Thursday, December 3, 2009

John Folse and Bittersweet Plantation Dairy

About a year ago, on a trip home to see my folks in Louisiana, I had the great privilege to visit John Folse's headquarters in Gonzales, Louisiana. For those of you who don't know, John Folse is the head of a sort of a culinary empire based in Southern Louisiana. He gives a lot back to the community and is responsible for some pretty "big deal" things in the land of national chain restaurants. On top of that, he's a genuinely nice guy who made me and my family feel really special on our visit to his commissary and dairy.

Folse got his start in Louisiana with a place called Lafitte's Landing that sounds a lot like the place I work at now. The original location burned down many years ago, but Folse has maintained a fine dining restaurant, a culinary institute, and a banquet and catering company that does lots of special events called White Oak Plantation not far from where my parents live. You can also find John Folse products in the supermarkets of Louisiana and his cookbooks are family favorites. My dad is a big fan of Folse's gumbo recipe in particular.

We showed up for our scheduled appointment and were greeted by his cheerful and hospitable assistant. She would be our host and escort for the day, showing us around and getting us to and from our tours on time. We met her in Folse's conference room which doubled as a library for some of his most prized cookbooks in his collection of literally thousands of volumes. In conversation with her later, we discovered that she and I had studied with the same piano professor at Louisiana State University. We had some fun stories to swap and we really felt how small the world truly was.

Our first stop was at the commissary. This was a bit of an unexpected lagniappe and we were delighted with the surprise. There was a sign at the front desk with our names printed in big letters welcoming us. As we donned our special hats and footies to cover our hair and shoes, we felt a little silly, but like real VIPs. I'd never seen food being prepared in the quantities like we saw that afternoon. They were in the process of making the Jack Daniel's sauce that TGI Fridays uses on just about everything grilled on their menu. Folse provides the entire chain with the product from his original recipe. Huge vats of sauce were cooking and we saw them emptying onions, tomatoes, brown sugar, and whiskey by the barrel into the huge cooking hoppers. It smelled great in the massive expanse with a smokey, caramelly goodness.

Once past the production area, we toured the storage facilities. There were entire rooms devoted just to spice, herb, and produce storage along with a huge walk-in cooler that seemed to be the size of a football field and just as tall. It certainly dwarfed any restaurant storage space I've ever seen. It turns out that Folse also make soups for Panera Bread Company among others. I've been eating a lot of the products from my home state and didn't even know it.

Our tour guide, the manager of the commissary, was thorough and truly knew her stuff. She had come all the way from Nova Scotia to work for John Folse and she ran a tight ship. She explained the strict health codes and testing procedures that every product went through at the commissary. She also gave us a little history about the place and when I asked her how things were going in the downward economic slump, she optimistically replied that business couldn't be better. In fact, Folse and staff are having trouble keeping up with demand for their products even with 24/7 hours of operation during the time of our visit. It's really nice to see someone doing well and the economy of my home state bolstered by success and pride in our food industry. I've always felt that it's one of the most important things Louisiana has to offer not only as a commodity, but also as a truly unique culinary tradition that stands out in a wash of flavorless food that is served to the masses today.

The second part of the tour was the part that really spurred the whole afternoon: our tour of Bittersweet Plantation Dairy. We were shuttled back to the Folse headquarters and took a short walk next door to visit with Dimcho and Petrana Dimov. We learned that they had come from Bulgaria in 2003 when their son, a student at Louisiana State, met with Folse and convinced him that he needed to make cheese and his parents were just the ones to help him do it. Dimcho and Petrana sat with us for about two hours and we talked about cheese and tasted many of the various products that they make. It was evident why Folse had brought them both over from Bulgaria because of their passion for the craft of cheesemaking and the pride they took in the quality of their workmanship. As we got to know them, we discovered that they are also real characters with strong and sometimes quirky personalities and we were charmed by them during our time spent together.

Dimcho and Petrana are meticulous people and their attention to detail was obvious to us right away. The cheese-making facility was as clean as a whistle and Dimcho was quite proud of the fact that their standards were more rigorous than the board of health required. Of what we tasted, I especially loved the yogurt and so did my parents. My mom buys it at Whole Foods from time to time. It's European-style - rich, creamy, and full-flavored. We also had an excellent cheese that reminded me of Feta called Kashkeval that was deliciously salty and tangy and a triple cream called Vache Santé that was full, rich, and buttery. I've also had a goat's milk cheese from Bitterwseet called Feliciana Nevat at the restaurant I work in, but unfortunately we didn't get to taste it that day, although I remain a fan. It's snowy-white in color and creamy and tangy with a soft velvety texture.

Dimcho told us about his plans to start making blue cheese and it appears that from their website these plans have come to fruition. He was excited about the potential to make really great blue because of the high average humidity of the Louisiana climate. I'll look forward to trying it next time I'm home. We ended our tasting with fantastic ice creams that were reminiscent of those I had eaten in Paris and also with very full tummies. In fact, we ate a very light and very late supper that evening.

Just before we got back on the road, our guide's cell phone rang and it was Chef Folse himself. He took a little time to speak with us and to thank us for seeing his miraculous commissary and cheese works. He apologized for not being able to meet us personally because he was off to prepare a meal for servicemen in Texas that were about to ship out. I was really impressed by this personal touch and he certainly earned my respect and admiration that day. We headed back in the car to Chez Mes Parents having met some folks that we would not forget anytime soon, and feeling proud of the local man that had made good for our community and our taste buds.

No comments:

Post a Comment