New Orleans was a famous food city before a Cajun farm boy named Paul Prudhomme came to town in the 1970s. But it would never be the same, not after Prudhomme made the flavor of the Louisiana countryside a worldwide obsession, redefined the way a top restaurant could look and act and inspired a new generation of chefs with his gusto, high standards and generosity.
“Paul came along at a very exciting moment in American cooking, a transformative time, and he was a major part of it,” said Ella Brennan, matriarch of the Brennan’s restaurant family who hired Prudhomme as chef for Commander’s Palace in 1975. “He had magic in his hands.”
Those hands, always eagerly tasting and stirring in the kitchen, sampling and sharing with others, have finally been stilled. Prudhomme died Thursday after a brief illness. He was 75.
Famous for his groundbreaking French Quarter restaurant K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and his signature blackened redfish, Prudhomme’s influence reached far beyond the restaurant realm. He wrote cookbooks that have become canonical, developed his own brand of spice blends that are now kitchen pantry staples and starred in TV cooking shows that made his image — with his rotund build and beaming smile — into an international emblem of Louisiana bonhomie.
Emeril Lagasse, who followed Prudhomme as executive chef at Commander’s Palace early in his own career, called the late chef “an absolute visionary” who paved the way for Lagasse and many other chefs who followed.
“He was an ambassador of Cajun cuisine that put New Orleans cooking on the map in a major way within American cuisine,” Lagasse said in a statement. “He truly pioneered the hospitality world we are so proud of in Louisiana. Beyond being a talented chef, author and restaurateur, he was also a true gentleman, with wonderful generosity of spirit.”
From the farm to fame
Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children and grew up on his family’s small farm on the Cajun prairie outside Opelousas. He learned cooking at his mother’s side, and he often credited the early lessons of farm life and family traditions for his success.
“I recognize that I am who I am because of the dinner table,” Prudhomme said during a 2007 interview on the set of one of his TV cooking shows. “At every mealtime when I was growing up, whoever was there in our house would sit down and we all ate together. It was an absolute rule. It turns out to be the perfect educational tool for children. They learn everything: family, their history, who they are, who their neighbors are. The dinner table is the most natural place in the world to explain to a child who they are and what is expected of them.”
He had an early, if short-lived, start as a restaurateur, opening a burger joint called Big Daddy O’s Patio when he was just 17. It closed after a year, and he later left Louisiana, traveling and cooking at restaurants around the U.S.
Prudhomme moved to New Orleans in 1970 and was the chef at the Maison Dupuy hotel in the French Quarter when he came to the attention of the Brennan family, who recently had taken over the old Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace and was searching for a new chef.
Commander’s Palace had always had formally trained European chefs at the helm. But this new, self-trained chef from Acadiana began gradually working bolder regional Louisiana flavors into the menu. He later helped the Brennans open their modern restaurant, Mr. B’s Bistro, on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
“He had his finger in every pot at Mr. B’s,” said Ella Brennan. “But his wife (the late K Hinrichs) was opening a little lunch place around the corner on Chartres Street. When he told us he needed to help her there, we knew we had to let him go. You can’t stand in the way of love.”
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, which opened in 1979, was small, casual and different from the traditional Creole restaurants of the day. But it quickly became a sensation.
“He brought Cajun food to the restaurants of New Orleans,” said Frank Brigtsen, the chef and owner of Brigtsen’s Restaurant, who apprenticed with Prudhomme during K-Paul’s early days. “He took all these homestyle dishes and configured them to fit a restaurant dynamic, which was revolutionary at the time. He was such an innately talented cook. He didn’t follow rules; he just chased flavor. It was incredible to watch him do it.”
National acclaim followed as food critics and prominent writers sang K-Paul’s praises, and Prudhomme proved to be an adept and innovative entrepreneur beyond the stove. He wrote cookbooks and had a syndicated cooking column. He took K-Paul’s on the road, cooking his food for limited-time engagements in New York and San Francisco in a move that predated the current pop-up trend by decades.
After noticing how often restaurant customers requested samples of his kitchen seasonings to bring home, he started the retail line that is now Magic Seasonings Blends, an Elmwood-based company with global distribution. Prudhomme traveled the world too, promoting his spice company and getting fresh ideas to work back into his cooking.
His TV cooking shows brought Louisiana flavor to a huge audience and increased his profile. Terri Landry produced many of these series with the chef through New Orleans public television station WYES, and she said Prudhomme was a natural.
“I worked with a lot of celebrity chefs who were known for their food, but chef Paul was this incredible combination of his food, his personality and just his accessibility,” she said. “People were drawn to him, and he never shied away from them. They all felt like he was a member of their family, someone who came into their home so often over the years on TV to show them how to cook.”
Roots and recipes
As Prudhomme’s star rose higher, his French Quarter restaurant became a hotbed for culinary talent, drawing prospective chefs eager to learn at his side. For instance, Mary and Greg Sonnier, the husband-and-wife chefs who later opened the restaurant Gabrielle, met in K-Paul’s kitchen in the early 1980s.
“We would go in so early and leave so late, but he made it such an interesting place to be as a chef. You learned so much every day there,” Greg Sonnier said.
A table at the back of the dining room served as Prudhomme’s office, where he sampled and assessed dishes his cooks were developing.
“We’d taste the food together, and he would show you how it was supposed to taste, how the flavors should meet your tongue and palate,” Mary Sonnier said.
Prudhomme also encouraged his young chefs to strike out on their own and sometimes took extraordinary steps to support them.
Brigtsen said Prudhomme lent him the money to buy his own restaurant, gave him his blessing as Brigtsen hired away staff from K-Paul’s and connected him with a lawyer, an accountant and a real estate agent to make the leap.
“A few months later, we were open, and it was because of him,” Brigtsen said. “There are countless stories of his generosity to others that will go untold because he didn’t want to take any credit.”
Prudhomme won many prominent accolades through his career, and he cooked for heads of state and international luminaries at special dinners around the world. But his friends said he never lost touch with his roots and the values that first propelled his success.
“Until the last, he was part of us, part of our family, and I think he was part of New Orleans,” Ella Brennan said.
Prudhomme is survived by his wife, Lori. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.