Friday, February 11, 2011

Culinary Journeys

Chefs Tramonto and Folse announcing their new partnership.
The partnership between Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto is one that began out of a mutual admiration, and was cemented by a shared history shaped by hardship but nurtured by food. Both chefs grew up, figuratively and literally, in the kitchen. In this Q&A, they talk about the culinary beginnings that ultimately made them the men – and the chefs – they are today. In addition to being award-winning chefs, John Folse and Rick Tramonto are acclaimed authors. Folse’s The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine and Tramonto’s forthcoming memoir Scars of a Chef offer a more in-depth look into the chefs’ personal and culinary histories.

What is your earliest memory involving food and cooking? 
John Folse: I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t involved in food and cooking.  As children, my mom and dad made us an integral part of the kitchen.  Each one of my five brothers and two sisters were doled out tasks according to their skill level.  As a young child I remember fetching sweet potatoes from a cupboard, one in each hand, and passing them on to an older brother for peeling and slicing.
My fondest memories are of the Sunday family gatherings where the men cooked.  Often over a hundred extended family members were in attendance. The conversation and education discovered at these Sunday dinners influences everything I do today.  Cooking has indeed always been a part of my life. After all, I grew up in Cajun Country.
Rick Tramonto: My parents and grandmothers were very blue-collar people but well-educated cooks. On the weekends we’d have lots of family over and everyone had to pitch in and do their part.
My earliest cooking memory is rolling meatballs with my Grandma Adeline. I must have been around five at the time, taking meat from a huge bowl, learning how to roll them into balls then placing them on the sheet tray. In my house, cooking wasn’t just an “only on the weekend” thing. We didn’t eat food out of boxes, or eat foods that were pre-frozen. We made everything from scratch.

What’s the first dish you learned how to cook?
Chef Folse
JF: I always loved Dirty Rice, which is rice cooked with small pieces of chicken liver or giblets. (Find a recipe for Dirty Rice from Chef Folse here). For a young boy living in the swamps of Louisiana “dirty rice” was not only a staple on our table, but a dish that was fun and easy to make. 
Mixing dark chicory coffee with scalded milk to create café au lait for breakfast was probably the first “dish” I ever created.  But without a doubt, it is dirty rice that I remember best as the first real dish I ever cooked.  I was probably seven years old. 
RT: Cooking wasn’t something that I took to right away, but it was always a part of my childhood. It was almost like a chore, whether it was making ravioli or roasting whole chickens. I guess the first “dish” I remember making was minestrone soup. I remember being really young – maybe eight – and learning how to make that for my family.

How would you describe your journey in the culinary world?
JF: I began my journey in cooking at the apron strings of family and acquaintances in St. James Parish, Louisiana. That love of local cuisine and culture inspired my passion to cook and share the uniqueness of our area.  Like all young culinarians, there were huge obstacles along the way: social distractions, lack of commitment, void of patience and an unwillingness to simply listen. After discovering that this was not a path to success, the pendulum swung to total obsession and a desire to absorb all things culinary, from ingredients to global technique. During my 30-year journey, this fabulous world of cooking has taken me on visits to cook for Presidents and Popes, produce food television and build a multi-faceted food company ranging from restaurants to food manufacturing and even publishing.
RT: My journey to cooking was an unconventional one. I left high school in 1977, and needed to find a job. Most people in Rochester, where I’m from, got a job at a gas station or became mechanics. But I wanted to cook because that was what I was most familiar with.
Luckily, I had a great opportunity to interview for a new restaurant opening in town: Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. I had never heard of the restaurant, it was the first franchise for the city. When I filled out the application, I remember leaving the “Education” boxes blank. The manager I interviewed with asked me why I had done that, and I told him I hadn’t finished high school. They basically said, “Hey kid. We’re going to give you a chance.”
After working in Rochester, I realized that if I wanted to do this cooking thing for the rest of my life, I was going to have to learn as much as I could, and to do that, I would have to start apprenticing.
What do you feel was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in establishing yourself as a chef?
Chef Tramonto

JF: The greatest obstacle that I had to overcome was a fabulous culinarian by the name of Chef Paul Prudhomme. Paul was a giant in the kitchen and was considered the father of Cajun cooking. When he created his now legendary blackened red fish, the world took note of Cajun Country and its cuisine. It was at this time that many Louisiana chefs tried to take advantage of the culinary wave established by Chef Paul. 
But most of the media content wanted to hear what Paul had to say rather than the young chefs coming up the “Bayou.” It became apparent to me that if I wanted to break out with my own style, I could bring Cajun to the world. Soon, I had opened promotional Louisiana restaurants from Hong Kong to Taipei and from London to the Soviet Union – the first opening of a foreign restaurant in the USSR prior to its fall. I even fed the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in Rome. 
RT: The biggest obstacle I faced in my culinary career that I had to overcome was being uneducated. It went beyond not finishing school or not knowing European languages. I didn’t know how to read. I wasn’t able to follow recipes; everything I learned had to be hands-on. But I have a photographic memory, so once I learned a dish, I was able to make it again myself. Personally, I had to overcome an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Having to focus and refocus and enter rehab to clean up my life.

When you were first starting out, who was your greatest culinary influence?
Chefs in the Restaurant R'evolution
test kitchen
JF: My great uncle Paul Zeringue, whom we referred to as “Nonc Paul,” was the cook to emulate. Even today at family gatherings, his name is passed around the dinner table more often than a bowl of rice dressing. 
Professionally, it had to be Chef Fritz Blumberg, a German chef who first recognized the culinary talents of this young South Louisiana cook. He was from Munich, arrived in Pittsburgh to work for the Mellon family, and eventually found his way to Baton Rouge as corporate chef for the hotel where I happened to be employed. I was mesmerized by his talent, and for reasons I still don’t know, he was inspired by the flavor and ingredients of our South Louisiana culinary scene. He needed to know more about our food, and I needed to learn everything there was to know about classical cuisine, so he became my mentor. We were friends until he passed away in 2008.
RT: My first culinary influences were my family, my grandmother Adeline in particular. From there, my appreciation is to the people who mentored me, who wouldn’t normally let a guy like me through the back door of their kitchen. People like Alfred Portale and Pierre Gagnaire, who helped me hone my technique and helped me articulate my thoughts on food onto the plate.
Now, John has become a huge influence of mine. Working with John has taken cooking to the next level for me because he brings rich history and depth to our company. He takes me places I wouldn’t have gone before.

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