Chef John Folse and Gumbo
“Moby Gumbo” excerpted from The Gumbo Belt by Ken Wells
“Here comes the sausage,” says Chef John Folse. Chef has a penchant for understatement.
A 15-foot-high stainless steel robotic arm has just lifted and poured, into what Folse modestly calls a “kettle,” the first batch of what will be 400 pounds of lightly smoked sausage.
The sliced meat avalanches down the kettle’s silvery sides, sliding into a light film of melted butter that prevents it from sticking. An ingenious system of mechanical paddles and blades keeps it moving. A second, third, and fourth bin shortly follow. Soon, the cavernous spaces of Folse’s sprawling USDA-sanctioned factory fill with the delicious aroma of browning sausage.
It really does smell like your momma’s kitchen if your momma is from South Louisiana, which is the effect Folse is trying for. “You know, that’s how Louisianans talk about food,” he says. “You go into somebody’s house and they’ve got something great on the stove and you don’t ask, ‘What’s cooking?’ You say, ‘It sure smells good in here.’” The reason Folse needs 400 pounds of sausage is that he’s making a 5,000-pound batch of chicken-and-sausage gumbo. No, that’s not a misprint. We’re talking 2.5 tons. Before this gumbo is done, about ninety minutes from now, Folse’s factory team will add 400 pounds of chicken and vast mounds of onions, celery, and green peppers, not to mention okra, cayenne pepper, salt, granulated onion, and garlic plus a semisecret sauce. All of this is stirred into a slurry of dark-brown Cajun roux deep enough to swim in.
“Now you understand why I have to be able to make roux by the ton,” says Folse, in his white chef’s outfit, obligatory hairnet pulled down to his ears. “If we are going to create the flavors of the black iron pot coming out of your momma’s kitchen, the dark brown roux is essential.”
I knew people cooked gumbo in big batches for church fairs and cooking exhibits. In November 2015, for example, a team of Louisiana lawyers cooked a Guinness World Records 5,800-pound batch of gumbo for a competitive gumbo-eating contest in Larose, Louisiana. But I’d never imagined commercial gumbo on this scale until Folse invited me to tour his cavernous gumbo factory near the west bank of the Mississippi River about forty miles southeast of Baton Rouge. Folse makes far more than gumbo here. About 150 food products, including three styles of red beans, along with etouffees, jambalayas, and all manner of soups come out the plant, with most of it going to the retail frozen-prepared foods trade. Target, Walmart and Albertsons drugstore chain are among his customers.
Folse also sells sauces and packaged roux to other food companies and restaurant chains, including a bourbon whiskey glaze used by the TGI Fridays restaurant group. And in a nod to his Cajun Catholic roots, during the Lenten season the plant makes forty-case batches of crawfish bisque that involve the stuffing of three thousand crawfish heads. The bisque is shipped in freezer bags to stores just before Good Friday. Any home cook who’s taken on crawfish bisque knows how intricate and painstaking a dish it is to make. It’s not the kind of thing you’d think could ever be done at factory scale.
Folse says the bisque-making isn’t so much about moneymaking as it is a duty to keep this traditional Lenten Gumbo Belt dish alive and with it preserve an important food memory. Most contemporary home cooks find it too labor-intensive to undertake. But if bisque is available on supermarket shelves, people will buy it, eat it, and remember. “If I don’t do this, it’s gone,” he says.
But gumbo is the big deal here and Folse has perfected doing it in a big way. “Behold, there is my black iron pot,” he says as he leads me on a tour and points at the nearest in an array of four kettles. “And we can dump 10 tons of gumbo — 10 tons — every forty-five minutes if they’re all operating at the same time.”
They’re quite the pots. The stainless-steel, cylindrical, rounded bottom kettles sit on three-foot-high steel pilings and measure about four feet deep and perhaps twelve feet in diameter. They are equipped with all manner of state-of-the-art computer-controlled accessories: Steam injectors and a sophisticated pumping system that allows plant operators not just to cook these gigantic batches but to seamlessly transfer the gumbo to chillers and an automated pasteurized bagging operation. Special X-ray–type sensors scan every bag to make sure each has the exact amount of sausage, chicken, and other ingredients. That way, nobody who buys a bag gets shortchanged.
