Interview: Chef John Folse
by Kate Heyhoe
"Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!!! Let the Good Times Roll!!!"
This motto of Mardi Gras captures the vibrant spirit of the many peoples and celebrations of Louisiana. It also captures the exuberant energy of one of Louisiana's finest gifts to the culinary world: Chef John Folse. Besides being a master at the art of cooking, he is a scholar and a culinary diplomat. In celebration of Mardi Gras, I managed to stop Chef Folse long enough to give us some culinary insights into Louisiana and Mardi Gras customs. The original feature appeared in its entirety in February, 1995. Here, we've excerpted some of the highlights while Chef Folse shares three classic recipes from his book, "Plantation Celebrations."
Chef Folse On 'Mardi Gras'
"Fat Tuesday is the English translation of the French words Mardi Gras, which obviously mean Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday actually goes back to pagan rituals, many many hundreds of thousands of years ago—when it was a rite of Spring. Right before the seasons started to change there was a big celebration to pray to the gods for good weather and good crops. So we can actually trace the rites of Spring all the way back to the caveman. However, here in Louisiana, the first Mardi Gras was in 1589 when (the French explorers) Bienville and Iberville landed at the mouth of the river in New Orleans and then realized that the next day would be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. The tradition back in France and in Europe in those days was that there was always a major feast prior to the 40 days of fasting in Lent. The day called Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, was where you could eat and drink all day long because you were going to have to go into repentance for forty days. As all good Christians, you would take care of yourself first, and the custom became known as Mardi Gras.
"The first Mardi Gras in America took place in Alabama, they were a year or so ahead of us in 1859, but the longest continual Mardi Gras parades and parties have been a part of New Orleans culture since 1861. The custom of Mardi Gras' carnival, and partying in the street and all of this, is just the greatest party on earth, the largest party in the streets celebrating the Lenten season. and in fact, it is now Christian holiday season coming up, so this is just another way to have a good time."
On Cultures and Traditions
"In Louisiana, we are very very lucky here because seven different nations came to settle in the early 1600's. Beginning with the French explorers, then the Spanish, then ultimately the English, the Germans, Italians, Africans, and certainly the Native Americans who were already here. Those nations brought a tremendous amount of traditions from their own countries and had a desire to preserve those cultures and traditions. So, we find here in this part of the country, that since most of these cultures have had a desire to remain intact, even though they became homogenized into the larger culture, they more or less kept those traditions. So, if you want a tradition, come to Louisiana, we've got thousands of them!"
On New Orleans
"New Orleans, the Land of Dreams...Seven different nations settled in the city from the late 1600's, each one of them sectioning off a little bit of the city. The French Quarter, being La Quatre Francaise, home of the French with their own foods. Next to it, the home of the Spanish, next to it the quarter of the Germans, with their smoked sausages, sauerkraut and andouilles. Next to that, the Italians with their muffulettas and olive oil and olives and their wonderful produce that the Italians grew all around the city. New Orleans was a major shipping port. Everything coming up the Mississippi started in New Orleans so they had access to anything imaginable. But the fact that there were distinctly seven different cultures, all living side by side, the food was up for grabs. (There was) the development of Creole, with the intermarriage of those seven nations. The wonderful tomato based sauces, the muffuletta sandwiches of the Italians, the paellas and jambalayas of the Spanish, the cassoulets and the coq au vin of the French. My God! I could go on and on and on...The first desserts ever seen in the South came from the Urseline nuns in the late 1700's in New Orleans. They brought us pralines, crepes, and pastries—we had never seen them before. We had the pirate Jean Lafitte. We had all of his men living in Barataria Bay. They brought us things like cafe brulot, and caramel custards with creme brulee and the burnt tops. My God! I could write a book on it! (KH: But you already have!) I know! But, hey, I'm just thinking of the many things I forgot. I could even write another book!"
On African-American Chefs
"There's Stanley Jackson the great, great black chef in New Orleans, who most black chefs admire more today than anyone else. What a fabulous chef this guy is. And of course, who can ever think of Creole without thinking of Lafcadio Hearn—he wrote the first book on Creole cooking, and I mean this was a master of Creole cooking and taught more of the chefs in New Orleans in the early years than just about anyone else. It was the first Creole cookbook ever written. Then there's Austin Leslie, a very famous black chef who influenced so many people. of course, there's my absolute favorite of all the black chefs and one of the most magnificent chefs in all the US—black, white or Spanish, it doesn't really matter, and that's Leah Chase of Dooky Chase's. She has probably influenced more young black chefs and white chefs to look around the home and the (immediate) area for food than anyone else. I just love her to death, and whenever I want to feel really good about cooking in Louisiana, I call Leah and say, "Leahhhhh, tell me a story..." She's a wonderful, wonderful lady and I love her to death."
I asked Chef Folse, if Cajuns are truly as raucous as their reputation would have us believe:
"I hope so! Its unfortunate the image of the Cajun comes to people from Hollywood...you know, the muzzle loading, gun toatin', womanizing—on second thought, lets keep that in there—moonshine makin' image. Cajuns come from a French background, and it's a social culture. We like to hug and kiss everyone we see. We're so family oriented. The Church and family mean a lot. You got family members living in the same houses, in the same neighborhoods, always being together. So there's not much time to do anything else but make music and cook gumbo! We can get damn rowdy at times, but we're also the friendliest group."
And on that note...Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!!!
Guide to Louisiana and Creole Cuisine
- New Orleans: Our Cuisine
- Dooky Chase's Star Chef
- Graham Kerr's "Low-Fat Tuesday" Recipes
- Interview: Chef John Folse
- Chef John Folse's Tomato Basil Pie
- Chef John Folse's Cane River Pound Cake
- Lafitte's Pepper Seared Lamb Chops
- Roux's of the Game: Mardi Gras Recipes
- Commander's Palace Restaurant Recipes
- Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday
Modified March 2007