Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015 12:01 am
Paul Prudhomme, in memoriam
Have you ever eaten blackened fish? Blackened chicken? Blackened steak? Credit Prudhomme, who invented the technique of blackening. 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 and James Beard in the East, Prudhomme roared into national prominence. A Southwestern Louisiana native, he offered the emerging food scene new dimensions that were equally rooted in tradition.
Perhaps no other American regional cuisine is as distinctive as Louisiana’s; certainly none is more delicious. Though long celebrated, it had been mostly enjoyed by natives and visitors, never entering America’s mainstream until Prudhomme brought it to the forefront. And he helped launch a nationwide craze not just for Cajun cuisine, but one that also spread to embrace Cajun music and culture.
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 six, he was cooking at his mother’s side. By age 17, he realized 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, working with cooks and chefs, he says, of “every conceivable educational and ethnic background and experience,” including 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 spice blends and keeping track of customers’ favorites. Occasionally, though, his initiative didn’t make him popular with the head chefs.
Returning to New Orleans in 1972, Prudhomme spent the next years in various restaurants, including a stint as the first non-European executive chef at the legendary Commander’s Palace (a position Lagasse eventually occupied) 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 rustic cousin, Cajun cooking.
K-Paul’s food combined some of 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. The restaurant initially struggled, but soon K-Paul’s had endless lines, and Prudhomme became one of the world’s best-known chefs. He made numerous TV appearances and features in culinary and other magazines; cooked for heads of state, including Ronald Reagan at his inauguration; and was named the 1986 Culinarian of the Year by the American Culinary Federation. In 1994, he broke barriers again by holding cooking demonstrations at Paris’ remowned Cordon Bleu cooking school. Prudhomme was the first American chef to be awarded the French Mérite Agricole.
Blackened food became a nationwide craze. Redfish, used in Prudhomme’s original creation, had been considered a trash fish, rarely seen in fine restaurants. Because of the ensuing demand, it became endangered; today it’s fished commercially with strict limits.
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 sprinkle creates a crusty exterior and 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. (Sadly, many restaurants’ versions are just bad imitations.)
His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, was on The New York Times Best Seller List for weeks. The first time I made one of its recipes, I thought, “This guy really knows how to make food taste good!” Some techniques he used and described in that first cookbook were revelatory, offering entirely new possibilities.
When I met Prudhomme in 2008, he was – what else? – stirring something that smelled wonderful. I hadn’t expected to see someone who’d been instrumental in changing the face of American cooking at Chicago’s Fancy Food Show. “Want some, darlin’?” he asked with a smile. It was even better than it smelled: a soup that was a perfect fusion of new and old. I wanted to lick the cup. Prudhomme was promoting his Magic Seasoning blends and products. The herb-and-spice mixtures he’d made years ago are now widely available nationwide and in more than 30 other countries.
I was hesitant when asking to interview him, but shouldn’t have been. “Of course, darlin.” He scribbled something on the back of a card. “Can’t do it now, but call this number and we’ll set something up next week.” I half-expected he’d have forgotten, but the person answering my call had been expecting me: “You’re supposed to call him at home; here’s the number.” We chatted for almost an hour. [Parts of this column are from that 2008 interview.]
Confinement to a wheelchair about 25 years ago made it impossible for Prudhomme to continue as K-Paul’s chef, though he remained intimately involved in the restaurant’s operation and concocting Magic Seasoning Blends. Some are available at Springfield groceries; the full line, as well as Prudhomme’s cookbooks, cookware and other Louisiana products, can be ordered online at http://chefpaul.com. Prudhomme authored many other cookbooks. Perhaps my favorite is the Prudhomme Family Cookbook, featuring Prudhomme’s recipes alongside those of his siblings and their spouses; it’s as much a memoir as cookbook.
Soft-spoken and modest, Prudhomme was clearly in love with food and with life to the end. 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.
Great chefs are often great mentors, and Prudhomme was no exception. “Paul created from the heart,” said Brigtsen, who worked for him at Commander’s Palace and K-Paul’s. “I was his arms and legs, and it was fun to watch him make up stuff.”
Prudhomme’s mentoring changed Chicago restaurateur Jimmy Bannos’ life. After eating at K-Paul’s, Bannos called Prudhomme with questions. “Paul said, ’Just come on down and I’ll teach you,’” Bannos told me last week. Thus began Bannos’ intern stints (called stages (stah-juz) in restaurants) at K-Paul. Eventually Bannos turned his family’s Greek diner into Chicago’s legendary bastion of Cajun cuisine, Heaven on Seven, with lines almost as long as K-Paul’s.
In Brigtsen’s case, Prudhomme did more than teach him about cooking. He lent Brigtsen $135,000 to purchase the building for his own now-highly regarded restaurant.
By sheer coincidence, I’m in New Orleans as I write this. Though I missed Prudhomme’s funeral on Oct. 12, I’ve been watching online the combination of mourning and celebration that’s unique to New Orleans and Louisiana funerals. Thousands lined the streets to watch the procession into St. Louis cathedral and concluding lunch at K-Paul’s, including dignitaries and celebrated chefs.
Safe passage, Paul Prudhomme. You were truly, as your last name says, a good man.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.