The smell of sautéed shallots, butter browning, and sugar caramelizing hits your nose the moment you walk down the halls of Nicholls State University’s Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, the only post-secondary institution in Louisiana offering a four-year culinary degree.
Your mouth is watering before you even see the state-of-the-art kitchens donated by Arlen “Benny” Cenac—Houma businessman and owner of Cenac Marine, Main Iron Works, Houma Machine and Propeller, and Golden Ranch Farms. Back in 2015, as soon as Benny Cenac learned that construction of the school’s new culinary arts building might not move forward due to lack of funding, he knew he had to act fast.
The school needed additional funding to receive the match from the state of Louisiana to complete the cooking school renovations. Benny, ever the Cajun food aficionado and proud Nicholls alum, recognized the cultural, historical, and economic impact the culinary program had on both the local university and in keeping South Louisiana culinary traditions alive.
In 2015, Benny Cenac made a very generous donation in honor of his long-time employee and friend, Lanny D. Ledet, that led to the creation of a 33,000 square foot state-of-the art culinary facility, complete with six kitchens, lecture rooms, and a student study lounge. The Lanny D. Ledet Culinary Arts Building even features a full-size, 96-seat restaurant called Bistro Ruth, named in honor of New Orleans restaurateur Ruth Fertel.
The restaurant provides a unique experience for students in the culinary arts program at Nicholls, where they actually run the restaurant as servers and chefs. Students are exposed to all facets of restaurant work: the front of the house organizes the setting and servicing of tables, interacting with customers and providing an atmosphere for a memorable meal, and students in the back of the house work as sous-chefs, line cooks, and dishwashers.
The Ledet Building operates a bakery run by the students in the CULA 490 Retail Baking class, with a daily selection of muffins, French macarons, cookies, and pastries changing to highlight the highest-quality seasonal ingredients.
Prior to the opening of the Lanny D. Ledet building—including during the college years of famed Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois—Nicholls students had to make do with small old burners and hot plates, often forced to pry the freezer door open because it would freeze shut overnight. Now, thanks to Benny Cenac, the culinary arts program has been able to nearly double the number of students they accept and is better preparing these students for careers by training them with state-of-the-art equipment.
“Cooking is such a special activity that never fails to bring people together,” explained Benny Cenac. “And here in Louisiana we have some of the richest flavors and best Cajun dishes in the world. I’m glad students at Nicholls can learn how to cook in best-of-class facilities.”
Benny Cenac of Houma Touts the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State
Situated within the heart of the Bayou, the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute offers eleven different concentrations to prepare aspiring chefs for an array of careers, including culinary operations, patisserie, service management, culinary business administration and entrepreneurship, culinary journalism, culinary arts science, and more.
In an effort to develop the next generation of American chefs and emphasize hands-on-learning, the culinary school maintains a low, 16:1 student-to-teacher ratio to better afford students the opportunity to hone their skills and aspirations with specialized instruction. Even more, a four-year degree from Nicholls is approximately half the cost of a 2-year degree from a private institution since in-state tuition is afforded to all Culinary Institute students.
The Chef John Folse Culinary Institute is named for Chef John Folse, or “Louisiana’s Culinary Ambassador to the World.” The mission of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute as envisioned by Chef Folse and former Nicholls President Donald Ayo was to preserve Louisiana culture and cuisine by teaching burgeoning chefs and community members to master the art of Cajun and Creole cooking and understand the influences of such cuisine: Native American, Spanish, French, African, German, English and Italian.
Culinary students at Nicholls are expected to fulfill field-work requirements in approved food service operations. In both their sophomore and senior years, students will complete a 280-hour and 360-hour industry internship. This internship is a valuable learning experience that helps students build skills in organization, planning, problem-solving, marketing, and analytical thinking as well as make valuable industry contacts.
Over the years, these aspiring chefs have interned at many prestigious restaurants and sites across the globe: The French Laundry in Napa, Hotel Hershey in Hershey Park, Restaurant R’evolution, Disney World Resorts, the French Institut Paul Bocuse, Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York, and other premier kitchens.
Arlen “Benny” Cenac, Jr., a Houma native and fourth-generation Southern Louisianan has witnessed how Cajun food history and traditions have played a major role in his life and family history. Benny Cenac’s great-great grandfather was a pastry chef in France before he moved to Louisiana – and the love for cooking has been passed down through each generation.
With beloved recipes memorialized and compiled in the Cenac Family Cookbook, Benny and his family relied on the resources from their own backyard to re-create classic Cajun dishes: crawfish, shrimp, oysters, andouille sausage, boudin – just to name a few staples. In fact, many of the ingredients for some of Benny Cenac’s favorite dishes can be found on his own 52,000-acre Golden Ranch Farms, the largest privately-owned refuge in the state. The refuge sits on the Atchafalaya basin, making it an ideal location for catching fresh fish like the famous sac-au-lait, redfish, or perch.
Louisiana has some of the richest soil in the world, and Golden Ranch is the perfect venue for cultivating various fruits and vegetables like okra, sugarcane, eggplant, berries, tomatoes, and other delicious products.
“I know Cajun food—the fiery spices, the low heat, the sweetness, the feeling of family love—that comes through with every bite. The students and instructors at Nicholls University are making a promise to the next generation that their mouths, bellies, and hearts will be filled with that same joy—and flavors,” explained Benny Cenac, upon reflecting on his generous donation to the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute.