A fresh take on fine dining

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Chef John Besh has left his signature restaurant, Restaurant August, in the hands of two Nicholls graduates: Executive Chef Michael Gulotta (pictured above) and Executive Sous Chef Jacqueline Blanchard.

Past the deep mahogany-paneled bar, through the opulent dining room lit with crystal chandeliers and into the slightly cramped, sweltering kitchen, Executive Chef Michael Gulotta pan sears a fillet of sheepshead — a local fish often considered trash.

Guests might wonder how such an item would make its way into the elegant Restaurant August, Chef John Besh’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans’ Central Business District. But Gulotta’s job is to keep the menu interesting, embedding some surprises.

The New Orleans native says this particular fish has picked up a bad reputation for good reasons: It’s ugly. Its name is off-putting. And it’s difficult to clean. While studying at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, Gulotta remembers his instructors dumping a hundred pounds of sheepshead on a table for students to practice their filleting skills. Years after graduating from Nicholls, he recalled that fish, with its large spine and tough scales.

“There’s tons of sheepshead in the Gulf — because no one wants to clean it,” he says with a laugh. “It’s been called a fisherman’s fish because that’s the catch they’d get to take home at night and cook for their families. I thought, ‘Why not serve it here?’” To diners, the “trashy” dish certainly does not look or taste low class. The sweet, moist fish sits atop corn custard and succotash with a tomato vinaigrette. Gulotta’s culinary creation is, in fact, indicative of what Restaurant August has become known for — an ambitious, sophisticated menu designed around local, fresh ingredients and clean, delicate flavors.

Behind August’s award-winning menus and much-respected fine dining service are two Chef John Folse Culinary graduates: Gulotta (BS ’03) and his executive sous chef, Jacqueline Blanchard (BS ’06). Under their management, August has been named as one of Gayot’s 2012 Top 40 U.S. Restaurants — the only Louisiana restaurant to make the acclaimed list.

“I am constantly in awe of the creativity and passion displayed by Mike and Jackie,” Besh says. “They learned so much at Nicholls, but I am most impressed by their true understanding of and their commitment to local ingredients that inform each dish they create.

Determined to work for the James Beard award-winning Besh, Gulotta applied at Restaurant August three times before he was hired. Of all the renowned restaurants in New Orleans, what kept him going back to August was Besh’s food philosophy.

“I didn’t know you could cook veal cheeks and pork cheeks and oxtail, but I looked at his menu, heard what he was doing and thought, ‘Man, I want to learn to cook like that,’” says the 31-year-old Gulotta. “John was using every part of the animal, doing all this great butchery, working with local farmers. All before any of this became popular.”

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One of Gulotta’s menu creations is a house-cured belly of Gulf Coast lamb (lamb bacon) with a salad of pickled peaches and watermelon from Washington Parish.

After two 12-hour tryout shifts, Gulotta was hired as a grill cook, but there was one slight problem. In six months, he would be leaving for Europe. After visiting Italy with the art department, Gulotta had worked with culinary faculty to arrange a return trip for a five-month independent study. Besh, a proponent of chefs traveling to Europe, encouraged Gulotta but didn’t make any promises about whether his job would be waiting for him upon his return. In those months leading up to his trip, Gulotta set out to make an impression on Besh. “I think I surprised him in some respects,” Gulotta says. “Nicholls really did prepare me. Chef Randy [Cheramie] challenged us to learn as much as we could about food history, which is what really impresses the good chefs.”

By the end of six months, Gulotta had earned Besh’s respect and job security. He traveled to Italy and came back as August’s tournant, or roundsman, working every station in the kitchen. A year later, Besh sent Gulotta to work for his old mentor Chef Karl Joseph Fuchs in the southern black forest of Germany. There, he learned butchery, charcuterie (curing, smoking and preserving meat) and German country cooking techniques. His intention always was to return to New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina sped up the process. Upon hearing of the city’s condition and his mom’s flooded Lakeview home, Gulotta flew back immediately and helped Besh reopen August.

“I spent my mornings feeding people in St. Bernard Parish and nights cooking at August,” Gulotta recalls. “By that point, John and I were more like brothers than anything else. Soon after the storm, people started asking for foie gras and the good stuff. By Thanksgiving, we were back to a full menu.”

But it was different. August continued to specialize in European-influenced New Orleans cuisine, but a concerted effort was now made to use ingredients from the Gulf, regional farmlands and local dairies.

“When August first started, we were bringing in a lot of European items, fish you can only get from the Mediterranean or northern Atlantic,” says Gulotta, who was made executive chef in 2007. “After the storm, we wanted to reinvest in south Louisiana so much so that we started doing almost entirely local — like the old great French restaurants that only worked with what they had at hand.”

The restaurant’s signature dishes such as the handmade potato gnocchi and breaded trout are still cornerstones of the menu, but Gulotta regularly adjusts the offerings to be seasonal, unexpected and fun. His creations are inventive — house-cured Gulf Coast lamb bacon and grilled tête de cochon (hog’s head) with grilled peaches, for example. But he’s careful to strike a balance between what he likes to cook and what customers like to eat.

“Too often chefs just want to show off what they know and what they can cook,” he says. “I preach to my staff that even if the guest wants something very simple, we’re going to do it to the best of our ability. If a little kid comes in and wants macaroni and cheese, we’re going to make him the best macaroni and cheese. It’s not about what we think is fun; it’s about what the guests like.”

Raised by a single mother who always found time to cook, Gulotta enjoys serving meals to customers and family alike.
Raised by a single mother who always found time to cook, Gulotta enjoys serving meals to customers and family alike.

