From The Times-Picayune
Paul Prudhomme, the rotund Louisiana chef whose Louisiana cooking ignited a nationwide craze for Creole and Cajun cooking and profoundly influenced American cuisine, died on Thursday (Oct. 8). He was 75.
Mr. Prudhomme, whose fame spread through tours, cookbooks and videos, became nationally prominent shortly after he and K Hinrichs, the woman he would marry, opened their restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, in July 1979 at 416 Chartres St.
At first, it was a neighborhood restaurant, a dim, even cozy spot in an unpretentious brick building, designed for French Quarter residents and their friends. But word of its specialties — redfish Czarina, sweet-potato pecan pie and, of course, blackened redfish — spread, and out-of-town food writers — most notably Craig Claiborne of The New York Times — joined the line outside the door. They came out raving over what they ate inside.
A star was born.
”I think that Paul Prudhomme has had the greatest influence on American cooking, in cultivating the public interest in American food, of anybody I know,” Claiborne, who was born in Mississippi, said in a 1988 interview. ”He created this great interest in Cajun and Creole cooking. People said, ‘There must be more to Southern cooking,’ and he opened up the floodgates to the whole field of Southern cooking.”
Prudhomme opened his first restaurant, a hamburger joint called Big Daddy O’s Patio, outside his native Opelousas when he was only 17. He came into his own after Ella and Dick Brennan hired him to be the first non-European chef at Commander’s Palace in 1975. Cajun food was almost unheard of in New Orleans at the time. Prudhomme pushed the Brennans to allow him to incorporate the ingredients and dishes he grew up eating into the food served at Commander’s. In short order, diners were feasting on andouille gumbos and hotly seasoned finfish at what had been a gatekeeper of French-influenced haute Creole cuisine.
After creating an appetite for the intricately seasoned versions of dishes he and his family had prepared and eaten for years, Mr. Prudhomme built more enthusiasm through brief, heavily publicized visits to New York City and San Francisco, where he set up temporary restaurants to feed diners who didn’t mind waiting hours in line to sample a new trend. In 1994, he ventured into the realm of haute cuisine when he staged a demonstration at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.
In 1983, Mr. Prudhomme cooked for leaders of the United States, Japan and the leading Common Market countries when the world economic summit was held in Williamsburg, Va.
Because of his travels, his television appearances and books, Mr. Prudhomme’s influence ”is beyond measure,” Claiborne said.
”He had the guts to take the food he knew and grew up with as a poor Cajun boy and make it presentable in a white-tablecloth restaurant,” said Frank Brigtsen, a Prudhomme protege who is the chef and a co-owner of Brigtsen’s Restaurant. ”When he started, the food was unique. Also, there seemed to be a groundswell of interest in regional American food, and, obviously, Louisiana food is one of the strongest.”
When he cooked, Mr. Prudhomme ”created from the heart,” said Brigtsen, who worked seven years 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. We’d sit down with a list of the stuff we had. A lot of what we fixed came from out of the blue, but a lot of it came from the list of stuff we had to work with.”
”He had magic in his hands,” said Ella Brennan, who was Mr. Prudhomme’s boss for five years. ”He had taste buds that were extraordinary. … He could take things he had known and loved and elaborate on them. Whatever was in the kitchen, he could make a great meal, and he didn’t have to have a recipe.”
Mr. Prudhomme was born in 1940 south of Opelousas, the 13th child of a sharecropper and his wife. He started cooking when he was 7, working beside his mother in a country kitchen that had no electricity.
In the introduction to his first cookbook, Mr. Prudhomme wrote that he joined his mother digging up roots and vegetables and feeding and slaughtering barnyard animals, and she instructed him in the mysteries of seasoning and taste.
”The most important thing to my mother was the health of her family and the joy of setting a good table,” he wrote. ”She was an awesome cook.”
Considering the size of the Prudhomme family, the work was hard — he later likened it to restaurant work — but it helped point him toward a career.
When he was 17, Mr. Prudhomme said, his mind was made up. He wanted to become a cook, so he launched his own apprenticeship program, in which he traveled to restaurants around the country to work with chefs and learn from them.
Mr. Prudhomme also prepared some of his native dishes for co-workers, he wrote in his cookbook.
”I was struck by the reactions to my food from people all over the country,” he said. ”I began to understand how unique the traditional foods of my family were. I came to realize that the joy of cooking Cajun and Creole food was not just that I appreciated its goodness so much, but that there was this great pleasure I got from watching other people eat it and seeing the joy in their eyes.”
