CHEF PAUL PRUDHOMME
Without a doubt, Chef Paul Prudhomme is the most famous Cajun cook in the world—scratch that, the most famous Cajun in the world. After introducing the planet to the concept of blackening food at his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen during the late 1970s, Chef Paul commenced marketing his Magic Seasoning Blends, which are produced at a large facility in Harahan, soon to be replaced by an even larger plant.
Chef Paul, looking very dapper in a silk Ascot tie and Stetson hat, was interviewed in the plant’s formidable conference room, the air suffused with the scent of herbs and spices. Joining us was Shawn McBride, President and CEO of the company.
Chef Paul, when did you start the seasonings company? This is quite an operation.
When we first opened the restaurant, we were using seasonings and I think we had maybe six or seven blends. The customers would come in and say, “Man! This is good! What are you putting on this?” So we’d actually give them some in foil, take a piece of foil, dump some in and wrap it. They’d come back and want to buy it.
This went on for maybe a year and my late wife K said, “You oughta do something about this. Everybody wants some and they don’t want you to give it to them.” We’d mix it in a blender in the bakery shop. So I got a bigger bowl for the blender and we started mixing it and we’d put it in Ziploc bags—little jewelry bags. Sally Links drew a label and that’s the way it got started.
Mike Thompson was a local salesman—he worked for Loubat. I’d known him for a long time. He opened his own restaurant out on Chef Menteur Highway and it failed. He would come by when I was physically working at the restaurant, right at the beginning. He’d come by and talk to me and I would give him recipes. We were just friends.
He came one day and said, “I can’t pay my bills anymore—I’m starting to owe too much money.” I told him, “I lost four restaurants. It ain’t gonna kill you. Just close the son of a bitch.” And he did. But I knew he was a great salesman because he was the kind of guy who could talk to you forever. I said, “Why don’t you take these spices out and put them in the grocery stores?” By this time, we had transferred to little jars. The restaurant was only open Monday through Friday so on Saturday, anybody who wanted to work extra—the dishwashers, the guys in the kitchen—we’d pay ’em to fill the jars and then they’d put a label on it. Our first bit of mechanizing was a glue machine—everybody was excited about that because handling a label with glue and a brush was hard to do.
Mike took the jars and put them in his car. He came to me one day and said, “We need to buy a truck.” I said, “I ain’t got no money to buy a truck—what do you want a truck for?” I knew he was selling the stuff but I didn’t know how much. He tells me he’s got 40 stores. We started talking about it and then he told me there was such a thing as a distributor. I knew I bought from distributors but I didn’t think about selling to them. We started in New Orleans with a distributor and then we got a distributor in Minnesota and one in Texas and then it started growing. Then Shawn [McBride] joined the team and now we’re in 50 states and 35 countries.
All of the spices are blended here?
Oh yeah. David Hickey and John Alexander—those two guys have been with us for over 20 years. They oversee the blending. Jake Wanda—he’s from Cameroon—is the microbiologist. The way we work is that the blends are developed–actually next to my house I have a research and development kitchen and that’s where I work at. We do the blend there, we send it here, they re-blend it and then they send it back to us and we taste it and if it matches, then David and John start blending it. Every blend that we do is tasted. It’s looked at, it’s tasted and tested against the last blend. That’s our system of being consistent. We do about 15 or 20 batches a day. If you like that kind of thing, it’s fun.
Is the availability of spices a concern?
The only concern is that we get the kind of spices we want. Because oregano is not oregano—there are many, many flavors of oregano, tastes of oregano. And we want to put the same one in each time.
The way the process works is that Carol Mauthe is the buyer and she’ll get a sample of something. We taste it and then we buy X amount. It generally almost has to be from the same area and the same fields. The business is worked by contracts. In other words, you buy black pepper—maybe you’ll buy 100,000 pounds or 200,000 pounds. Then they ship you from that lot until you’ve bought it all.
We’re very partial to quality and we’re also very partial to accountability. As we get bigger, you gotta stretch out but the people we’ve been buying from have been able to supply us.
Do spices prices fluctuate greatly?
We go through that. But we’ve never raised our small bottle prices in 25 years. We wanted to market the seasonings and everybody said, “This is really expensive.” Because everything else on the market was real cheap stuff. Over the years, we’ve been copied. At first, we were copied very cheaply and then that didn’t fly. Now we’re being copied by the big companies and they’re almost at our price level. We try to deal with what we do and not what other people do.
When you grew up, were you aware of being Cajun?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. We were very proud. We called ourselves Cadiennes—when you change that to English, it’s Cajuns. We were a big family with nothing. We were together all the time. We ate three meals together.
My father would talk—especially when his brothers and sisters were there, they would talk about their parents and their history. And I always loved that. My brothers and sisters didn’t and they would resist talking French. And I loved to talk French.
