Thursday, December 16, 2010

In the Beginning

Chef John Folse
Often in Louisiana, you’ll hear the phrase, “An American by birth, but Cajun by the grace of God!” No statement could be truer when describing the passion and excitement that those of us born in South Louisiana exude when sharing our culture and cuisine with visitors. This is indeed a special place; a place like no other. And, by the grace of God, I was born here, in a trapper’s cabin bound on one side by the Mississippi River levee and on the other by swamps and marshlands.

Louisiana fur trapper, early 1900s

Five generations of Folses ago, in 1720, Jean Gorg Fols, a shoemaker from Ramstein, Germany, in the Palatinate along with his wife, Julienne, walked west from the Rhine River to Orleans and then to Port Louis at L’Orient, France. It was at this port that they boarded the sailing ship Les Deux Freres on November 14 for their voyage to Louisiana. Of the 4,000 Germans who signed up as indentured servants under contract to John Law’s Company of the Indies, the Fols’ were two of just 1,000 who eventually made the voyage overseas. More than 3,000 perished while wintering at the port or returned to their homeland. After arriving here in Louisiana, they settled 25 miles upriver from New Orleans on the west bank at present-day Hahnville. 

Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana

Between 1755 and 1760 the first wave of Acadians were arriving on Louisiana’s shores from Nova Scotia. The Spanish government of Louisiana welcomed these bedraggled refugees and settled them upriver from the Germans in present-day St. James Parish. During this same period records show that, Antoine, a grandson of Johann Jacob Foltz, was born. We assume given the various languages and dialects in Louisiana that Jean Gorg Fols and Johann Jacob Foltz are one and the same. In less than 40 years, Antoine left the river and founded the new Folse settlement on “Lake of the Germans” or Lac Des Allemands. Vacherie Folse was founded. 

In the late 1800s, my grandfather Louisey Folse was born in the town of Vacherie. In 1914 he and my grandmother became the proud parents of my dad, Royley, on those same banks at Lac Des Allemands. 

I guess if one word were to describe my German heritage it would be “tenacity.” When I reflect on the perils my ancestors faced, their commitment to food, cultural preservation, faith, family and dedication to God, I am inspired to share their story nearly 300 years later. As we go through this blog journey together, I’ll tell their story and that of Louisiana’s seven founding culinary nations.

Unique Raw Ingredients -
Chef Folse holding an
alligator, one of the
exotic ingredients of
the Bayou State
 It was my love of Louisiana and passion for food that defined my mission in life: to share Louisiana’s culture and cuisine with the world. Naturally, when I met Rick Tramonto a decade or so ago it only took a moment for our conversation to move from “hello” and a handshake to boudin, oysters on the half shell, sautéed Louisiana frog legs and other exotic foods of the bayous. 

I remember precisely the day I met Rick. He caught my attention immediately as I observed him gracefully maneuvering through the dining room at TRU, his Chicago restaurant. I had met him before, but this was the night I came to know him and understood his passion. His love of the restaurant, its food and the guests was obvious. Each diner looked at him in awe as though the great Talleyrand, Carême or Escoffier were in their midst. I watched as he stopped long enough at each patron’s table to adore and be adored. It was a restaurant moment that we in the business all long for. Eventually, he made his way to my table and after greeting and meeting each of us with a gentle handshake and an attentive eye, I knew the rest of the evening would be magical. The artistic details, first-class service and overall ambiance of that first visit remains embedded in my mind today, although I experienced it many times afterward. 

Once we became friendly acquaintances, we grew in respect for each other and I came to learn of his journey from obscurity to the pinnacle of the culinary world. Although so many have begun a journey out of adversity, few have achieved the ultimate destination that Rick has. 

Chef Folse presents the
Distinguished Visiting Chef
award to Rick Tramonto
 It was a few years later that Rick agreed to accept the role of Distinguished Visiting Chef at the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University on the banks of Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux, Louisiana. This was our first experience together through sugarcane fields and cypress trees. On this journey Rick and I shared our life stories, our heritage and our passion for food. It was here that we became great friends and confidants. Little did I know that a few years later, after our work together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we’d become partners in a restaurant development company called Home on the Range. Little did I know that Rick would move to Louisiana and live within a mile of my house. Little did I know that after 33 years in the restaurant business my first endeavor into the New Orleans’ restaurant scene, Restaurant R’evolution, would be in the Royal Sonesta at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon with Rick Tramonto as my partner. Little did I know that I would share Louisiana’s rich culture and unique raw ingredients with Rick, introduce him to fishermen, farmers, trappers and oystermen and share the stovetop in a menu development kitchen with a man I considered one of the top chefs on the globe. 

Measuring Up - Chef Folse and Karl
Zimmerman check the length of the
alligator's tail for a sauce piquante
Processing alligator meat at Riceland
Crawfish, Eunice, LA
But, that’s exactly what happened.  I realized that if we were to open Restaurant R’evolution successfully in the heart of one of the greatest food cities in the world, we needed to be totally joined at the hip and head, sharing the same philosophy, technique and Louisiana passion. We agreed to spend as much time in fisherman’s boots and hunting gear as we did in the kitchen, and thus began Rick’s crash course in Louisiana’s unique raw ingredients. This journey will continue in the coming months, as we explore what makes a gumbo a gumbo, a Cajun roux different from any other and the “trinity” a necessity in every cast iron pot. 

Chefs Rick Tramonto, Donald Link,
Matt Murphy and John Folse enjoy
the spoils of their frogging trip to
Henderson Swamp
 Over the next few months, Rick and I will share our story of building a restaurant where people come to experience what can be found in no other location in the world.  We’ll take you on the boudin trail; you’ll join us in Henderson Swamp to pull bullfrogs from the water with our bare hands; you’ll see us stop the car to pull an alligator from the roadway, but more importantly, you’ll be here with us as two chefs come together as one to create a true R’evolution in South Louisiana. You won’t want to miss this journey.

- John

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