Today’s 2.5-ton batch will result in 1,250 64-ounce freezer bags of gumbo ready to be shipped all over America and the world. The factory also produces gumbo in 28-ounce bags. The company doesn’t disclose its wholesale prices, but you can order a 64-ounce (4-pound) bag of Folse Louisiana Chicken & Sausage Gumbo from CajunGrocer.com for $15.00 and change. The 28-ounce bags retail for $9.35. On average, the factory will cook and bag 65 tons of gumbo a week, alternating between four and five different varieties, including seafood. Retail, that’s close to half-a-million bucks a week or about $25 million a year.
“These kettles cost me about $125,000.00 each so I’ve got about half-a-million dollars tied up in them,” says Folse, laughing, amid the thrum of his gigantic, high-tech kitchen. “I’ve got to make a lot of gumbo.”
And the tonnage, as Folse repeats over and over again like a mantra, isn’t the real challenge. The real challenge is to scale gumbo up to these humongous batches yet retain the taste and texture captured in South Louisiana’s home kitchens. “As I tell my team, we won’t sell anything that Louisianans won’t eat,” says Folse. Probably half of the factory’s output is sold in Louisiana to consumers happy to find authentic-tasting Cajun dishes they can grab from the freezer case at their local supermarket on days when they are too busy to cook for themselves.
But he also has his eye on a far more expansive market. “Our goal was to become the company that can make food like we make it at home and sell it to the world,” he says. “Our goal is that if you’re eating our gumbo in China it will taste like the gumbo that your grandma made in Houma.”
To accomplish this, Folse and his team begin with a 5,000-gram recipe — a little more than five quarts of gumbo — and in a feat of extrapolation, figure out how to tweak it into a recipe that will hold up at 5,000 pounds and come out of a freezer bag looking and smelling like authentic gumbo. This is done in his test kitchen through a series of experiments using recipes out of the numerous cookbooks that the chef has produced over the years.
Folse learned, for example, that in order keep a consistent “natural chicken” flavor throughout these multi-ton batches requires mixing a puree of what he calls “liquid chicken” into the gumbo before adding the actual diced chicken. The real chicken can’t be incorporated until near the end of the process lest the chicken overcook.
The plant makes and smokes its own sausage with a mixture of pecan and oak wood but jobs out the chicken processing to a Louisiana company “that cuts it to our specifications,” Folse says. All the ingredients in Folse’s factory, including shrimp for his seafood gumbos and spices and herbs, are Louisiana sourced.
If you spend much time with Folse, an upbeat, energetic, loquacious man, you can’t help but understand that he’s running a mission as much as a company. For him, the breakout of gumbo and South Louisiana cuisine onto a national and world stage is, pure and simple, a credit to the place and culture that produced it.
Paramount in this is the preservation of what the chef frames as “the glory of the black-iron pot” and the ingenuity and authenticity of the generations of home cooks who have kept the traditions alive. Everything that comes out of his factory is measured against this standard. “You don’t want to put the culture or the cuisine into a museum,” he says. “You want it to evolve but not in a way that is unrecognizable. We have been very proud and protective of our culture and the traditions that were handed down in full form in families for generations. That authenticity is what we need to make sure doesn’t get lost.”
That sentiment was the chief motivation in the founding of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in 1995. Folse recalls hatching the idea a year or two earlier over bowls of gumbo at his Donaldsonville restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing, with then Nicholls president Donald Ayo. (Ayo retired in 2002 after two decades at the Nicholls helm.) The overarching goal wasn’t just to teach students to master the art of Cajun and Creole cooking, but to steep them in its lore and traditions while also encouraging them to do independent research into the region’s deep and old foodways.
The institute, where Folse still teaches and serves as board chairman, has grown from a handful of students to an enrollment of three hundred. It recently moved into a state-of-the-art, 33,000-square-foot building with teaching kitchens and a restaurant. Students can earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in culinary arts at a cost of about $30,000. Two-year private cooking academies often cost twice that much.
Folse was clearly inspired by his roots. He was born in 1946 in the Mississippi River farming town of Vacherie and grew up nearby, absorbing the cadence of speech, pace of life, and cooking traditions of St. James Parish. Back then, Cajun French speakers were the majority. Vacherie was settled by Folse’s Swiss-German pioneer forebears in the 1720s. The Germans readily accepted into their communities and lives the Cajuns who came four decades later. Intermarriage between the Germans and Cajun women was so common that sometime in the mid-1800s most of the Germans had given up their native tongue to speak Cajun French.