For Gulotta, pleasing the palates of Restaurant August diners is only part of the job. As Besh’s right-hand man, Gulotta takes on prominent roles — presenting tips for home cooks on The Dr. Oz Show, demonstrating cooking techniques at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, organizing a kickoff event for a Bon Appétit Grub Crawl and catering Will Ferrell’s Bacchus party, to name a few.

His job sounds glamorous. The celebrity chef culture and reality TV food shows certainly make it seem so. But the work is intense and grueling.

Gulotta is in charge of every aspect of August, from procuring ingredients to hiring and firing employees to improving the silverware and kitchen equipment. The past few years have been particularly challenging. As Besh opened several more restaurants, Gulotta helped train their sous chefs and lent August’s cooks until the new eateries were on solid footing.

To keep August running smoothly while he’s away, Gulotta turns to his executive sous chef and fellow Nicholls alum, Jacqueline Blanchard. Hired by Besh three years ago, Blanchard, who had externed at August during her sophomore year, was tasked with elevating the restaurant’s lunch service.

Each day her cooks check in around 7 a.m., just as deliveries of fresh fish, produce and meat begin arriving. The morning becomes a blur of adjusting the menu, itemizing and inventorying ingredients, preparing cooking stations and talking with food purveyors, both locally and across the country. Front-of-the-house staff must taste and familiarize themselves with new menu items, the table linens must be neat, the floors must be clean. The extra attention on lunch has made a difference — the restaurant’s $20.12 three-course prix fixe lunch has become a hit.

“It’s a lot going on, all within a few hours,” Blanchard says. “When I first got here, lunch was sort of a shadow of dinner, and we were understaffed. So it’s been really amazing to see what we’ve been able to do in three years — inspiring other local restaurants to elevate their lunch standards to emulate ours.”

Being a management-level chef is a nonstop lifestyle, but Gulotta and Blanchard have been prepping for this since college. In his junior year at Nicholls, Gulotta piled his plate high with responsibilities: president of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, president of the Junior American Culinary Federation campus chapter and member of the opening crew for Fremin’s Restaurant in downtown Thibodaux. On evenings and weekends throughout his college career, Gulotta worked in various restaurants, including Chef John Folse’s Lafitte’s Landing at Bittersweet Plantation in Donaldsonville. Fraternity members assigned him the nickname “All work and no play make Mike a dull boy.”

Executive Sous Chef Jacqueline Blanchard plates lunch orders in August's kitchen. For most of the 2012 summer, she worked in France, where Chef John Besh assigned her to help lend authenticity to Chateau de Montcaud's Sunday jazz lunch. Photo by Frank Aymami III.
Executive Sous Chef Jacqueline Blanchard plates lunch orders in August’s kitchen. For most of the 2012 summer, she worked in France, where Chef John Besh assigned her to help lend authenticity to Chateau de Montcaud’s Sunday jazz lunch. Photo by Frank Aymami III.

Blanchard’s freshman year was no easier. In addition to taking 18 hours a semester, she joined Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority and played on the Nicholls soccer team. After tearing her ACL, she decided to focus all of her energy on culinary. It certainly paid off. Blanchard’s first jobs after graduating from Nicholls were at the French Laundry and then Bouchon — Napa Valley, Calif., restaurants owned by Thomas Keller, largely considered America’s most influential chef.

“At the time, the French Laundry was regarded as the best restaurant in the world, and I was able to get a job not knowing anybody there or having any references,” Blanchard says. “The experience exposed me to a whole other world, and it shaped me fundamentally and professionally.”

Before returning to Restaurant August in 2009, she worked at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.

Few female chefs make it up the ranks in the restaurant industry, but the petite, 5-foot-3-inch Blanchard had been toughening herself up and sharpening her culinary chops for years before even entering college. Putting up with her three brothers gave her fortitude, and taking notes while watching cooking TV shows as a child helped prepare her for culinary school.

“As soon as the show was over, I’d be in the kitchen trying to replicate it,” she recalls. “My mom would get so mad because I’d make a mess. When she would punish me, she’d punish me from cooking.”

Blanchard’s and Gulotta’s success at such a young age doesn’t surprise Chef Randy Cheramie the least bit. Cheramie, executive director of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, says that only about 5 percent of culinary graduates ever reach a top management position, but that it was a foregone conclusion for these two. He considers Blanchard, Gulotta and Drake Leonards (BS ’08), a sous chef at Besh’s La Provence, as “three of the best representatives of true craftsmen chefs we’ve put out there.” “They were voracious hunters of anything culinary,” Cheramie says. “If I had an event, they were at my elbow. They just weren’t looking for Friday and a paycheck, and they wouldn’t work for someone whose food philosophy didn’t mesh with theirs.”

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Practically all of Restaurant August's ingredients are locally grown. Gulotta and Blanchard have been proponents of fresh, local, seasonal food.
Practically all of Restaurant August’s ingredients are locally grown. Gulotta and Blanchard have been proponents of fresh, local, seasonal food.

Today, nearly 90 percent of August’s ingredients are local — including all of the restaurant’s beef, pork, duck, chicken, herbs, butter and berries. And what’s available locally o!en dictates what’s on the menu.

“Literally, we just go and look at the trucks showing up with all the local produce and see what’s in season, what’s at the peak of freshness,” Gulotta says. “We sit down and share a pot of coffee and talk about food. We throw ideas around, cook together, taste them, and sooner or later they’re on the menu.”

Fresh, local and seasonal have become buzzwords in the American culinary scene. But to Gulotta and Blanchard, it’s more than a trend. It’s who they are at their core. Taking over Gulotta’s backyard are various vegetable plants; kumquat, fig, satsuma and peach trees; a muscadine grape vine; and blackberry and blueberry bushes. On a Sunday summer night, he might put some pork steaks on his backyard grill and make a vinaigrette using his own blueberries and blackberries. Or, before going to work, he might cook chicken in red curry using freshly picked sweet kumquats for his wife, Melissa. Gulotta looks forward to cooking for his twin 1-year-old boys and already buys heirloom vegetables to cook and puree for them. He attributes his style to his great-grandmother, an “old Italian lady who grew up on a farm and always cooked with her own vegetables.”

