A Conversation with Executive-in-Residence John Folse

Monday, October 16, 2006

  • Jay Kimball (left) and John Folse

    Jay Kimball (left) and John Folse

Last week, the University of Guelph welcomed John D. Folse as executive-in-residence at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM). Never heard of John Folse? Well then you’re probably not a connoisseur of fine Cajun cuisine, a subject upon which Folse is a world renowned expert. The man is a veritable franchise onto himself with restaurants in 12 countries, a food manufacturing company, cookbooks, radio and TV shows and even a culinary school named in his honour. Needless to say, that out of potential executive-in-residence candidates, Folse is one of the most executive of all.

In a room in MacDonald Stewart Hall, Folse relaxes on the couch and discusses how he ended up being a chef and a businessman with his soothing Louisiana tones. Folse explains becoming a chef as a matter of culture. “For me it was growing up in a region (New Orleans) that is the epitome of food and food culture and food as a way of life. We have a great raw ingredients pool there made up sea food, wild game, vegetables, good growing seasons; it’s the perfect place to cook and we come from a culture of men cooks. So we come from an environment that instills you in a love for food.”

From the beginning though, Folse knew that he wanted more than just being a great chef and was constantly aware of the wide range of prospects for an enterprising individual in the food services field. “There’s constantly emerging opportunities and if you have an entrepreneurial spirit you’re going to see them. I’m happy to have that drive that allows me to grow companies and grow the diversity of my food operations and then bring along a lot of people with me.”

Along with ambition, Folse gives two other reasons for the development of his ample culinary skill; one is a type-A personality that gives him his drive and the second is that he was born under the most creative of zodiac signs: Cancer. According to Folse most chefs are derived from Cancer, as are most of the creative personalities. For good measure though, Folse also wears a Mill stone necklace because, he even though he’s not a superstitious man, he’s been told that he has a bit of Leo’s personality in him.

Moving on, I decided to ask Folse to give me his professional definition as what the difference is between Cajun and Creole cooking. “It can be a very long definition but I’ll try to be as concise as I can,” was his reply before really getting into what separates the two schools.

Concisely, Cajun comes from rural France and was brought over to Canada by those that settled in Nova Scotia, the Acadians. After the British won the Seven Years War, these people were exiled to Louisiana where it became the local cuisine. Cajun foods tend to be simple, one pot meals, like wild game, seafood and other “raw ingredients” referring to whatever was available rather than how it was prepared. The Cajuns lived off the land in the rural areas and swamps and were family oriented people that created social events around food.

Creole, meanwhile, comes from the Spanish word for mixtures which is the same root word for the Crayola brand of crayons and markers says Folse. The mixture Creole implied was all the intermarrying between the races that settled Louisiana; not just descendents of French and Spanish unions, but of any interracial union period including African and Native Americans. The diversity of culture and cuisine; French, Spanish, Native, African can go from metropolitan to rural and a pot can represent two or three different flavours from each of those traditions. Jambalaya, for example, evolved from papaya, and gumbo was the New World spin on bouillabaisse.

Folse carried on for ten minutes talking about the history and sociological origin of Louisiana cooking and while certainly impressive, the difference comes down to the chef’s final summation. “I think with Creole a lot of people would call it ‘city food’ and Cajun is country cooking,” he says with his accent give particular flourish to the pronunciation of “city food”.

The appeal for Folse in taking a position like executive-in-residence is to get some exposure for his company to a new audience, while at the same time doing some networking. “It gives the students an opportunity to have access to someone they may not normally have access to or even know about. I’m sure a lot of students that came to my class today have never heard of Chef John Folse and Co. out of New Orleans, but they know about us now and we’ve touched the lives of about two or three hundred people just today.”

Folse’s message to those students was to see every day as an opportunity and that you don’t have to travel wide to find those opportunities because they exist everywhere; you just need to have a spirit and mentality to be open to new ideas. “I think that its very important whether you’re a student or a well-seasoned, successful entrepreneur, you have to be inquisitive and see opportunity at every turn and it’s very important that you’re always looking for possibilities.”

Among Folse accomplishments was being the first American chef to open a restaurant in Russia during the waning days of the Soviet regime, although Folse observes that: “It wasn’t quite the challenge of opening my first restaurant in New Orleans.”

Folse had petitioned the Soviet government for four years to get the go ahead for a restaurant and only then because Russia had backed themselves into a corner. On the eve of the first Russian-based summit between Regan and Gorbachev, the Russians realized that the venue that was arranged for the meeting had no restaurants. “So they saw this as an opportunity to dig up the file on that crazy Cajun guy that had been asking them for the last three years to allow me a visa so that I could come and talk to them about opening a restaurant.”

But getting permission from the Kremlin was only the first hurdle. When Folse surveyed the situation it opened up a whole new set of eyes as he was seeing the once fearsome empire literally fall apart at the seams. Initial problems included missing or damaged appliances, no hot water, language and culture barriers, travel issues and getting 17 tons of American food to Russia. Through it all though, Folse remained optimistic, “It gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity to open a restaurant at a time when the world would be watching; 80 per cent of the printed pages in the world were covering that event so it was huge.”

Another notch on Folse’s resume was when he prepared a dinner for the Pope in the Vatican, but according to the chef himself this was another one of those things that didn’t work out as planned. Originally, he had been asked by the Catholic Church in Louisiana to prepare a state-style dinner for the Pope during his to visit to New Orleans. Folse designed a fancy dinner with seven chefs representing the seven founding cultures of the state, but the largest restaurant family in New Orleans became insulted that the church went outside the city to find someone. Folse was disappointed but he graciously stepped aside.

“I got a note from the Bishop saying don’t worry about, you’ll have an opportunity to do it. Then they invited me to come to Rome a couple of years later and that’s better right? So I got to do it at his home and I got to have a private audience with him and all of that took place because of a faux pas in the city of New Orleans.”

While it almost sounds like he simply fell into his success, Folse reiterates the fact that preparation is key so that one is able to take full advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. “I think too often people take step out into this big old world of opportunity with a lack of preparation and they do that too often by banking on luck. There’s a certain truth to that if people go out and work hard they concentrate on their mission and they’re passionate about it, they’re going to get good results. Or as one of our great generals said years ago, ‘Plan to work and then work the plan.’”

Another ingredient that Folse sees essential should be apparent, but he puts an emphasis on the point just the same. “There was a word that you won’t find in the dictionary that I find very important and that’s ‘stickability’. And I try to enforce the thought in these creative, excited young students and that it’s okay to have vision but its more important to stick to something. Even in the face of adversity and the challenges you’re faced with every day, if you don’t stick with what’s in your heart because you’re easily knocked off the path, then the opportunities are few and far between. It’s okay to change course and to manage the mistakes and move forward, but you want to come out on the end more successful.”

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