By Doc Lawrence –
BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI—On the eve of a magnificent tour of the great restaurants, museums and art galleries along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, I joined one of the country’s truly wonderful gourmet radio shows, Stirrin’ It Up, hosted by the esteemed Chef John Folse. This set the stage for a few days where I literally ate and drank my way through the lovely Gulf Coast.
Headquarters was Beau Rivage, the Taj Majal of resort gaming and entertainment. I just missed Willie Nelson, but the “Redheaded Stranger” was, in spirit, omnipresent.
John Folse has a lifetime dedicated to preserving the cooking traditions of his beloved Louisiana. Combining tradition with food evolution became the hallmark of his monumental PBS series, “A Taste of Louisiana.” Many of us today learned all about gumbo and jambalaya by watching John stir up a roux from a select Louisiana plantation kitchen. A founding director of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, Folse is an international gourmet ambassador, pairing the food of Louisiana with the wines of the world.
A renowned food and cookbook author, there are, in my opinion, only a handful of culinary books remotely equal to Folse’s authoritative and highly successful works, After the Hunt: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Wild Game Recipes and The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine. Both belong in every kitchen library and the photography and great stories make a nice presentation on a coffee table.
Stirrin’ it Up invokes memories of other TV cooking superstars like Justin Wilson, the beloved Cookin’ Cajun, who showed the culinary world that performing on a kitchen TV production set should risk a few good jokes and great stories while preparing truly wonderful food. It cuts through the pretentiousness.
Biloxi’s Walter Blessey is another ideal Southern cook. A devotee of John Folse, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne (another Mississippi cook who was for many years the food editor of The New York Times), Blessey and his lovely wife Katherine own and operate Chateau Blessey facing the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after I landed on the Gulf Coast, Walter, an amazing self-taught chef, served an array of his special dishes at the fabled Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, and I liked him instantly. The ladies took a shine to him as well, whispering that he looked like Ernest Hemingway.
Walter Blessey invited me over the next day to Chateau Blessey where he began opening plump, fresh Apalachicola oysters for devouring on the half shell raw and from the wood grill in his amazing kitchen. Blessey served copious pourings of a spectacular white Bordeaux and the blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc magnified the saltiness and minerals of each oyster.
The horrors of Katrina still hover over the Gulf Coast. Chateau Blessey was decimated by a Katrina-spawned tornado just prior to the flooding. But, locals here like Walter Blessey are tough and determined and rebuilding is impressive. They deserve acclaim for what they’ve accomplished.
The connections between Old and New World are here. The Old Spanish Trace extends from Florida’s Atlantic coast, west through the Florida Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast through Biloxi and Gulfport. I learned that ruins of ancient Spanish missions are nearby. Chateau Blessey also fronts U.S. 90.
The fruits from the sea, a commitment to tradition and a willingness to experiment and grow are emblematic of the restaurants here and the specialized skills of kitchen wizards like Walter Blessey.
With reluctance, I left Chateau Blessey. This is a higher life and such hospitality doesn’t manifest but a few times along the gourmet highway. I spotted one of Chef John Folse’s monumental cookbooks on a kitchen shelf as I walked out.
Many of us are children of Chef John Folse.
(Go online and join the fun with Chef John Folse and his guest, Doc Lawrence on Stirrin’ it Up: http://www.jfolse.com/stirrin/listen.htm)
(Doc Lawrence is a veteran travel, food, wine and spirits journalist.
Contact him at: editors@ docsnews.com.)