These feelings, Mr. Prudhomme said, led him back to Louisiana. He continued his apprenticeship at the Maison Dupuy Hotel in the French Quarter, where he met K Hinrichs, who was dining room manager. They married in 1980; she died in December 1992.
From 1975 to 1980, Mr. Prudhomme was corporate chef for the branch of the Brennan family that operates Commander’s Palace.
In 1979, he and Hinrichs rented the old Austin Inn, including its tables, chairs and bar, in the 400 block of Chartres Street. There they opened K-Paul’s, a small, deliberately plain restaurant where the staff took no reservations and had no qualms about grouping strangers at large tables.
Because Mr. Prudhomme indulged his flair for creativity in assembling the frequently changing menu, people put up with the long wait on the unshaded sidewalk and with the crowded eating area.
Mr. Prudhomme exposed multitudes to food they had never heard of and won enthusiastic converts, and he helped launch a nationwide craze for Cajun cuisine that spread to embrace Cajun music and culture, too.
As a result, he became a leader in the so-called American Cuisine movement, in which prominent chefs such as Mr. Prudhomme and Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., led customers to realize how good American food can be.
”He became confident that American cuisine was equal to any in the world,” Ella Brennan said. In addition to his skills in the kitchen, ”Paul had a great sense of showmanship,” Brennan said, ”and his timing was perfect. He came right after nouvelle cuisine, and people were more food-conscious. … He was at the right time with the right place. That sounds opportunistic, and I don’t mean it to be. I don’t think he went out searching for fame. It came to him.”
Other chefs started copying Mr. Prudhomme’s recipes. Within a few years, blackened specialties — steak and all sorts of seafood — appeared on menus across the country. The demand for redfish prepared as Mr. Prudhomme first demonstrated became so great that in 1987, Louisiana had to halt the slaughter by banning the sale of redfish caught off its coast until 1992.
In 1984, his first cookbook, ”Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen,” appeared, and it was a nationwide hit, selling more than half a million copies.
Prudhomme’s forays outside the restaurant kitchen were virtually unheard of in his day but are now common practice in the culinary field. He began producing cooking videos, wrote a syndicated column and founded Magic Seasonings Blends, an Elmwood-based company that sells Louisiana-style spice blends, smoked meats and more, in more than 30 countries and all 50 states.
In 1987, he collaborated with 11 brothers and sisters on ”The Prudhomme Family Cookbook,” and in 1991, he wrote “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seasoned America.” Out of deference to the trend toward lighter cooking, he wrote a book of low-fat versions of his recipes, “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Fork in the Road,” in 1993. And in 1997, he wrote “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Kitchen Expedition.”
He went on to author more than a dozen cookbooks, which only bolstered his popularity and influence. When asked what one Louisiana cookbook to buy, Philipe LaMancusa at Kitchen Witch cookbook shop in the French Quarter always recommends Prudhomme’s first, “Louisiana Kitchen.”
”To me, he is an institution,” Claiborne said. ”He’s the greatest ambassador for Cajun and Creole cooking that has ever been born.”
Prudhomme also trained chefs to carry on his way of cooking; among them are Brigtsen.
Teaching new chefs ”was important to him,” Brigtsen said. ”It’s the next generation to him, almost like a son’s going off and making something of himself so Dad could be proud of him. … It’s absolutely an investment in the future.”
In Brigtsen’s case, the restaurateur said, Mr. Prudhomme did much more than teach him about seafood and sauces. He lent Brigtsen $135,000 so he could buy the camelback building at 723 Dante St. that became the highly regarded restaurant bearing his surname.
As his enterprises grew, so did Mr. Prudhomme. In his first cookbook, he described himself as an enthusiastic eater, and he eventually became so large that he had to walk with a stout cane and, frequently, use a golf cart instead of walking at all.
Despite the difficulty Mr. Prudhomme occasionally experienced in getting around, nothing seemed to stop him from talking about his food to groups and on television programs. Even after the Cajun frenzy died down, Mr. Prudhomme’s enthusiasm for his subject never seemed to flag.
The secret, he wrote in his first cookbook, lay in the food itself and the pleasure it can bring: ”Watching people eat something that they’ve never tasted quite so good, or eat something that they didn’t believe could be that good, watching their eyes and their whole expressions change, and even their attitudes toward the cook change — that’s what keeps me cooking!”