Chef John Folse: The Catholic King of Cajun Cooking
Throughout his successful cooking life, Chef Folse has been guided by his Catholic faith.
If you live anywhere near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, collect Cajun-Creole cookbooks or watch food shows on PBS, the name “Chef John Folse” will ring all sorts of kitchen chimes. After all, his culinary empire includes—among others—the White Oak Estate and Gardens for weddings and social events, the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, and his Cajun and Creole Company Store that stocks Cajun and Creole food products plus affiliated cookbooks.
But perhaps Chef Folse’s biggest impact on local lives comes from his faith. He traces that back to his German Catholic great-grandfather who arrived in New Orleans in the 1700s with orders to build the first St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, and then subsequently built the Ursuline convent there. In the ensuing centuries, numerous Catholic German families moved into the region and formed a tight family community, Chef Folse said.
With this Old World Catholic heritage, Chef Folse’s father wanted his children to become very involved in their Catholic faith. And he also insisted that his sons learn the traditions and techniques of the local Cajun cuisine. He wanted us to take care of ourselves as independent men, Chef Folse said. “He instilled that in us at an early age, so we all became good cooks at home,” he said. “All my brothers are still really good cooks. And one has his own catering company.” To this day, he added, the brothers get together to hold huge crawfish boils to benefit local churches, schools and family gatherings.
What led this particular son to steer his career into professional cooking? He got into the hotel business at the now-closed Prince Murat Hotel in Baton Rouge. He was involved in its operation by working in the front of the house, though he used to “hang out in the kitchen,” he said. During that time, he met a German chef from Munich who came to be a supervisor in that hotel. “He told me something interesting about cooking,” he said. “I did not start off to be a chef, but Fritz Blumberg said to me, ‘Get off the front desk and go to the kitchen.’ I never dreamed of being a cooking professional until he got me into this. And we also talked about faith, food and family.”
After honing his culinary skills, Chef Folse launched his own company, Chef John Folse & Company. In 1978, he opened his first restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant. He then set out to take the taste of Cajun cooking and New Orleans worldwide, including trips to Japan, China, Russia and Italy.
But his contributions to the local Catholic communities in Louisiana have made a lasting impact. He is a speaker for several Catholic organizations, and does much writing and research on local Catholicism. “I do a lot within the community of the Catholic nuns of the Mercedarian order, a teaching order,” he added. (Note: Chef Folse is President of The Sister Dulce Foundation, Inc. The Foundation Board of Directors oversees the finances, etc. of Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center (CSMPC).
“I also have done television shows on the foods of the Ursuline nuns, who are really steeped in the cooking culture,” he said. “I went to see the Mother Superior, who asked me to come visit. She told me about my great-grandfather building their convent.”
Not surprisingly, Chef Folse’s typical day, he said, involves dealing with his numerous business interests. He praises his “fabulous staff” of 500 employees as he visits his various companies, does television shows, and trains chefs at Nicholls State University, the home of Chef Folse’s Culinary Institute. His institute offers a Bachelor of Science or an Associate of Science degree in the culinary and food-and-service industry.
Most importantly, however, throughout his successful cooking life, Chef Folse has been guided by his Catholic faith.