Folse (the original German surname may have been Voltz, Volz, or Folz) is a gleeful encyclopedia of the culinary serendipity of this mixing, the Germans bringing charcuterie and the smoked sausage into the food; the Cajuns bringing the roux, country French cooking influences, and knowledge of seafood soups. “The Germans loved to cook with pork and root vegetables,” he says, “but the Cajuns had their own ideas about this.” In the exchange of ideas, “that’s how sauerkraut became smothered cabbage with andouille sausage” (in Folse’s mind and mine, a great leap forward for cabbage).
Folse was one of eight kids. His mother, Therese Zeringue, died when he was seven years old. His father, Royley, was a fur trapper, moss picker, and logger who never remarried. After his mother’s death, Folse’s paternal grandparents moved in to help out. His maternal grandparents, the Zeringues, were a constant presence. Cajun French was the everyday language. Food, with gumbo at the center, was enormously important to his family and their tightly knit circle of Cajun and Cajunized-German friends.
“You began with the roux,” recalls Folse. “Every mother taught her daughter how to cook roux at home, and the sons learned how to make a roux at the hunting camp.” His mentor was his maternal uncle, Paul Zeringue, who would round up the boys in the family from the time they could manage a kitchen knife and say, “C’mon, we’re gonna make a gumbo.” That was his favorite dish.
In Uncle Paul’s world, “if you were old enough to chop an onion, you chopped the onions,” says Folse. “Maybe you later got to do the green onions. Maybe next year you prepared the rabbit. The point is that every year you got a better station and you woke up one day realizing that, having watched and listened and helped, you not only could make a good roux, you were a pretty good chef.”
Back then, it was a matter of great pride to both parents and kids when these lessons had been both taught and absorbed. “Children were praised by the qualities of their fricassees and courtbouillons and gumbos,” recalls Folse.
In the heavily Catholic community, “It was nice to have the priest praise your Latin, but the ultimate affirmation was when Uncle Paul put his arm around you and said, ‘What a good gumbo.’”
Folse feels Uncle Paul’s calling. “The greatest challenge today,” he says, “is walking into my culinary classes and making my students disciples of the traditional — to make them aware we’re stepping back three hundred years.”
Though he knew cooking was his “life’s DNA” he started out in hotel operations, not thinking he could actually earn a living as a chef. But a German chef, on Folse’s training rotation in a hotel kitchen, saw his expansive home-hewed technique and the tasty concoctions he could whip up, and urged him to rethink his career. The rest is history. Folse and his wife, Laulie Bouchereau, started their first restaurant in Baton Rouge in 1974 and opened Lafitte’s Landing four years later. His production company and plant, officially known as Chef John Folse & Company, opened in 1991 and in 2008 moved into its current facility.
And this operation is but part of a sprawling Folse food and media empire that includes a catering operation out of Folse’s White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge and a cookbook publishing and baking operation in Gonzales. His The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine is in its fourteenth printing. And with star chef Rick Tramonto, Folse in 2012 opened a high-end New Orleans French Quarter restaurant called R’evolution. On the menu is his “Death by Gumbo” — roasted quail, andouille, and oysters finished off with a dash of filé and served over rice — that sells for $18.00 a bowl. Folse says that dish comes right out of the Cajun hunting camp gumbo tradition of his Uncle Paul.
Folse employs about 160 people in the factory here and 400 company-wide. “Everything here today,” he says, gesturing around his plant, “came out of that restaurant business.”
Beyond hard work and an ability to cook, Folse also had to gin up some old-fashioned Cajun ingenuity to get where he is today. There were no existing kettles to cook 2.5-ton batches of gumbo when he first conceived of the idea. He had to invent them.
For years, however, he was dissatisfied with his gumbo because he couldn’t produce ample amounts of the dark brown roux he came to see as essential. He needed roux by the ton to make roux-rich gumbo by the ton but, like the cooking kettles before, nothing on that scale existed. So back to the drawing board he went.
“Here, you have to see this,” he says as he leads me into his roux room. Inside are two of Folse’s pride and joys, imposing black cast-iron, drum-shaped containers each capable of making 1,000 pounds of roux at a time. He gestures toward them like a proud father. “We use 500 pounds oil and 500 pounds of flour for each batch,” he says. That’s the fifty-fifty mixture used by my own mother and a vast majority of other gumbo cooks.
