Saturday, November 15, 2008

CAJUN CHEFS

During my recent trip to Thibodaux, Louisiana to deliver a talk about Louisiana traiteurs, I discovered new information about the famous Louisiana chef, John Folse, which reinforced a belief touted by most native Louisianans – Louisiana is the center of the culinary world. John Folse has established a cooking school known as the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. This institute features a fully accredited, four-year university program that awards a Bachelor of Culinary Science degree. The school has a faculty-student ratio of 15 to 1, so students receive lots of guidance in culinary techniques, learn about better business practices and food service trends.

Nicholls State University is only a one hour drive from New Orleans, the culinary capitol of Louisiana, where some of the students in the Folse Institute intern; other students enroll in study abroad programs in Europe, Asia, and South America. This year, several of the students in the Folse Institute received honors for their cooking – one placed in a California competition, another received a scholarship to attend the Paul Bocuse Institute abroad, and another apprenticed at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. One Summa Cum Laude graduate enrolled in Nicholls State’s Innovative Culinary MBA Program.

If those who visit south Louisiana don’t return because they “tasted bayou water,” they’ll probably be drawn back to Cajun Country because they’ve tasted the cuisine of Louisiana and New Orleans. One of our finest chefs who rivals John Folse in cooking expertise is Marcelle Bienvenu, a famous chef from St. Martinville (la Petit Paris d’Amerique),which is ten miles down the road from New Iberia. Marcelle once owned Chez Marcelle Restaurant in Broussard, Louisiana where I always took out-of-town visitors to sample Cajun Country cuisine. She has written a food column since 1984, which appears in newspapers and journals in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Marcelle was born into a large Acadian family where meals were a celebration of the good life here on the bayou and grew up on ideals of hospitality and hearty Cajun cuisine. She has the distinction of working on the volume of Acadian and Creole cooking in collaboration with editors of The Time-Life American Cooking Series. She has also been catering manager of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and collaborated with Emeril Lagasse on several of his cookbooks.

Approximately 20 years ago when Marcelle served a stint as chef at Oak Alley Plantation on the River Road near Baton Rouge, I met and visited with her on an exceptionally cold Spring day. I remember that when I went into the gift shop at Oak Alley, she was standing near a counter that held the Sesquicentennial edition of the PICAYUNE’S CREOLE COOK BOOK (published by The Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans), which she had edited. She shook hands with me, then remained standing before me, warming my frozen hands with her own, exuding hospitality in the tradition of Acadian friendliness. I also remember being presumptuous enough to suggest that Marcelle do her own cookbook. I have a letter from her in my files in which she discusses doing a joint cookbook project with me, and I later told her that she, alone, should do the project as she was a consummate storyteller and an excellent journalist…the book really belonged to her!

Several years later, Marcelle published her famous volume on Cajun cuisine, WHO’S YOUR MAMA, ARE YOU CATHOLIC, AND CAN YOU MAKE A ROUX? This 200-recipe cookbook features the best of Cajun cooking, and numerous Bienvenu family photos and stories about life in Cajun country. Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette has published a paperback edition of this wonderful cookbook.

Marcelle Bienvenu also teaches cooking classes and has a website for those who search for good cuisine at www.MarcelleBienvenu.com.
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