Likewise, as soon as Blanchard has a couple of days off, she’s planning a pig roast or crawfish boil in her backyard. Influenced by her grandmother’s farm-inspired cooking, Blanchard, whom Cheramie describes as a “hippie at heart,” built her career by seeking out chefs and restaurants specializing in similar cuisine. She even worked a stint at Chez Panisse under Chef Alice Waters, who is considered the “mother of American food” and one of the most prominent organic food movement supporters.

“Growing up, I was always tugging at my grandmother’s apron, dying for her to let me chop or peel something,” Blanchard says. “She lived on a farm, so we were always picking pecans from the backyard trees to make pecan pies, wringing the necks of chickens and plucking their feathers, killing a hog and finding uses for all of its parts. Fresh and local are hip and in vogue today, but to me that’s just how it always was.”

Gulotta's nickname in college was "All work and no play make Mike a dull boy." In 2011, he returned to Nicholls as the distinguished visiting chef for the Lafcadio Hearn fundraising dinner.
Gulotta’s nickname in college was “All work and no play make Mike a dull boy.” In 2011, he returned to Nicholls as the distinguished visiting chef for the Lafcadio Hearn fundraising dinner.

It’s that intense need to make people happy through their food — even on their days off — that sets Gulotta and Blanchard apart. It’s what keeps them going through long shifts and demanding schedules. When the stress begins to get to Gulotta, he thinks back to the night when a woman arrived at the restaurant to celebrate a special occasion. August has an open-kitchen policy, so she was invited to peek inside. As she walked through the door, the kitchen staff clapped, as they usually do, but much to their surprise, the woman started crying and walked around to hug each person.

“She said, ‘This meal is to celebrate me being cancer-free. I’m never going to forget this.’ She still comes back each year on the anniversary of that date,” Gulotta says. “That’s one of the stories I bring up when we’ve had a rough week and I pull my cooks together for a powwow. It makes you feel better about serving food to people every day, wondering whether or not they’re just forgetting about it, going home and going to bed — or whether they’re remembering the meal for the rest of their life.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Special Mission

As vice president of the ever-growing National World War II Museum, Nicholls alumnus Stephen Watson is out to redefine what a 21st-century museum experience should be.

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As Nicholls alumnus Stephen Watson helps expand the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, he’s also changing preconceptions about what a museum experience should be.

It happens almost daily for Stephen Watson. While walking to a meeting or checking in with the customer service staff, he notices a World War II veteran.

On Memorial Day, it happened twice. Given a special tag to wear, veterans are easy to spot in the cavernous pavilion of the National World War II Museum. Each time he sees one, Watson, the museum’s chief operating officer and vice president, introduces himself and thanks the veteran for his service. Each time, the reaction is nearly the same.

“They’re genuinely humbled and gratified. They don’t think of themselves as anything special, but they walk into this museum, and all of a sudden, they are the star,” says Watson (BA ’97, MBA ’98). “Most of the time, they’re with their sons and their daughters who are hearing things about their parents’ service that they never heard before.”

Such powerful reminders of the museum’s mission and impact keep Watson energized on long, stress-filled days. And he’s had his fair share of them.

When Watson joined the museum as its membership director in 2002, the idea of building a multi-complex, worldclass institution was a lofty, far-off dream. Founded in 2000 by historian Stephen Ambrose, the original $25 million institution sought to tell the story of the D-Day invasion. Now, Watson, who was appointed COO in 2007, is playing a key leadership role in a $300 million expansion project that will quadruple the initial facility’s size and cover the entire war effort.

He’s already ushered in several new openings: the Solomon Victory Theater, showing a Tom Hanks-produced 4D film; a Stage Door Canteen, featuring big bands and USO-like performances; the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, displaying the artifact restoration process; and the American Sector restaurant and Soda Shop, serving Chef John Besh’s cuisine. By 2015, he expects to add three more pavilions to that list.

“We’re building what we believe will be one of the finest museums of any kind in the world,” says Watson, who credits Nicholls for leading him to a career path he describes as “pretty remarkable.”

D-Day

While growing up in Brechin, Scotland, Watson listened to his grandfather tell stories about being a British Royal Air Force pilot during WWII and flying an iconic propeller-powered Spitfire — one of which now hangs in the New Orleans museum. But back then, merely riding in an aircraft, not to mention piloting one armed with artillery, was incomprehensible to the young Watson.

He didn’t board his first plane until Aug. 14, 1994, when he left Scotland en route for Nicholls. It had not been his intention to move to the U.S. until he met classmate Drew Sharkey (BS ’96) at the University of Aberdeen. Sharkey had signed up with College Prospects of America, an agency that helps find athletic scholarships for international students. Nicholls made an offer to Sharkey, who encouraged Watson, a national high school track champion, to follow suit.

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Watson didn’t board his first plane until Aug. 14, 1994, when he left Scotland for Nicholls. His business degrees and experience working in the Nicholls athletics department helped put him on an unbelievable career path.

Months later, Watson and four other Scottish track and field athletes were Thibodaux-bound. Clueless about south Louisiana, he recalls being concerned about running in such a warm climate.

“I’ll always remember the day I arrived,” he says. “I walked out of the airport in the mid-August heat and said, ‘This can’t be real.’”

Aside from the temperature, the people at Nicholls — particularly former College of Business Administration professors Chris Cox and Beth LaFleur — left the deepest impressions on Watson. “They are indicative of what I think makes Nicholls a special place: small class sizes and professors who get to know you and take a personal interest in your development and success,” he says. “One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at Nicholls is that 15 years later, I count these people as my friends.”

