Food Arts presents the September 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Folse, a one-man culinary conglomerate whose multifaceted business interests make him the epitome of the enterprising modern chef.
From the cornerstone of the 20-year-old Lafitt’s Landing Restaurant, his fine-dining Creole/Cajun eatery housed in an 18th-century Acadian plantation home in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Folse has built a $20 million empire that encompasses almost every aspect of the food service industry. His ventures in catering, ready-to-serve food manufacturing, large-scale dessert production, publishing, writing, education, television, and radio all run under the name Chef John Folse & Company, based in Gonzales, Louisiana. Among the highlights of Folse’s compelling career are the promotional Lafitte’s Landing East he opened in 1988 in Moscow during a presidential summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and the meal he created for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican’s first state dinner in 1989. Not bad for a “swampland Cajun” from St. Jacques de Cabanoucy, Louisiana (modern day St. James).
“My mission has always been to deliver what is true about Cajun culture, with no embellishments,” Folse says. “Just give people a bowl of gumbo and the story will be told.”
Folse’s story weaves from the bayou, where he learned subsistence Cajun Folkways from his trapper father, to daily bus rides to Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, to an accounting job at a chemical company in Baton Rouge, to entrée in the hospitality industry at a Howard Johnson’s hotel in Baton Rouge, to a series of f&b and kitchen positions in various hotel properties around the state, to owning his own restaurant, The Tavern, in Baton Rouge in 1975, to opening Lafitte’s in 1978, to creating his Cajun/Creole empire just up the road a piece from where he grew up.
“I was born at a time when opportunities didn’t exist for Cajuns to leave the swamp,” says Folse, 52. “And really, there was no need to, because everything we needed was available there. The swamp floor was our pantry. Food was something that either swam, flew, or made strange noises in the night. We had tight families, that’s also part of Cajun culture. Even today, all my family (eight siblings) lives and works within 10 miles of where we were born.”
Folse was serving jambalayas, gumbos, and étoufée at Lafitte’s about a year before Paul Prudhomme’s—“a prairie Cajun,” Folse calls him—blackened-fish gospel made the country Cajun-mad. In the mid-1980’s, Folse’s swamp-honest cooking led to an invitation from Hilton Hotels to set up a version of Lafitte’s at one of its Hong Kong properties for a two-week promotion. “It was a great marketing tool and helped me realize that there were opportunities beyond my restaurant in Donaldsonville,” says Folse, who’s done similar promotional restaurants in Fukuoka (Japan), Beijing, London, Paris, Rome, Bogota, Taipei, and Seoul.
In 1987, two years after extending Lafitte’s reach to include the 22-acre antebellum White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge as the restaurant’s catering arm, Folse answered the clamor for his Cajun food by starting a food-and-freeze manufacturing facility called Louisiana’s Premier Products. “All these people in these countries would be disappointed when we’d take our gumbo and leave,” Folse states. “They wanted Louisiana products. None of this happened by any great plan. I just saw a need and niche.”
Now called John Folse and Company Manufacturing, his plan processes 1.5 million tons of food a year and grosses nearly $15 million in sales to foodservice wholesalers, chains, and Gulf Coast casinos, among others. In the works is a project to assist Russians in setting up Cajun/Creole “ethnic” restaurants in that country using his products.
Folse also created a freestanding dessert division called Exceptional Endings at the Gonzales facility in 1995 to service a chain of coffee houses and his own restaurant and catering divisions. He plans to expand its reach into retail foodservice.
As a tireless ambassador for Cajun/Creole culture, Folse has served as host of the PBS series A Taste of Louisiana with Chef John Folse since 1989. Companion books to each segment of the series—as well as other titles—are published by Chef John Folse & Company Publishing, which he started in 1985. To add to his brimming gumbo pot, Folse does a weekly radio show called Stirrin’ It Up that’s heard in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. And he teaches a six-week course at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, a four-year B.S. program started by Nicholls State in 1996. As the only hands-on R&D education facility in the country, the Folse Institute is “striving to create great-tasting cuisine by teaching chefs the high end of food science.”
“Ultimately,” Folse says “I want to be measured not by the products or money I make, or how many companies I have, but by the people I leave behind, who, one day, will say, ‘He was a hell of a guy who loved what he did and inspired others to be great at what they did.’”