive chefs. The pay was good, but the real surprise was that John fell in love with it. “It reminded me of times in the kitchen growing up. I thrived in that environment.”
Folse used his experience as a springboard to open Lafitte’s Landing in 1978. Lafitte’s garnered accolades, but it was around this time that some other guy by the name of Paul Prudhomme was making national waves. “I was sitting there a little jealous. I’m thinking I’m from the swamps, my daddy was a trapper… Why is it him up in New York and not me?” Folse recalls. He complained to his wife, who said, ‘Well why don’t you go national too?’ and his response was that Prudhomme owned the whole country by that point. She said, “Ok fine. Then you go international.”
As Folse was mulling that over, providence intervened again. A couple of guys from Hilton happened to come through his restaurant. They loved the food and asked if he would like to come to Hong Kong and showcase his cuisine. “I said, ‘Let me go home and pack.’”
Hong Kong led to Japan, Japan to Seoul, and the rest is history. Over time John’s company grew to incorporate a multitude of manufacturing, production, media and restaurant divisions. Lafitte’s may be gone, but Restaurant R’evolution now stands as his tribute to the melting pot of culinary traditions that gave rise to our cuisine. His latest project, the Folse Market in New Orleans’ gleaming new airport, capitalizes on his considerable production capacities, serving up baked goods, grocery items and prepared foods in a clever model easily replicable in other markets. Stay tuned.
Despite all the business successes, it is the John Folse Culinary Academy at Nicholls State he puts forward as his proudest achievement. “To know we are building chefs with the same passion I have humbles me,” he says. He doesn’t just talk the talk – at the time of this interview he was taking a break from teaching class. Like Ella, Folse is not content to rest on his laurels. Life has other plans. “That’s what I tell my students – forget about the best laid plans – just go out there and do the best you can do. Chances are someone is going to notice it.”