His college years had their rough spots, like most do. Watson spent more time than he would have liked in the training room rather than competing on the track. And he resided in Long Hall — an imperfect living experience that drew him back to campus to gladly witness its implosion in 2008. Regardless, he took a liking to Nicholls and stayed for his master’s degree.

During that time, Watson picked up his first experience in fundraising and development through a graduate assistantship with the athletics department. His supervisor, Easton LeBouef, former associate athletics director, gave him much responsibility on game days and with Colonel Club initiatives.

“The fact that I could hand tasks over to a student and turn around without worrying was a miracle in and of itself. With Steve, it was no problem,” says LeBouef, who remarks that the tall, lanky Watson looks the same now as he did in college. “He went beyond the norm and always had such great enthusiasm. His success at the museum now goes to show his perseverance and work ethic.”

Watson’s graduate experience parlayed into a job as membership director and then development director at WWNO, the National Public Radio affiliate station at the University of New Orleans, where Watson also taught marketing. In 2002, he noticed a director of membership job opening at the museum.

“There’s a lot of good will and excitement in the community about what this institution has done,” Watson says about why he applied. “As a young guy with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, it was a great opportunity for me to build and grow a national membership program for something that I cared about and thought was important for New Orleans and for this country.”

The National D-Day Museum, as it was then known, had about 25 employees and 3,000 members. Today, the National WWII Museum, which was renamed in 2006, employs around 275 people, 140 of whom report to Watson.

What’s more remarkable is that Watson has grown the museum’s membership to 130,000 — the largest of any museum in the country, even bigger than the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Almost 90 percent of WWII Museum members live out of state, the vast majority never having stepped inside its doors.

Instead of the usual sales pitch (buying a membership, which includes yearly admission, is cheaper than buying two daily tickets), Watson’s team targets people who fought or lived through the period and family members of the 16 million people who served in WWII.

“We put to the back of the list a lot of the transactional components that typically come with a membership, which wouldn’t appeal to someone in, say, California,” he explains. “Our message was that we have to educate younger generations about what happened during this time and why it’s still important to us today.”

D-Day

For the self-described “bean counter,” becoming COO in 2007 led to a refreshing crash course in WWII history, artifact restoration and museum exhibit design. When it comes to maintaining current exhibits or opening a new wing or building, Watson manages nearly every aspect: raising funds, collecting and preserving artifacts, designing exhibits, creating operational and staffing plans, marketing the museum and — ultimately — ensuring that visitors consider their experience memorable. His latest mission is to help redefine what a museum experience should be.

On a 120-foot-wide screen, the Beyond All Boundaries 4D film uses techniques from theme park attractions to tell the story of WWII. Photo courtesy of the National WWII Museum.
On a 120-foot-wide screen, the Beyond All Boundaries 4D film uses techniques from theme park attractions to tell the story of WWII. Photo courtesy of the National WWII Museum.

Exhibit A: Beyond All Boundaries.

The 4D film could almost be mistaken for a Universal Studios theme park attraction. Inside the 250-seat Solomon Victory Theater, seats rumble, life-size props rise from the floor, snow falls from above, and planes appear to fly right at audience members, who flinch as the aircrafts begin firing. Hollywood actors including Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Bacon and John Goodman lend their voices to narrate the story of WWII, from the Pearl Harbor bombing to America’s final victory.

“The artifacts and the real materials will always be a signature component; that’s part of what makes museums special,” Watson says. “But museums are no longer just about exhibit cases and text on the wall.

Beyond All Boundaries still uses archival footage and the real words of veterans; it involves scholars and historians in the process to ensure authenticity. But it’s also creating a much richer experience so that a sixth-grader walks out of the theater and is wowed by it and wants to learn more, wants to read a book about it, wants to go to the exhibits, wants to come back.”

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The Stage Door Canteen at the WWII Museum features big bands and USO-like performances.

Watson is applying this approach to each aspect of the museum’s expansion. The US Freedom Pavilion: Thee Boeing Center, which opened in January 2013, features Final Mission, a submarine experience where visitors will assume the identity of crew members and go aboard the last patrol of the most decorated submarine in the Pacific.

By 2014, admission tickets will come with a dog tag outfitted with a radio-frequency identification chip. Aboard a re-created 1940s train, visitors will use their scannable dog tag to select a real serviceman or woman to follow. At five points throughout the exhibits, visitors will be able to check in using their dog tag and find out what was happening to their selected person at that point in the war. The dog tags will also allow them to scan photos, letters and other museum content, which they will be able to digitally access from their home computers.

“We think this will be one of the most innovative uses of this technology in any museum of any kind in the country,” says Watson, who Gambit named to its 40 Under 40 list in 2011. “We have to use technology and interactives to engage our audience while they’re here, but we also have to think about how to engage people before they get here and after their visit.”

In addition to the physical museum expansion, Watson and his team are working toward digitizing collections and making them more accessible online. They’ve also grown their distance learning programs, allowing museum historians to deliver WWII lessons to classrooms across America via compressed video.

“It’s more than just a museum in New Orleans,” Watson says. “It’s a true commitment to be a national education institution and use all the tools we have to engage K-12 audiences, enthusiasts, historians, researchers, writers and filmmakers.”

D-Day

The Wednesday after Memorial Day, it happened again. As Watson was walking down the pavilion stairs, he noticed a gentleman wearing a WWII veteran tag. The 91-year-old who had served in the 92nd Division in Europe was visiting the museum for the first time. As Watson spoke with the man, he noticed his humbled, overwhelmed, surprised emotions.

