He started his own culinary career in the early 1970s and he promises that, when he started, there was no science involved. He also takes us back to what the culinary landscape was like in that era, when nobody was telling the story of authentic Louisiana foods, and when no American chefs were heading up restaurants; instead, he needed to work under European chefs, primarily French and German.
So, how did Chef Folse get from that place in life to where he is now? It was because of his passion for the Cajun and Creole cultures, he explains, a passion borne in him quite literally, as he was born and raised in the swamplands as the son of a Cajun trapper, eating the fruits of the Louisiana swamps. That passion for his birthplace, he says, is what spurred him on to do something more.
In 1983, the United States hosted the Williamsburg Economic Summit and, at that international summit, seven chefs from around the country were invited to cook a dinner for world leaders. Because each of the chefs were from different regions, this helped to clarify regional cuisine in our country for the first time.
Chef Folse was at the summit and was also part of the group that, post-summit, traveled the country, visiting other restaurants. Chefs who previously hadn’t talked to one another – who had, in John’s words, been miserable in their own little worlds – began to communicate. That raised a burning question in John’s mind: why is nobody talking about Louisiana cooking?
Here, you can listen to John share the story, including his poetic description of the Creole culture, that beautiful mixture of blood rushing through his veins, that extraordinary culture that whispers from the swamps of Louisiana:
“The spotlight hit Louisiana,” he shares, when blackened fish began appearing on menus. “Trash fish” that had previously only been served in stews was now being blackened, making this regional American cuisine front-page news. Blackening, dark brown roux, gumbo – this was the only place in the world where chefs were cooking like this, so people needed to come to Louisiana to eat these in-demand foods, making the state an international marketplace.
John Folse was born in mud, eating alligators and birds that he couldn’t begin to describe for dinner. If something crawled, screamed or flew in the swampland, that was fodder for food. From those humble beginnings, he opened a restaurant about 70 miles outside of New Orleans, which ultimately led to his opening up restaurants around the world, including in Japan, France, China and Russia, England, South Korea, Columbia and Taiwan. He publishes cookbooks – his and those of other authors – from a publishing company that he founded, called Chef John Folse & Company. He has also created The John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where new generations of chefs are being inspired and taught about how to become great.
The process wasn’t always easy or smooth. In fact, in 1998, a fire destroyed his restaurant, which was housed in an historic plantation, and most of his memorabilia from around the world literally went up in smoke. John then gathered his team together and, as they stood in the ashes, he told them, “either we’re done or we’re just beginning.”
You can listen to Chef Folse share more about this transformational moment here:
“Risk,” Chef Folse shares, “is the tariff paid to leave the shores of predictable misery.” None of his successes would have happened without risk taking, without actions taken because it fulfilled his passion, because if he didn’t do it, nobody else would.
You can see John Folse’s entire Roots 2016 presentation here.