The design challenges were daunting. He had to figure out not only how thick the cooker walls had to be to hold the superhot roux but what size of drive and transmission apparatus you would need to push the paddles to keep a half-ton roux stirring so it doesn’t scorch. “How would you heat it to maintain temperature? How do you push a roux that big? Everybody said it was impossible.”
He ended up flying off to Germany after finding a company that could build the roux-cookers to his specifications. Roux suddenly became a business in itself. The factory these days produces dark, medium, and light oil-and-flour roux along with duck fat and butter roux that mostly get sold to other food companies.
Following Folse around his gumbo factory is a bit like following Willie Wonka in his chocolate factory. Everything is of grand scale and Folse sees magic being done everywhere. The smooth-functioning technology clearly delights him. He’s effusive in praise of his team, to whom he is simply known as Chef. Otherwise everyone is on a first-name basis. As we watch the 5,000-pound batch of gumbo come together, Folse could be someone seeing it for the first time instead of the thousandth.
“Look at the color,” he says as the kettle absorbs and stirs in the dark roux slurry that’s just been poured it. “It’s looking like gumbo now. That’s beautiful. Wherever they eat this, they will be eating real gumbo.”
“We’re dumping in the chicken now,” a plant worker tells the boss. That means the gumbo’s getting close. They’ll add a little more water, the secret sauce, and then bring the batch up to 190 degrees F and hold for fifteen minutes. Then, a little more salt and the gumbo will be ready for pumping.
We head back to Folse’s conference room to continue the discussion and where he wants me to sample some factory gumbo. We talk as we go. He’s a man of a thousand ideas and his latest one is the creation of a Bayou Studies Program within the Nicholls State Culinary Institute. It would be the “repository for all things bayou, instead of having everything go to LSU or Tulane.” Folse says he’s already got a $1 million pledge to that end. (The program, in fact, is already up and running.)
We also talk about a curiosity of mine, the disappearing Cajun accent. His eyes light up. “True, something’s being lost.” He tells of a star student of his whose parents and sister are both shrimpers, speak Cajun French and English with thick Cajun accents. But the daughter has gone off to study both abroad and in New York. “She sounds like she’s from New York City — she could’ve come off Broadway,” says Folse. “It’s not that that’s bad. But it’s what’s happening.”
Folse, in fact, has among the more unusual Cajun accents I’ve encountered. It seems to me to be somewhere between Brooklyn and the bayou. I ask him about it. He laughs. When a student at Nicholls he took a speech course; the prof called in a linguist to try to decode the accent. The verdict: Cajun with a mysterious mix of Bostonian brogue.
Chef remains mystified. “That’s impossible,” he says, laughing.
Folse has ordered up cups of the recently cooked megabatches of gumbo, but first wants me to sample his crawfish bisque. It comes, and I dig in.
I’m sorry, but nothing coming out of a factory kitchen should taste that good.
Next, the gumbos arrive. I take a bite of each and tell Folse what I’m required to tell everybody when I try their gumbo: “Well, it’s not as good as my momma’s.”
But I honestly think that in a blind tasting with gumbos cooked in home kitchens, it would hold its own.
To be sure, it’s not hard to find Cajun/Creole purists who will never in their lifetimes buy anybody’s commercially made frozen gumbo from a website or supermarket shelf, even the stuff made by a chef with the Gumbo Belt credentials of John Folse. As I traveled the Gumbo Belt, I ran into a hard core of purists who turn up their noses at even restaurant gumbo, no matter the credentials or reputation of the restaurant. For these folks, gumbo was invented at home, is only cooked properly at home (by Momma), and should stay at home. The uprising over Disney’s misfortunate incursion into gumbo-making is a manifestation of that.
I understand and even respect that opinion. It just doesn’t happen to be mine. Nothing will ever taste better to me than my momma’s gumbo. But my travels throughout South Louisiana, and to ramparts far removed where I found gumbo being cooked, revealed what I consider to be the glory and genius of the Gumbo Diaspora. Sure, Chef Folse makes a ton of money making gumbo by the ton. But anyone who’s spent time with him, or the late Paul Prudhomme, or Tory McPhail at Commander’s, or others who are passionate about gumbo, soon understands that the desire to expand gumbo’s boundaries, markets, and diners has a deeply missionary component, an “envie,” as the Cajuns would say, to share our creation with the world and spread the joy it brings.
And what’s wrong with that?