“I hear it a lot, ‘I’ve been planning on coming to the museum; I want to come.’ I always tell people, ‘If you mean that, you need to come now.’ Because you can walk into this museum now on a daily basis and talk to World War II veterans. But it’s an experience that won’t be happening here for much longer.”

National World War II  D-Day Museum
Watson talks with WWII veteran and volunteer Don Summers. The museum relies on a team of 250 volunteer, about 20 of whom are WWII veterans.

Watson says he’s been to far too many funerals, lost many good friends during his tenure. But those relationships — with the men and women the museum was built to honor — are what he cherishes the most about what he does.

With Watson’s parents and siblings still in Scotland, the museum staff and volunteers have become his extended family. Nearly everyone in the museum knows him by name — from the security guard to the WWII veteran who talks with visitors about the New Orleans-built Higgins boats. Watson, who is married to an “unbelievably supportive” south Louisiana woman named Gina, often brings their 5-year-old daughter, Kate, along with him to work on Saturday mornings. Their 3-year-old son, Matthew, looks forward to any chance he gets to visit “dad’s museum.” Now that he’s a father, Watson often thinks back to the day he told his parents he wanted to go to Nicholls. They hadn’t expected him to leave Scotland and certainly didn’t expect that he’d stay in the United States beyond college.

“I certainly could never have predicted any of this,” Watson says. “But you know, my parents always taught me to have a good work ethic. I grew up on a farm in Scotland; I worked hard as a child. Throughout my life — when I was running, in school and in my professional career — I’ve tried to not get too high, not get too low. You’ve just got to keep focused. Keep pushing forward.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Beyond the classroom: The ultimate DIY woman

Keri Turner Houseboat Voila 2012
Dr. Keri Turner, an associate professor of English, often photographs the lush vegetation and coastal wildlife surrounding her handmade houseboat, the Katy Lucy. A nearby marina sells her prints, and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park has featured several of her photos on its Migratory Bird Center’s website.

Dr. Keri Turner is a paragon of freespiritedness and determination. At 19, she began literally roaming the earth, searching for inner peace and truth. Her meandering path brought her from California, where she was hired by Beach Boy Mike Love to tend to his transcendental meditation house — to India, where she taught English and meditated in an ashram.

Perhaps the younger Turner’s aversion to planting her flag on steady ground is what led the more-seasoned Turner to decide to live (at least part time) on the water. A few years ago, she got an urge to build a houseboat; never mind that she had no construction experience. Turner, an associate professor of English, checked out a book on wood-frame construction from the Nicholls library, found an old boat hull for sale in Napoleonville, gathered her own raw materials — “mostly reclaimed wood from the side of the road” — and set to work.

The Thibodaux native accepted advice and help from family members and friends, including a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, but all in all, the planning and labor were Turner’s.

“I’m quite thankful for the experiences of my younger days,” she says. “They taught me patience among other things, and this houseboat would never have been built without that.”

Keri Turner Houseboat Voila 2012
Turner had no construction experience when she got the urge to build her houseboat. The Thibodaux native relied on help from library books, friends and Habitat for Humanity.

Turner christened the boat as the Katy Lucy “because that’s what my mother would call me whenever I was good.” She hopes the vessel will behave, too, as it rests on Lake Verret at the mouth of Bayou Crab, where Turner’s grandfather once had a camp. After two years of steady construction, she moved into the houseboat on June 17, 2011, and now splits her time between her Lake Verret and Thibodaux homes.

Turner’s biggest challenge in constructing the houseboat was making sure the weight was evenly distributed throughout the hull — “a slow, painstaking process” — but her persistence paid off. The hull survived Hurricane Gustav as well as a subsequent tropical storm. The boat has since become a fully functional, livable home with solar-generated electricity, plumbing, outboard propulsion and a covered porch with a quintessential south Louisiana view — a backyard of sorts with cypress trees, alligators and ospreys.

When it comes to work, Turner performs her professional duties from both homes — teaching distance learning courses from the Katy Lucy and commuting to campus for traditional classes from her Thibodaux home. “Of course, I prefer seeing my students face to face, but it all balances out,” Turner says, as she surveys the meditative qualities of the peaceful environment surrounding her boat.

— Written by Graham Harvey

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Outrunning cancer

Cross Country ActionFor as long as he can remember, Ross Mullooly has been competing for something. By age 3, he and his sister, Leila, had turned recreational trips to the pool into spirited swim meets. That youthful yet competitive drive eventually led the siblings to state championships with the Vandebilt Catholic High School swim team.

During high school, Ross also began running cross-country, outracing his opponents and catching the attention of the Nicholls track coach, who offered him an athletic scholarship. Once his sneakers hit campus, Ross made an immediate impression — competing in all five cross-country meets his freshman year, joining several campus organizations and making the honor roll.

But after his sophomore season, the 5-foot-8-inch runner found himself in a doctor’s office, searching for answers. Why he was losing so much weight? Why was he finding it harder to run?

The answer: Colorectal cancer.

With those two words Ross was on the starting blocks of a new race — the race for his survival.

Running is my freedom

For Ross, cross-country running was a happy coincidence. By his freshman year in high school, he was already a force in the water, earning a spot on the all-state swim team. Racing on land didn’t interest him until his coach suggested that running could strengthen his skills in the pool. Soon, Ross realized that his feet could take him virtually anywhere — without the hassle of borrowing his parents’ car.

“I enjoyed the freedom of it,” he says. “That’s what led me to join the cross-country and track and field teams that next season. It was a bit of a drastic change for my muscles, though, because I was using completely different parts of my body to compete.” Ross soon realized that the endurance and breathing techniques he developed in the pool came in handy on the track. The stronger leg muscles he built on the track also helped his swimming. It was the best of both worlds.

