F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Restaurant R’evolution (New Orleans)
Experience: Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant; multiple enterprises under John Folse & Co. (Louisiana)
Recipe you are most famous for?
My Death by Gumbo: It’s a boneless quail stuffed with seasoned rice, sausage and oysters, served with a gumbo-like rich soup. When you cut into the quail, it releases the components into the soup— as opposed to a swampland-style gumbo with everything stewed together in one bowl. I’m serving it at Restaurant R’evolution. I think it’s probably the most photographed or tweeted of all my dishes. I created it years ago for Craig Claiborne in New York. He asked me to come to the Hamptons to show him what I meant by the evolution of Cajun and Creole cuisine. He said, “How do you evolve a cuisine that is so firmly rooted in tradition? I want you to come to New York and evolve gumbo for me.” After he tasted it, he said, “Oh my god, this is to die for. You go back to Louisiana and you name this Death by Gumbo.”
Any current food obsessions?
Working with the beautiful fresh seafood of the Gulf, especially after the BP oil spill caused so much controversy about it.
Homemade ratafias, the infused spirits of the Louisiana swamplands. In New Orleans they date back to the 1700s. In French and Italian, ratafia means, “to blend.” We’ve always taken the wild blackberries, persimmons and passion fruit out of the swamps, steeped them in French brandy and sweetened them with simple syrup. I grew up in a swampland trapper’s cabin. My father made his living from November to February trapping minks, otters, raccoon and alligator. He’d sell his furs and skins to merchants who’d take them to Paris and everywhere else. We lived off of the swamp-floor pantry. My father was a master at these liqueurs. On our porch he always had a big stone crock with cheesecloth on top, infusing wild fruits of the season into French brandy. He’d bottle some to give to neighbors at the holidays, and we became known for it. Now at R’evolution, I make 10 or 12 ratafias: some with loquats, some with kumquats and other Southern citrus. I make one with camellia flowers, which has strong herbal, vanilla and butter notes. I infuse it with a mix of other spirits and herbs, age it for a year then filter it. It makes this rich, magnificent purple liqueur. All the ratafias pick up the color of the fruits, so the bottles are like stained glass on the liquor cart. We serve them as aperitifs and after-dinner drinks. I like to put them in my sauces and desserts. They’re so fun, because it’s not easy for the diner to figure out the taste.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Ratafia is one. I also love Cajun caviars. They’re harvested from sturgeon, a prehistoric fish we call choupique, the local Indian word for armor fish. (It had this tough armor for a skin.) Louisiana sturgeon eggs were first harvested by the Russians who came here after oil was discovered in the 1920s. Russians also made boulettes, French meatballs, out of sturgeon meat. We still make choupique boulettes, and harvest the eggs for Cajun caviar. They’re dark, steel-gray eggs, not too fishy. We salt them very little. I love how Cajun caviar comes from this prehistoric swamp fish that produces eggs comparable to your finer caviars.
What is the best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
I was a little bashful to tell people about these until I realized everyone uses them. They’re the tubes of squeezable herbs sold in the produce case at most stores. It started with tomato paste. Now you can find squeezable tubes of basil, thyme, tarragon, garlic and ginger. The flavors are so fresh, I keep a tube of every doggone one in my refrigerator. (Louisiana cooking also requires basil, tarragon and thyme.) When I get home from R’evolution or my food manufacturing plant in Louisiana, it’s great to be able to squirt some into butter or olive oil with a piece of fish or six jumbo shrimp.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Certainly those tubes. I always have a couple of jars of roasted garlic. And some small containers of store-bought demiglace that I can throw in to enhance a pasta sauce without much reduction. All these things help me cook in half the time.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I always have a resealable pack of nice-quality wieners sitting open. I cannot go into the refrigerator without grabbing one and chewing on it. Sometimes I’ll get creative and roll one in a slice of bologna. Or I’ll get exotic and hold those two together with a slice of prosciutto. I am addicted to all three meats. They sit on my second shelf as snacks.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking. It’s the first cookbook that I ever got as a gift, from an Alsatian woman I met when I was just striking out as a cook. She’d come to Louisiana after World War II. She was a fabulous French chef; her family owned a hotel in Alsace-Lorraine. She would eat at my restaurant, and gave me the book as a Christmas present. Back then, I knew very little about cooking. It opened whole worlds for me—braises, all the classic French techniques. Thirty years later, that book is still on my kitchen table because it inspired me to look at books. It made me open the leaves and read and learn because I had no mentors at that time.
Later, I got to spend time with Bocuse. He gave me a terrine de sanglier—a beautiful crock terrine with a wild boar sitting on top. He signed it on the bottom, “To my friend John, from Paul Bocuse.” Now it’s sitting by his book on my table. Sometimes when I’m down I look at those two things and remind myself, “You’ve met the greatest people in the world in cooking. Get up and go back to work and forget about it.”
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mother died in childbirth when I was eight years old. There were eight children in the family—six boys and two girls. My dad reared us all without ever remarrying. This African American woman, Mary Fauchaud, who met my mother as she was walking along the swamps, when my mom died, she knocked on our door and spoke to my dad about coming in to help. She had six children of her own. She reared all of us from eight years old to college graduation: us eight, her six. She’d grown up in a home where they did their own butchering, bread baking, vegetable gardening. Her husband was a butcher, so he could teach us how to butcher pigs and wild game. She taught us to respect food, every ingredient. She taught us to cook, how to pick beans when they were ready, how to make masterpieces out of very little.
Do you have any pre-shift rituals?
I come from a land of storytellers. At my restaurant, I’ll call all the staff together and say, “OK, y’all. Let’s come to the front porch and sit down.” I’ll tell a story about an ingredient on our menu. Where did it come from? Why did it get here? Who brought it, an Italian, a Native American, a Spaniard? Why are we using it? I want to instill that passion for cooking that got instilled in me. Storytelling on the front porch, I call it, even though it’s in the middle of my dining room.
What is your talent besides cooking?
I collect culinary antiques, especially from Louisiana. If there’s a 1750s choucroute cabbage cutter from Germany with the crock where they’d ferment the sauerkraut, that a German brought here with them, I want it. Or anything copper that a Frenchman might have hammered here, like a kettle or a strainer or a sugar skimmer. I also collect them from around the world. My oldest piece is from China, an ebony hook with a bamboo handle, to hold a little pot over a fire, carved to look like a carp. I also have a lot of Civil War cooking gear. I display many pieces from my collection at Restaurant R’evolution.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.