John Folse’s Catholic faith guides him
Chef John Folse credits his success in life to God-given gifts of family and cooking talents.
“I was lucky to be born in a home with lots of faith,” Folse said. “It got us through tough times. We came to realize that there was a greater presence that was looking out for us and over us.”
In his new cookbook co-authored with Michaela B. York, “Can You Dig It: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Vegetable Cookery,” he honors his forefathers as well as American farmers by spotlighting vegetables.
“It was time for vegetables,” Folse said at a Barnes and Noble book signing. “I’ve done all the books that include vegetables in them because, when you do Louisiana cooking, you have to include them.”
The 950-page, 11-pound cookbook is the fourth in his “Big Book” cookbook series, all of which reference his Catholic faith in some way.
“Just because it’s a cookbook doesn’t mean the Bible is not in it,” he said. “Food and the Bible became a part of our life.”
The foreword of “Can You Dig It” starts with a quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 and has a 14-page Biblical chapter mentioning the most famous garden, the “Garden of Eden,” and the various fruits found in the Bible and throughout history. Folse is pictured in the book cooking tilapia outdoors on the Sea of Galilee, recreating the story of Jesus cooking fish on the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection and the apostles not instantly recognizing him.
“I want you to see a little bit of Christ in it,” he said of the cookbook. “I wanted to tell this story, and somebody reading this might be touched and it might bring them back to God or the church. ... I am a firm believer that everything I have, do and share is a great gift from God.”
Chef Folse’s strong Catholic faith and farming was rooted in family and the St. James Parish community.
Folse, 69, said his eighth great-grandfather Johann Jacob Foltz (now Folse) came to Louisiana from Germany and settled as a farmer on rich alluvial land upriver west from New Orleans known as the German Coast. His seventh great-grandfather Michael Zeringue on his mother’s side was a builder and farmer who helped build the first Ursuline Convent and the first Catholic church later to become St. Louis Cathedral. From his grandfather Albert “Papere” Zeringue, he and his siblings learned to respect farming, plant gardens and grow, plant, tend and harvest the bounty.
He vividly remembers, along with his five brothers, altar serving at the historic St. James Catholic Church – what Folse calls one of the oldest Cajun churches.
“We were all little Cajun boys who knew all of our prayers in Latin,” he said. “Going to church and the community were so important to us.”
He is the third of eight children, who after his mother died when he was 7, was raised by his 35-year-old father Toyley Folse. A Cajun trapper, Folse said his father cooked and prepared food in the field and devoted his life to his family, never leaving the house except to work for the family, take his children to church and the movies.
Folse’s father never remarried and had extended family and an African-American neighbor Mary Ferchard help with the kids. Folse calls Ferchard “St. Mary “because she was a gift from God.” She was a great cook and encouraged the Folse kids to help.
“Our hands were in the pot as children under the supervision of a great chef,” he said. “When you were old enough to chop an onion, she gave you a knife. When you were old enough to stir a pot, she gave you a spoon.”
She also instilled in the children the importance of upholding the family name.
“Mary used to say, ‘Remember guys, all you have is your name. If you mess it up, you gunna have to fix it. God gave you a name and you have to protect it.’ I remember that all the time, and I try to make sure when the name John Folse is out there, something good is attached to it, because that was instilled in us from that wonderful lady years ago.”
To perpetuate and honor the south Louisiana cooking traditions he inherited, Folse opened the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls Statue University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in 1994, and recently expanded it.
“I want to make sure the younger generation understands the importance of keeping the foundation we stand on. Without tradition, without a past and strong ties to something, we are a kite in the sky, flopping everywhere with no anchor. I have a huge anchor.”
Folse has 10 cookbooks in the Cajun and Creole series under his belt. He operates Chef John Folse and Company manufacturing plant, a pastry division and restaurants including his first – Lafitte’s Landing in Donaldsonville in 1978 – followed by White Oak Plantation in 1986 (the catering and events management division), Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans (opened in 2012 serving the top-rated Death by Gumbo using his Uncle Paul’s recipe) and Seafood R’evolution (2014) outside Jackson, Mississippi, with Chef Rick Tramonto of Chicago, the first person after Hurricane Katrina who reached out to Folse to ask how he could help. They spent a week together in New Orleans feeding people in need.
Folse said Tramonto was astonished by the strong faith of the people he encountered even after losing everything.
“We are a faith-based community in the south,” Folse said. “One of the things that sets us apart is we are a community that believes in coming together in times of disaster. It’s what we’ve done ... since the 1700s.”
Among Chef Folse’s accolades are being named “Louisiana Restaurateur of the Year” in 1987 by the Louisiana Restaurant Association; national president of the American Culinary Federation in 1994; being the first non-Italian chef in 1989 to create the Vatican State Dinner in Rome; chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing board in 2003; producing his LPB television series “A Taste of Louisiana” since 1990; and hosting “Stirring It Up” cooking radio talk show that expanded to television in Baton Rouge.
Folse believes in sharing his God-given talents and is a busy philanthropist who works with St. Vincent de Paul, spearheads the St. Michael Special School annual Chefs’ Charity for Children (March 9 at the Hilton Riverside) and hosts the Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament fundraiser “Dining By Design” that outgrew his plantation to a downtown Baton Rouge hotel.
“I find that all of my cooking today involves, in some way, God’s work,” he said. “That’s really the end of my story. ... The good Lord has given me a talent to cook.... I know now that’s why I’ve chosen to do what I do and share the talents I have.”