For the next three years, he earned five all-district and all-parish honors in cross-country and track, as well as 2008 all-state honors in cross-country. During his 2009 freshman season at Nicholls, Ross marked a career-best 8K time of 28:50 in the Southland Conference Championships. Clearly, competing against some of the country’s most elite distance runners didn’t seem to slow Ross down.

Something isn’t right

The summer after his freshman year, Ross sensed something was wrong. He felt more tired than usual and was experiencing shortness of breath while running. But Ross chalked it up to stress. His first year of college had been a hectic one. He had not only juggled the responsibilities of schoolwork and college-level athletics, but he had also joined the Student Government Association, Orientation Team, the University Honors Program and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.

During his sophomore season, he pushed through the warning signs, consistently going to practice and competing at meets. But James and Monica Mullooly grew concerned at the sight of their visibly weakened son, who had suddenly lost 28 pounds.

“When they came to see me run in the meets, they saw how much weight I had lost and how my times weren’t as good as they had been,” Ross recalls. “They finally convinced me to see a doctor.”

At first, doctors said his symptoms seemed like a clear case of mononucleosis.

“I was basically sleeping all day, except to go to practice and to class,” Ross recalls. “But I thought I could run through it and it would eventually go away as the season went on.”

Despite numerous tests, countless doctor visits and a lot of rest, Ross wasn’t able to run with his teammates at the cross-country championships. Nearly two weeks later, on Nov. 10, he received his diagnosis — stage 3 colorectal cancer.

“My initial reaction was somewhat of a panic attack of questions,” Ross says. “The questions shot at me from all directions. Am I going to live? Will my life ever be normal? Is there a possibility that I can return to running? The most daunting question of all was: How will my family be affected?”

Triumphs and setbacks

Cross Country ActionIn April 2011, Ross successfully underwent colorectal surgery, aided by a blood drive that his parents and Vandebilt Catholic sponsored. More than 86 units of blood — many donated by Nicholls students, faculty and staff — were collected.

“At that point, I didn’t even know that I would need to have blood donated to me,” he says. “Never in a million years would I have expected that amount of people to give blood. I am so grateful to them and Vandebilt.”

A series of setbacks followed. His weight remained below normal as a result of his radiation treatments. He had colostomy surgery, requiring him to wear a colostomy bag for more than two months. When he attempted to return to school for the fall 2011 semester, he discovered that he was anemic and needed to receive nutrients intravenously. The sleep needed for recovery did not come easily.

“I wouldn’t call running around to the doctors and dealing with the hospitals rest,” he says. “The biggest fight you have is staying outof the hospital so you can really rest.”

During his hospital stays, he kept in touch with his classmates, teammates and fraternity brothers through text messages and email — not wanting them to see him suffering. When he was feeling stronger, he attended cross-country practices, cheering on his teammates.

“It meant a lot seeing him still support us after he was diagnosed,” says former teammate Tyler Folse (BS ’12). “It motivated us as a team because we knew that no matter what we were going through, it was nothing compared to what he was dealing with. He never uses his situation as an excuse to quit — only as motivation to get back out there to do what he loves, and we all want that for him as well.”

A rollercoaster of emotions

According to the American Cancer Society, people at high risk for colon cancer are in their 60s, of African-American or Eastern European descent and have a family history of the disease.

Ross is 21 years old, Caucasian and has no family history of colon cancer. His case is so rare that it has spurred a movement of colon cancer testing for younger age groups. Doctors hope that earlier detection and treatment will lead to better long-term outcomes.

“People have become more aware of it since my diagnosis, younger people, too,” Ross says. “That’s something I can feel good about, having possibly saved somebody else from going through this.”

As of now, there’s no set timeline for when Ross will fully recover. In July, doctors found that the cancer cells had returned but are hopeful that they detected them early this time. Ross reminds himself of the quote, “Life can only give a test of a person’s spirit or will, but the person tested is what decides if he passed or failed.” He’s taking it day by day, using his downtime to get together with his family and take stock of the things he can control.

“All I can do is remain positive,” he says, “because I refuse to allow myself to mope around and feel sorry for myself and get worse.”

Ross tries not to place too much pressure on himself, but he hopes to return to school and the track. Not once, during the most strenuous test of his life, has he given up hope that a sense of normalcy will return.

“I’ve always believed that if you never test yourself, you’re not going to go as far as you could,” he says. “I want to go as far as I can. I plan on joining as much as possible at Nicholls because I want to repay them for what they’ve done for me.”

Ross credits Nicholls and the Department of Athletics for handling his situation with respect and care — helping him with classes, lending their support, allowing him to keep his scholarship while attempting his comeback.

Of all the metaphors that could be used to sum up Ross’ life at this juncture, the grueling, winding long-distance race seems to fit best.

“I feel that it has been like a race, and although it didn’t start out so well, I think it’s starting to come together,” Ross says. “I don’t just want to be good for a short time, then relapse; I want to be able to outrun this thing for good, with no regrets.”

— Written by Clyde Verdin Jr., director of media relations for athletics

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Beyond the Nicholls classroom: An FBI-trained profiler

Monique Boudreaux for Voila 2012
Having extensively studied missing children cases, Dr. Monique Boudreaux has always been a high-alert mom. Outside of her family, the only person she allowed to baby-sit her children was her FBI supervisor. Today, her teenage daughter is still not allowed to ride her bike around the block by herself.

The Silence of the Lambs inspired not fear but a career path for Dr. Monique Boudreaux, associate professor of psychology. She paid close attention as FBI special agent Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn, oversaw FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s journey into the mind of a serial killer.

Years later, Boudreaux was among the last group of civilians to train under the man who inspired Glenn’s character — retired FBI special agent John Douglas. He’s the bureau’s original criminal profiler and author of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.

Silence of the Lambs actually had a huge effect on my decision to move forward in graduate psychology studies,” says Boudreaux, a California native. “Well, that and an undergraduate instructor at UCLA who suggested I take a psychology course to break the monotony of my pharmacy curriculum. I switched majors immediately.”

