2008 Lifetime Achievement Award: John Folse
The Southern Foodways Alliance is infused with a sense of place. When I look back at the people we have honored with our lifetime achievement award, each one is defined by their homeplace. This year is no exception.
John Folse was born in St. James Parish, the parish just to the south of where he lives now in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, on a big bend of the Mississippi. One of eight children, born to a long-standing Cajun family in the area, he became immersed in the foodways of his family and his culture. When he was 32 in 1978, he opened Lafitte’s Landing in Donaldsonville, in historic plantation house. This was his launching pad. He set out to introduce to the world to “a taste of Louisiana.” The next twenty years were a worldwide whirlwind, as he introduced Cajun cuisine to Beijing, Moscow, London, and Seoul.
In 1988 the Louisiana Legislature gave him the title of “Louisiana’s Culinary Ambassador to the World,” and in 1989 Folse was the first non-Italian to cater a Vatican state dinner in Rome.
Additional highlights of his achievement include:
- Louisiana Restaurateur of the Year, 1987
- “National Chef of the Year” by the American Culinary Federation, 1990
- Inducted into Nation’s Restaurant News’ Fine Dining Hall of Fame, 1990
- Named as one of 50 people who changed foodservice in Nations Restaurant News, 1996
- Honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University, 1992
His commitment to education defines him. He helped create The Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in 1994. As John has said:
As a Cajun first and a chef second, it’s important to remember that culture is the cuisine of a people. Often, young culinarians search for a base of good cooking while failing to simply look at their own culture and environment. I have come to realize that no cuisine can develop or expand where there isn’t a strong foundation of regional culture and ingredients. We are fortunate, here in Bayou Country, to have the very best gift that God has given anyone in ingredients destined for the pot. My philosophy on cooking is just as simple. Choose first the heritage of your people. Herein lies the spice and flavor of your palate. Choose secondly the ingredients of your area. Herein lies the uniqueness of your creations.
It is almost impossible to speak of Louisiana without mentioning hurricanes. In the aftermath of Katrina and Gustav, chefs have shown themselves to be leaders in feeding the people of their communities when the normal food supply is disrupted. In concert with Governor Jindal, John led a team which distributed over 400 tons of food to area shelters. He distributed tarps and even provided daycare for his workers. His team helped provide over 20,000 meals to emergency works. As he said:
We’re going out there with crawfish etouffée over rice. We’re going to go with chicken fricassees. We’re going to stay away from the fettuccine alfredos, because we want to give people the types of things they like to eat in this area, things that they recognize. We think that’s really important.
He is one of the founding members of the SFA and he has continued to show in his life and work what the SFA strives to be. He is committed to his community and the preservation of those values and foods which give him a language.
In recognition of John Folse’s commitment to his region, his people, and the cuisine of his culture, the Southern Foodways Alliance is proud to present John Folse with the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, represented by this painting, by Blair Hobbs of Oxford.
– Linton Hopkins