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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 08:50 pm

Fighting dull food

Paul Prudhomme dug deep into his roots to reinvent American cuisine

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Have you ever eaten blackened fish? Blackened chicken? Blackened steak? Credit Paul Prudhomme, who invented the technique of blackening, and brought it into American kitchens. In the 1970s and ’80s, when American food and cooking were experiencing a revolution brought about by such people as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck on the West Coast and Julia Child in the East, Prudhomme roared into national prominence. Coming from the South, Prudhomme gave the emerging food scene a dimension that was new, yet rooted in tradition. Perhaps no other American regional cuisine is as distinctive as Louisiana’s; certainly none is more delicious. Though long celebrated, it was mostly enjoyed by natives and visitors, never entering America’s mainstream until Prudhomme brought it to the forefront. Born in Louisiana’s Acadiana country, Prudhomme was the youngest of his sharecropper parents’13 children. The family was poor, but their farm and nearby waterways provided abundant food. “I had the inspiration of a family that had nothing but food as their pleasure, their entertainment, and their most important thing in life,” he says. “We didn’t have electricity, so there was no refrigeration — we used only what was fresh and in season. I learned to appreciate herbs and vegetables right from the garden, freshly slaughtered chickens, and fish and crawfish just caught in nearby streams and bayous.”
By the time Prudhomme was 6, he was cooking at his mother’s side, and he soon realized that he wanted to make it his life’s work. After finishing school, he worked in New Orleans restaurants, then decided to learn about cooking in other parts of the country. He built a camper on the back of his truck and spent the next 12 years traveling the U.S., working with cooks and chefs, he says, of “every conceivable educational and ethnic background and experience,” including at an American Indian reservation. Prudhomme wasn’t just learning, though; even then he was living up to his now-trademarked slogan, “Life’s too short for dull food!”
“When I thought the food was too bland,” he says, “I’d sneak in a few herbs and spices.”
Prudhomme began making different blends and keeping track of those that his customers especially liked, though occasionally his initiative “didn’t make me popular with the head chefs.”
Returning to New Orleans in 1972, Prudhomme spent the next several years in various restaurants before striking out in 1979 with his late wife, K, to open K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. At the time, most top New Orleans restaurants featured Creole cuisine, less spicy and considered more refined and elegant than its more rustic, earthy cousin, Cajun cooking. K-Paul’s food combined those refined elements with the flavors and traditions of Prudhomme’s Cajun background, as well as ideas and techniques he’d absorbed in his travels. Soon K-Paul’s had endless lines, and Prudhomme became one of the world’s best-known chefs. His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, was on The New York Times bestseller list for weeks. (The first time I used it, I thought, “This guy really knows how to make food taste good!”) He made numerous TV appearances and features in culinary and other magazines; cooked for heads of state, including Ronald Reagan at his inauguration; was the first American chef to be awarded the French Mérite Agricole; and was named the 1986 Culinarian of the Year by the American Culinary Federation. Blackened food became a nationwide craze, practically de rigueur on restaurant menus. The redfish, which Prudhomme had used in his original creation, was common, considered almost a trash fish and rarely seen in fine restaurants. Because of the ensuing demand, it became endangered and is no longer fished commercially. (K-Paul’s and other Louisiana restaurants now use drum, a close relative.) Blackening is a deceptively simple technique: a really hot pan, a little butter or oil, a spice rub, and the food to be blackened. Done correctly, it’s fantastic: A light spice coating imparts flavor without overwhelming the main ingredient, and the high-heat quick-cooking seals in flavor. Timing is everything — just seconds separate blackened from burnt, something I learned the hard way the first time I tried it. When I met Prudhomme earlier this month, he was — what else? — stirring something that smelled wonderful. I hadn’t expected to see a culinary icon, someone who’d been instrumental in changing the face of American cooking, at the Fancy Food Show in Chicago’s McCormick Place. “You want some, darlin’?” he asked. It was even better than it smelled: Most of the ingredients weren’t traditional Louisiana, but they were spiced to make the soup a perfect fusion of new and old. It was hard not to lick the plastic cup.  Prudhomme was promoting his Magic Seasoning blends and products. The herb-and-spice mixtures he’d begun making years ago are now widely available nationwide and in more than 30 other countries. Prudhomme feels that his blends help make tasty dishes accessible to home cooks. I agree: I usually avoid most premixed spices, but Magic Seasonings are always in my pantry. Confinement to a wheelchair about 20 years ago made it impossible for Prudhomme to continue as chef at K-Paul’s, though he remains intimately involved in the restaurant’s operation. These days much of his time is spent concocting and testing new Magic blends (the newest additions are salt-free) and other products, such as marinades, sauces, and even coffees and smoked and cured meats. Some Magic seasoning blends are available at local groceries; the full line, as well as Prudhomme’s cookbooks, cookware, and other Louisiana products, can be ordered online at www.chefpaul.com. Prudhomme’s not content to sit on his laurels. He’s authored seven other cookbooks. All have wonderful recipes, but perhaps my favorite is The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, featuring Prudhomme’s recipes alongside those of his siblings and their spouses; it’s as wonderful a memoir as it is a cookbook. He’s also made cooking videos and four TV cooking shows (he recently completed a 26-episode series). He travels extensively in the U.S. and abroad; when I spoke with him, he’d just returned from Japan. Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off K-Paul’s, but the rest of his organization was unharmed. Though the roof was repaired quickly, it was six weeks before officials let K-Paul’s reopen; still it was the first in New Orleans back in business, “something the locals really appreciated,” says Prudhomme. “Things are slowly coming back, but [the New Orleans’ restaurant business] is still only at 60 percent.”
Soft-spoken and modest, Prudhomme is still clearly in love with food and with life. Many of his employees, including K-Paul’s chef de cuisine, are from his hometown; still more have been with him for more than two decades. “The way I look at it,” he says, “it’s my responsibility to make it all happen. I have the best job in the world.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
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