Since then, Boudreaux’s educational and professional road has taken her from UCLA to Harvard to an FBI internship in Quantico, Va., and ultimately to “Our Harvard on the Bayou,” where she teaches courses on personality and child psychology.

Boudreaux still consults for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, identifying criminal behavioral patterns to look for in investigations. Her expertise stems from her graduate research, in which she profiled 550 cases of missing and/or murdered children. With such a grim forte, Boudreaux’s spirit has been and continues to be tested.

“You need thick skin and a strong stomach,” she says, referring to the many crime-scene photos of abused and deceased children she has examined as well as interviews with convicted pedophiles. “You have to be able to temporarily turn off your emotions. Still, sometimes, frustration leads to tears, which lead to determination.”

She vividly recalls the case of a mother who falsely claimed her child was abducted. The child’s remains were found nearby, but there was not enough evidence to convict the mother. A few years later, the woman killed a second child, making the same false claims but being convicted this time.

“It made me sick to my stomach when I found out she had gotten away with it before,” Boudreaux says. “It was one of the few times I cried. When faced with brutal cases, I would often take a break, go to my FBI dorm room and listen to music or drive around to get a hold on my emotions.”

Retired FBI agents have told Boudreaux that her insights have helped with testimonies that led to convictions.

“It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve helped prevent other crimes from being committed,” she says. “But it isn’t more fulfilling than anyone else’s job. I believe that everyone’s job fulfills an important role.”

— Written by Graham Harvey

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Through Lillie’s lens

Deborah Lillie for Voila 2012
Deborah Lillie, associate professor of art, specializes in photography, sculpture and blacksmithing. The walls of her office reflect her artistic talents and worldly travels.

For a glimpse at Deborah Lillie’s multifaceted life, look no further than her office walls. Nearly every inch is covered with family treasures, artifacts picked up during international travel and photographs — lots of artsy photographs taken by Lillie, her students and her admired colleagues. Taped to the ceiling are textured world maps, and leaning against her windowsill is an X-ray of a K-9 dog that Lillie cares for and trains. As she sits next to her cappuccino machine and handmade ceramic mugs — in a corner of her office that she calls “the café” — Lillie tells stories about each piece. With her soft, cool demeanor, it’s easy to lose track of time.

A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Lillie has an unassuming yet versatile presence on the Nicholls campus. She can often be found in the photography and sculpture studios, where she serves as an instructor of both disciplines. Or in the Ameen Art Gallery, where she helps coordinate student art shows. Or even in Talbot Hall’s foundry, where she does blacksmithing.

Although Lillie has always wanted to teach, art was not her original plan.

“I resisted majoring in art for a while,” she says. “I guess I just didn’t value it as much as I should have, probably because it came so easily to me.”

Now, in her 14th year as an educator, Lillie is known as a stickler for the technical aspects of her students’ art. She does, however, strive to be a fairly hands-off instructor, hoping that students learn to recognize their own vision.

“I make it my business to really get to know my students as it relates to their artwork,” Lillie says. “That way, I can give them feedback on how well they seem to be tapping into what is really ‘them’ and not just making stuff that looks like what they’ve seen presented as ‘legitimate’ artwork elsewhere.”

Take Your Dog To Work Day 2012
Lillie conducts dog obedience class at Nicholls’ Take Your Dog to Work Day. When she’s not teaching art, Lillie trains police dogs for Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Outside the classroom, Lillie trades one type of student for another. In 1999, she began working with police groups as an interested civilian. Now she’s a reserve K-9 deputy with Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office, where she trains police dogs, especially for search and rescue.

“I’m not athletic, especially compared to the cops who become K-9 deputies,” Lillie says. “But it turns out I am good at reading and speaking ‘dog.’ Dogs have taught me a great deal about teaching humans. They respond very honestly. If your dog isn’t doingthings the way you want, you usually need to look at yourself to identify the problem.”

Lillie’s medley of talents, though quite diverse, seems to complement one another well. A few years ago, she discovered that her family’s artistic genes run deep and probably had a lot to do with her unorthodox life. Lillie says that as her great-grandfather lay on his deathbed, he made a special request to the family: “Make sure Deborah knows that her uncle was a blacksmith, a photographer and a taxidermist,” he said. “That must be where she gets it from.”

— Written by Lee Daigle (BA ’06)

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

A successful pairing

Swamp Stomp
At the 2012 Louisiana Swamp Stomp Festival, Dr. Allyse Ferrara and Dr. Quenton Fontenot, a festival committee member and spokesperson, share a dance. “We have a ball at Swamp Stomp every year — great food, great music, dancing to Cajun, Zydeco and swamp pop,” Allyse says. “You can’t beat it.”

Dr. Allyse Ferrara grew up half a mile from a 200-acre lake in Ohio, “knee deep in mud or in the water chasing something,” she says. “Truth is, I guess not much has changed.

Her husband, Dr. Quenton Fontenot, doesn’t mind the muddiness one bit. The self-described “good south Louisiana hybrid” spent his own childhood exploring Louisiana’s waters and bayous, and he continues to do so.

As associate professors of biological sciences, Allyse and Quenton are as iconic at Nicholls as June Carter and Johnny Cash were in the entertainment industry. There’s this simple authenticity to them.

When they’re not researching alligator gar or teaching future biologists, they’re attending campus events, looking for their next great meal and living life to the fullest — as both co-workers and husband and wife. It’s more than their job. It’s who they are, and maybe that’s the most powerful lesson their students can learn.

