Most people would describe John Folse as a celebrity chef, television showman and cookbook author.
But on Aug. 25, the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society will honor him for his contributions to the restaurant and hospitality industry at its annual Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner, a lavish banquet prepared by seven chefs who have worked alongside Folse.
He will receive the society’s fifth annual award, named for Grace “Mama” Marino, of Gino’s restaurant, who received the initial award in 2007.
The dinner kicks off the epicurean group’s two-day “Fete Rouge - A Louisiana Celebration of Food and Wine.”
During the June 27 luncheon at Gino’s Restaurant where his selection as this year’s award recipient was announced, Folse reflected on his culinary career and his passion for Louisiana’s indigenous cuisine.
Folse, born in St. James Parish in 1946, got his start on restaurants’ business side in 1975 as a 50-50 partner in a downtown Baton Rouge eatery called The Tavern. He operated it until July 1978 when he opened Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant in Donaldsonville. That restaurant, located in a large old two-story house near the Sunshine Bridge, was destroyed by fire in October 1998.
Seven months later, he opened a fine-dining establishment in a 19th-century house named Bittersweet Plantation in Donaldsonville. The facility is now operated as Bittersweet Plantation Bed & Breakfast.
Folse’s official biography says when he opened Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant in 1978 “he set out to market his restaurant by taking 'a taste of Louisiana’ worldwide,” introducing the state’s cuisine to Japan in 1985, Beijing in 1986, and Hong Kong and Paris in 1987.
The next year he made international headlines when he opened “Lafitte’s Landing East” in Moscow during the presidential summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. He also was the first non-Italian to create a Vatican State Dinner in Rome, and he has opened promotional restaurants in London; Bogota, Colombia; Taipei, Taiwan; and Seoul, South Korea.
The success of the restaurant spawned the multifaceted, multimillion-dollar Gonzales-based Chef John Folse & Co. It encompasses a food manufacturing facility in Donaldsonville that produces retail and food service items, plus custom-manufactured foods for restaurants across the United States; a catering and events management division in Baton Rouge; a pastry division; a publishing arm; a recording studio; and Bittersweet Plantation Dairy, which offers cheeses, butters, yogurts and ice cream.
Folse also stars in an international television series, “A Taste of Louisiana,” produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
Folse shares co-ownership of Chef John Folse & Co. with his wife, Laulie, who looks after the corporation’s accounting operations.
In August 2010, he and his longtime friend, award-winning chef Rick Tramonto, of Chicago, announced their partnership in a new restaurant development venture, Home on the Range: Folse Tramonto Restaurant Development LLC. Their first project is Restaurant R’evolution, set to open later this year in the New Orleans French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta Hotel.
At the June luncheon announcing his selection as the Mama Marino Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Folse said he spends the majority of his time now in food service, dealing with customer relations.
“That’s where food services is going in general. Restaurants are focusing on the center of the plate. We do the sides,” he said.
Then, he looked around the room and noted that many of those there had sharpened their skills in his kitchens.
He knows he has a reputation as being “tough as an employer,” but, he said, “restaurants are a tough business because there is very little room for profitability ... which means there is very little room for error.
“My intention is to ask for the best,” he said. Customers expect “a clean restaurant and linens.” To be successful, “you have to go for the extra and not accept a cold fork for a hot dish.”
Folse told his former employees that “nobody appreciates the team that came through Lafitte’s like I do,” adding that he was sure their experiences in his kitchens “built character.”
He plans to make the 180-seat Restaurant R’evolution his home base, he said.
“Once a restaurateur, always a restaurateur,” he said. “My memories in the restaurant can’t be matched, and I’ve missed the connection to the customers.”
Tommy Simmons, retired food editor for The Advocate, recalls that Folse “elevated the opportunities for chefs working in Baton Rouge. Until John, you never knew who was in the kitchens ... He never spared expenses when it came to offering opportunity. He was a taskmaster, and he gave (his young cooks) opportunities that are equal to anything you’d get anywhere.”