Writing about food and drink and those who create it is a privilege. The finest perk is that people allow us into their worlds. One Louisiana chef has a virtual universe gravitating around his gastronomic talent: John Folse, the state’s homegrown culinary ambassador who dabbles in everything from plantations to a culinary school, product lines, a pastry division, television shows, cookbooks and a dairy offering artisan cheeses. Born in St. James Parish in 1946, Chef Folse has a passion for Louisiana culture and cuisine and is responsible for launching the careers of countless local chefs.
This month, Chef Folse is leading a cheese and wine seminar at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (see article in this issue of Louisiana Homes and Gardens). He is also hosting his first elaborate dinner at the event, with proceeds going to his students at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. The jovial chef is also presenting a fabulous Mother’s Day feast at his White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge, while offering special event dinners at his flagship restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing at Bittersweet Plantation in Donaldsonville, his former home.
“We have put together a nice seminar for the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience featuring the marriage of two of the world’s oldest ingredients, wine and cheese,” points out Chef Folse. “I am trying to show not only how people can consume cheese as hors d’oeuvres, but also how you can cook with cheese and wine. At the seminar we are serving cheese as it would be presented on a cheese tray, and at the same time we will be cooking with that cheese, such as cow’s milk triple cream and goat milk cheese. I’m also going to highlight cheese from around the South, not just from my dairy.”
At NOW&FE, Chef Folse is hosting “A Tribute to the Sun King: An Evolution of French Cuisine in Louisiana,” as a pre-event dinner on Tuesday, May 22, in the ballroom of 625 St. Charles Avenue, priced $125 per person inclusive (call 504/529-WINE for information). All profits are going to scholarships at the John Folse Culinary Institute. “The scholarships for this particular dinner are designated for studying food and wine in France,” says Chef Folse. “Every year I send students to study at Paul Bocuse’s great school in Lyon. So the money raised from this event will go to that. Paul chose my school at Nicholls State University as the only American school as what he calls a member of our worldwide French alliance. There are only seven such schools around the world. He chooses only one school from a country. We are sending three students to study with him in Lyon, and often, the best students aren’t the ones who can afford to go.”
The special fundraising dinner will be paired with fine French wines. “We will have a bisque of wild mushrooms and black truffles; a salamis of duck on a peppered yam pancake; crawfish and lobster risotto Bocuse because he made this dish for me when I was eating in his restaurant in September; an osso bucco-style braised short rib of veal served on a sauce marchand du vin; then for dessert I wanted to do the most classic of French desserts, Isle Flottante with early summer fruit and crème Anglaise. The dinner will be first come first serve and there will only be 100 seats.”
During May we celebrate Mother’s Day. Chef Folse only opens his White Oak Plantation to the public on this day and for Easter; the rest of the year is private special event catering. “Mother’s Day is always the busiest restaurant day of the year,” says Chef Folse. “White Oak is the perfect setting with all of its gardens and lakes surrounding the property. There is a full buffet and a photographer who takes pictures of the moms and grandmoms. It is really special.”
The buffet consists of an extended salad bar that includes a full array of yogurts and cheeses from the Bittersweet Dairy. “We always try to have a roasted duck with a Louisiana fig glaze; we always have speckled trout topped with shrimp; and on Mother’s Day is our first crawfish bisque of the season; then we have mirliton and shrimp casserole, and pecan rice dressing or dirty rice. We make our own hams from scratch. We take fresh hams and sugar-cure them, plantation style.” Prime roast beef and leg of spring lamb are also included. “We have a pastry division, so you have red velvet cakes, lemon meringue pies, as well as sugar free and fat free desserts. We bring a tray to the table and show all our desserts,” he says. A harpist or a jazz band performs for Mother’s Day at White Oak Plantation, which is set on 22 lush green acres in the heart of Baton Rouge (call 225/751-1882).
“Lafitte’s Landing at Bittersweet Plantation is my original restaurant,” says Chef Folse. “We’re celebrating 30 years next year. After the restaurant burned down, I reopened it at Bittersweet Plantation which was my previous home in Donaldsonville, about five miles away from the original property. It was built in 1840. I lived in the house for 20 years. I converted into a restaurant, then a B&B that is currently open seven days a week. We have a full staff there, and anyone coming to spend the night can eat there.” Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant, Folse’s cornerstone property, closed in 1998, when a fire destroyed the Viala Plantation in which it was housed since opening in 1978.
The restaurant features four dining rooms named in honor of family members and local historic figures. The Gingry Boardroom was named in honor of the builder of the home, Andrew Gingry, while the two main dining rooms are named after the founder of Donaldsonville, William Donaldson. The restaurant seats 80 guests and the dishes are created with locally produced ingredients culled from local farms and fishermen. Two of the bed and breakfast suites are located on the second level of the restaurant and feature luxurious amenities in antique-filled rooms. The house was designed to face the Mississippi River and features a front veranda and high-pitched roof (call 225/473-1232 for information and reservations).
“Dining at Lafitte’s Landing is for special occasions for parties of six or more. Or, you can spend the night and have breakfast and dinner there,” says Chef Folse. “We have magnificent gardens, and a horticultural team to keep up the gardens every day. The rooms are in the main house, so you can have dinner downstairs and just walk on up to your bedroom,” he says. Special menus can be created for groups. “For dinner, we do our eggplant Belle Rose which is pan-sautéed and topped with lump crabmeat; we do an array of various sautéed fish in season with numerous toppings and sauces; and one of our special dishes is a crawfish stuffed rack of lamb. Since we have a pastry chef in the company, we have a line of Creole cream cheesecakes and Creole cream cheese ice creams, those are our house specialties,” Chef Folse says.
“We have a wonderful planter’s breakfast that I serve to my bed and breakfast guests. It was actually served at the plantation La Petite Versailles in Vacherie, which Valcour Aimee built next to Oak Alley. It burned down years ago. Aimee was famous for his gardens, which were patterned after the gardens of Versailles in France. I loved some of the food he served including eggs à la crème[S1],” says Chef Folse. “It is soft scrambled eggs incorporating seasonal seafood like jumbo lump crabmeat or crawfish, topped with a little Louisiana caviar. The middle dish is grillades and grits the way he did it at La Petite Versailles, slowly braised in a red roux-based gravy. We always end the meal with ‘pain perdu,’[S2] [lost bread] one of his favorite dishes. The difference is, we top it off with fruit and a sauce made with a little bit of Steen’s cane syrup, then a Creole cream cheese whipped cream.”
If you are not going out for Mother’s Day and you want to serve something special, shine up those martini glasses and serve the eggs à la crème inside, and top them with a little dollop of caviar. It makes a wonderful presentation, guaranteed to make any mom smile.