“I took a class about fish, and when I found out they’ll give you a degree for fish, I changed my major.” — Quenton

The daughter of a biologist and an English teacher, Allyse grew up in Chardon, Ohio, a small town just outside of Cleveland. An only child, she spent summers in the water at her father’s hip and learned an appreciation for literature and culture from her mother.

The oldest of three, Quenton grew up in Denham Springs, a Baton Rouge suburb. His father was chief of inland fisheries for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and his mother worked for a local Catholic church as director of religious studies.

Heavily influenced by their parents’ passions, Allyse and Quenton both enrolled in nearby colleges — Quenton as a pre-med
student at Louisiana State University and Allyse as a pre-vet student at Hiram College in Ohio. Well into their undergraduate course work, they both discovered that their true interest was not medicine but fish.

“She doesn’t wear high heels anymore. She wore them one day, and I had tennis shoes on, and I caught her.” — Quenton

It was 1999, at a fisheries conference in North Carolina. The two were working toward their doctoral degrees in fisheries — Allyse at Auburn University in Alabama and Quenton at Clemson University in South Carolina. Although they didn’t know each other, their advisers did, and a professional courtesy introduction is all it took.

Calypseaux 2011 Biology Grad student retreat
Quenton and Allyse plant mangroves during the 2011 Calypseaux Retreat for Nicholls marine and environmental biology graduate students.

The two spent the next few months sharing fishery ideas and research findings, discovering one common interest after another — music, the outdoors, fishing, hunting, traveling — and forming a friendship. Allyse invited Quenton to visit Auburn, and he took her up on the offer.

“When I first walked into her house, I noticed that she had the box sets of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., and I thought that’s pretty cool,” Quenton recalls. “And then, on the wall in her bedroom, I saw that she had a 20-gauge shotgun hanging up, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is good.’”

The two attended a big, Auburn-style Mardi Gras party that spilled into the early hours of the morning. Over breakfast the next day, Quenton asked Allyse and her father (who took a yearlong sabbatical to help his daughter with her doctoral project) to go with him to New Orleans for an authentic Mardi Gras celebration.

“We all headed for Mardi Gras, piled into his little Nissan truck,” Allyse says. “I think my dad didn’t want to talk to me for about three months, but we sure had a lot of fun.”

After nearly two years of dating, the fisheries students were married on the banks of Bass Lake in Chardon, where Allyse had grown up. Fittingly, they honeymooned in Grand Isle, where Quenton had spent many carefree childhood days.

“I’ve been Allyse Ferrara my entire life. I like my last name. He could have taken it!” — Allyse

Quenton Fontenot and Allyse Ferrara for Voila 2012
Named after Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, Pete, a 27-pound female tortoise, roams around Quenton and Allyse’s backyard.

A year later, after earning their doctorates, Quenton and Allyse began their careers at Nicholls. Despite not having any job openings, Dr. Marilyn Kilgen, department head for biological sciences at the time, interviewed the couple. Once a position became available, Allyse was hired in spring 2002, and Quenton came on board that fall.

Not sharing the same last name has been known to lead to rumors.

“A lot of students don’t realize we’re married at first,” Quenton says. “They’ll tell our graduate assistants, ‘I think there’s something going on between Dr. Ferrara and Dr. Fontenot. They’re acting kinda funny.’ Usually the GAs will play along, saying, ‘Oh, you have no idea!’”

In their relatively brief time at Nicholls — they’ve just hit the decade mark — Quenton and Allyse have made quite an impact. Together, they’ve secured nearly $1 million in grant revenue. In addition to their teaching and research, they are also co-directors of the Bayousphere Research Lab, overseeing student research projects. And they are heavily involved in the university’s Louisiana Swamp Stomp Festival.

“Working together we are so much more productive than we would be if I were by myself or she were by herself,” says Quenton, who was named interim department head in 2011.

“When people find out we have season tickets to the opera, they want to know, ‘What’s the joke?’” — Quenton

But what do two biologists do when you take away fish and water? Plenty.

The two have set up house on the outskirts of Thibodaux, just 7 miles from the Nicholls campus and 1 mile from the nearest boat launch, and they share it with a few unusual houseguests — a 27-pound female tortoise named Pete and two doves, Pork Chop and Boudin.

Digging in their garden and cooking with the fresh harvest — peppers, tomatoes, figs, satsumas, kumquats, lemons, basil and thyme — are a couple of ways the couple celebrate their love of food. Another is dining out.

Quenton Fontenot and Allyse Ferrara for Voila 2012
Allyse seasons her homemade butternut squash gnocchi while Quenton prepares to serve pork sausage, which he made himself and cooked all day in a smoker that he and his father-in-law built five years ago.

“We don’t splurge on a lot of stuff, but we do splurge on nice restaurants,” Quenton says. “Luckily, Allyse has a sophisticated palate and can re-create anything we enjoy in a restaurant at home.”

On Saturdays, they often head to the Big Easy for a New Orleans Opera performance and dinner at Lüke or Bayona. Three years ago, they attended their first live performance of Carmen at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. They’ve been season ticket holders ever since.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I love it,” Quenton says. “I love live performances. From Cajun to Dixieland to opera, if it’s performed well, I like it.”

The boundaries between Quenton and Allyse’s personal and professional lives are blurred. They approach everything — whether it’s cooking, mentoring graduate students or preserving our precious wetlands — with genuine curiosity, interest and passion.

There is an easiness about Quenton and Allyse — as if everyone should be able to get up and go to work doing something they absolutely love, at a place that they love, with the one that they love. It’s just natural. It’s how it’s supposed to be.

“My mom tells me that one time, when I was about 6 years old, we were passing by Nicholls on our way to Grand Isle,” Quenton says. “I told her, ‘Man, Nicholls would be the perfect place to work because you have freshwater fish right here and saltwater fish right down the road.’ I still agree with that statement.”

— Written by Renee Piper, director of University Relations

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.