Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme dies in New Orleans aged 75
Published 09/10/2015 | 09:21
New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, who introduced the world to jambalaya, blackened redfish and gumbo through his groundbreaking Cajun restaurant, has died aged 75.
Fellow chefs he mentored and diners who tasted his crawfish dishes and sweet potato pecan pie were mourning the loss of Prudhomme, who died on Thursday after a brief illness.
From his restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in the city's French Quarter, Prudhomme sparked nationwide interest in Cajun dishes. He later launched a company to market his spices worldwide.
After Hurricane Katrina, he made meals for thousands of rescuers and volunteers.
Prudhomme also mentored many chefs in the city, and praise for him poured in after news of his death.
Frank Brigtsen, who worked for Prudhomme for seven years, said he brought Cajun cuisine into many restaurants.
At his New Orleans restaurant, Prudhomme proudly showed off dishes and ingredients from his upbringing in Louisiana's rural Cajun country.
Such fare, in turn, helped helped launch him as a culinary superstar who brought Cajun cuisine into the mainstream. At a time when the country's top restaurants served virtually nothing but European food, Prudhomme's message to diners and other chefs was simple.
"'Be proud of our local cuisine, local culture, local accents - Paul was the catalyst that made that happen," said fellow New Orleans chef John Folse.
Prudhomme opened K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in 1979.
The distinctly American chef had no formal training, but he stirred up a nationwide appetite for Cajun food by serving dishes - gumbo, etouffee and jambalaya - which were once largely unknown outside Louisiana.
"He was always on a mission and nothing was impossible for Paul. He did things his way and let the food speak for itself," said Brigtsen. "He changed the way we eat in New Orleans in a major way, by bringing Acadian or Cajun cuisine to the restaurants of the city."
Prudhomme was known for his innovations. His most famous dishes used the technique he called blackening: fish or meat coated with spices, then seared until black in a white-hot skillet. Blackened redfish became so popular, Prudhomme lamented, that customers stopped ordering the traditional Cajun dishes he loved to prepare.
"We had all this wonderful food, we raised our own rabbit and duck, and all anyone wanted was blackened redfish," he said in a 1992 interview.
Prudhomme was raised by his sharecropper parents on a farm near Opelousas, in Louisiana's Acadiana region. The youngest of 13 children, he spent much of his time in the kitchen with his mother, whom he credited for developing his appreciation of rich flavours and the fresh vegetables, poultry and seafood that she cooked.
"With her I began to understand about seasoning, about blending taste, about cooking so things were worth eating," he said.
After high school, Prudhomme travelled the country cooking in bars, diners, resorts and hotel restaurants.
He returned to New Orleans in the early 1970s and found a job as chef in a hotel restaurant. In 1975, Ella Brennan hired him to become the head chef at Commander's Palace, a bold step for the esteemed restaurant.
Brennan said at the time that the food scene was evolving rapidly and the restaurant wanted someone who could help them be part of the change.
"What we were really trying to do also was put New Orleans on the map as a food center. And Paul contributed to that in every way humanly possible," she said.
Four years after joining Commander's Palace, Prudhomme and his wife opened K-Paul's.
K-Paul's was inexpensive and unassuming - formica tables, plywood walls, drinks served in jars and customers often seated next to people they did not know. But it was soon the most popular restaurant in New Orleans.
Prudhomme's bearded face and oversized frame became familiar on television talk shows in the 1980s, where he encouraged Americans to spice up their meals. He expanded K-Paul's and turned it into an upmarket operation. He published best-selling cookbooks and created a business that sold his spicy seasoning mixtures around the country.
After Hurricane Katrina, he used the profits from his spice company to keep his restaurant afloat, bringing in trailers to the parking lot for his staff to live in and cooking thousands of meals for rescue workers, said Liz Williams, who heads the city's Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
Prudhomme's success brought regrets, as well. He sparked the Cajun food craze, but he often said few Cajun restaurants outside Louisiana served the real thing. He worried over the common perception that all Cajun food is blisteringly hot.
Prudhomme's weight, as much as his cooking skills, was a career trademark. Just over 5ft tall, he had trouble squeezing into chairs. He had a bad knee, used a cane and usually moved in a scooter instead of walking.
But later in his career he significantly slimmed down. During a 2013 cooking demonstration in New Orleans - done from his motorised scooter - he told the crowd that at one time he was 580lb - more than 41 stone - but now weighed in at 200lb - just over 14 stone.
"I used to taste things this way," he said, filling his large cooking spoon. "Now I taste them this way." He poked a fork into a single piece of carrot and held it up.