GOURMET HIGHWAY: Chef John Folse, America’s Ambassador of Louisiana Cuisine

By Doc Lawrence.

“Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Chef John Folse is revered as one of the great American chefs from Louisiana. His eight cookbooks spread the gospel of indigenous Louisiana cooking to the world. The PBS mainstay, “A Taste of Louisiana,” is Folse’s
masterfully produced international television series. The Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University is dedicated to the preservation of Louisiana’s rich culinary heritage.

Folse introduced Louisiana’s cuisine to Japan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris. In 1988, Folse opened “Lafitte’s Landing East” in Moscow during the Presidential Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Folse was the first non-Italian chef to create the Vatican State Dinner in Rome, followed by his promotional restaurants in London, Bogota, Taipei and Seoul earning a proclamation as “Louisiana’s Culinary Ambassador to the World” from his beloved state.

A past chairman of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, Folse recently served as the American Judge for the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in Lyon, France.

I asked Folse, a man who knows wine as well as he knows how to cook, about the importance of wine in the dining experience. “Wine,” he responded, “has graced the table since the beginning of recorded time. Wine not only enhances the flavor of food when properly paired, it helps to create a social and welcoming atmosphere among diners. Whether sipped as a pre-dinner beverage or a sweet finish served with dessert, wine is an extremely important element to the meal.”

Chef Folse has myriad original recipes in his outstanding new book, Hooks, Lies & Alibis, (Chef John Folse & Company Publishing, 2010) and I thought it might be fun to take some recipes and do some wine pairing. Wines from Louisiana? Folse reminded me that Louisiana was producing award-winning wines before Prohibition, a natural consequence of the state’s fondness for alcoholic beverages. After all, the cocktail was invented and named by Antoine Peychaud, a French Quarter pharmacist.

John Seago owns Ponchartrain Vineyards (ponchartrainvineyards.com) and produces a white Blanc Du Bois and a red, Norton/Cynthiana, both from American grapes. Pairing them I thought, with Folse’s recipes had to be fun. The Blanc Du Bois, developed at the University of Florida, has some taste kinship to the white wines of Alsace and no finer recipe than the iconic Trout en Papillote, a New Orleans classic dish featured in Folse’s book takes the flavors of the trout’s natural juices and magically blends everything with butter and spices, all baked in parchment. Blanc Du Bois (Seago produces a bottle called Le Trolley) or a bottle of Alsatian dry Riesling or Pinot Gris will pair beautifully with this dish, offering just enough acidity and fruit balance to make this an elevated dining experience.

Southern fried catfish and hushpuppies, a culinary heritage recipe found in Folse’s book, is a border crossing dish found taking various forms from Key West to Louisville that is found as far west as Austin, Texas. A dry Australian Riesling like Wakefield Promised Land 2008 or an Alsatian Gewürztraminer for me was a great fit.

Travels often lead to restaurant variations of another spectacular entrée, shrimp and grits. Once a pioneer staple, it’s now omnipresent. Folse’s original recipe, Catfish and Shrimp over Grits, becomes a production that takes to good red wine a little better than most light white wines. I paired this outstanding recipe with Ponchartrain’s Norton/Cynthiana, a red that is quite dry, and the flavors married beautifully. Substitute dry Chianti, a Rioja Crianza or a Pinot Noir from Oregon and you have the makings of another lasting memory.

Ever the ambassador of American food, Folse referred me to a dish from his friend, Chef Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. McPhail, who is from a small town in Washington State near the Canadian border, devised an award winning dish, Creole Seafood Mixed Grill. It is in Folse’s new cookbook. From the first rich spoonful of complex flavors, the wine light bulb flashed. Wine choices should never be vexing, so I went directly to my fail-safe that works with everything: Champagne. Don’t hesitate to substitute a high quality American sparkling wine. The good producers are easy to find.

Chef Folse is an observer of food evolution, believing that over the next 20 years we will see a huge growth in cuisines reflecting our South American neighbors. “From Mexico to Chile, Argentina and beyond,” he said, “ a tremendous array of exciting herbs, spices and raw materials never seen here before will be brought to North American kitchens. Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines will gain a rapid foothold in our restaurant and food culture. Exciting new food means more wine adventures, an affirmation that happiness is a blessing as near as the dinner plate and wine glass.

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