Chef Paul Prudhomme
“Have fun. Do something nobody has done before.”
Chef Paul Prudhomme
By Doc Lawrence
He was a bear of a man who transformed American cuisine by giving it a lot more heat and down home ingredients. Because of Paul Prudhomme, countless restaurants still serve blackened fish, a style that Chef Paul made popular with redfish. A culinary cousin of Emeril, who once worked for him, and a cultural descendant of the PBS cooking show pioneer Justin Wilson, Chef Paul departed his life in New Orleans, the city where he launched a career of cooking, teaching, cookbook authorship and restaurants.
Before I dined at his legendary K-Paul’s Kitchen on fabled Chartres Street deep in the French Quarter, I had met him prior to fame and fortune at Maison Dupuy, the Vieux Carré hotel on nearby Toulouse where he operated the outstanding kitchen. Unlike the more animated Emeril and Wilson, “the Cooking Cajun,” Chef Paul was subdued and soft-spoken. Food was his monologue, cooking with fresh ingredients a primary contribution for today’s preferences. Nearly everything was seasoned with myriad peppers and herbs of all kinds, garnished with a heap of joie de vivres.
An ebullient, engagingly happy man, Paul Prudomme expanded our food lexicon. Debris, boudin and tasso are no longer just bayou backwater words.
His cookbooks flew off retail shelves. I’ve always believed that originality accounted for much of his success. Chef Paul's recipes weren’t always easy. Care was demanded and sometimes the ingredients weren’t readily available. Yes, there was a day not so long ago that local fishmongers had no redfish.
Chef Paul’s signature blackened redfish became so popular that a moratorium was imposed on fishing for them in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent extinction.
Paul Prudhomme was a hit on the road. I met him again in Atlanta during an awards dinner at King Plow Arts Center and even at a Kroger supermarket in Sandy Springs where he came to sign books in the wine department. I never saw him dressed in anything other than solid white, and with few exceptions he wore a beret. His handshake was as gentle as my grandmother’s, the feather-light touch of a French Impressionist.
My home kitchen library has many cookbooks. Chef Paul Prudhome’s works line an entire bookshelf and have an exalted place near classics by Craig Claiborne, Edna Lewis, Julia Child, John Folse, Emeril, Nathalie Dupree and others.
It’s football season down South and I’m in the mood for hearty authentic gumbo. The best recipes are Chef Paul’s.