As a kid, I started learning English with the nuns. That’s why I don’t have much of an accent. My sister would take me to school at the Academy of Immaculate Conception. That’s where I started learning English.
The family history is so tied to Acadiana and I was so proud of being who I was. I used to say all the time, “I’m a Cajun.” In the beginning, I’d say, “Je l’Acadian.” That was in the early ’50s.
I always knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I would watch my brothers and sisters at a table this size or bigger—this is a conference table we’re looking at—and we ate at that table three times a day. The family history would be talked about. We had one day that the kids couldn’t talk at all. We had one day where mother and dad would talk to each other—not to us—about the family and the brothers and sisters and who was sick and who wasn’t. The rest of the time it was a free-for-all. You could do anything as long as you didn’t intrude on your brother or sister or you didn’t put too much food on your plate when there wasn’t that much there. You had to have your share but you had to be fair with it. That’s the way I grew up.
I would watch my brothers and sisters be in a huge fight. Then we’d go to the dinner table and if something on that table was really good, all of a sudden they were happy. And all of a sudden they were talking to each other. And the anger would go away. My summarization, as a kid, was that the food was doing it. It was mama’s love and cooking that was doing that. I still feel that way.
I’ve seen for years, people would be so sick of standing in line and being upset and they come in the restaurant and they’re frustrated from being out there. You put some food on the table and it all goes away and they leave happy and they’re thanking you for everything in the world. I think the power of food is very, very understated.
It’s starting to be realized, a little bit, for health. I’ve always felt that probably why I survived being overweight for so long was because for the first 12, 13 years of my life, I ate nothing but fresh and I ate nothing but things that was growing up around me. Even though I’ve got brothers that have had cancer, after the oil business started I think is when those kind of things really moved into our culture. And I was gone by then. I left home in ’57. I was 17-years-old. I had gotten my first restaurant and failed in my hometown—I had a drive-in restaurant.
What was that called?
Big Daddy-O’s Patio. I was overweight, man! I was a kid who loved music and I would go to Hick’s Wagon Wheel all the time and what we called the Bloody Bucket. I was going there when I was 12-years-old.
What musicians did you hear?
Of course, Doug [Kershaw] was one of the great ones. Fats Domino would come over there and he would draw really huge crowds. We had a lot of local bands which I’ve forgotten the names of. Little Richard used to come there at that time. He was wild! He played at Hick’s and you could put probably 2,000 people in this joint and he had ’em. This son of a bitch got onstage and screamed all night. He was a lot different than he is now. It was wonderful.
What did you serve at that first restaurant?
We did malts and hamburgers, fried chicken. I knew something about cooking but I didn’t know anything about managing or taking care of money. One of my stories I tell often is that we were ready to open the restaurant and I’d met this girl from Sunset, Louisiana. We decided to get married so we went on our honeymoon to Galveston, Texas, came back and opened the restaurant. Nine months later, there was no kid, no restaurant, no wife! I didn’t get married again until I married K at the restaurant.
I made a sweep through New Orleans as a very young kid. I worked at Brennan’s as a bus boy and I worked at Café Du Monde as a fill-in. Then I just went back to the idea of cooking. I started working as a cook and decided to leave the state. I didn’t even have a car. I went to Chicago on the bus. I didn’t know anything about the winters. One of the most horrible things was that I fell a bunch of times on the ice. I got a job and I got enough money to get on the bus and I ended up going west. I stopped in Texas, went to Vegas, ended up in San Francisco—I was there for a while. Then I traveled that area, back and forth, for five, six years. I lived in Denver for ten years and I met Shawn at a resort in Estes Park, Colorado. She was in college and her and her girlfriend were working a summer job and I was the chef at Elkhorn Lodge. That was an exciting summer.
I actually went back to Las Vegas at that time and worked at the Four Queens. Then I ended back up in Denver and I was pretty prosperous there for a while. Then I came back to New Orleans and went to work at the Pavilion Hotel as a sous chef. You know, the mystique of New Orleans is amazing and even if you know about the place and you’re from this area, I just didn’t want to come back and try it as a chef, thinking I’ll never be able to do it. But all the time I was gone and when I had my own restaurant, I would serve Louisiana food.
When I worked somewhere, one of the jobs I always asked for was to be the person who fed the staff. It was two motivations with it. Because nobody wants a job in the kitchen. Even today very few people will volunteer to do the job so you’ve got to rotate. But you’ve got to feed the staff. I would take the job because I could do my food. After I did it a couple of times, I realized that I could get anything I wanted from a bartender or a waitress because I fed ’em well. Then the owners caught on and I was cooking for them.
Clarence Dupuy was a City Councilman. Clarence came to me and said he was opening Maison Dupuy and would I come to work for him. So we made a deal and I went to work for him. It was a pretty good salary and two weeks after I signed on, the carpenters went on strike. I had one year of doing nothing. I would cook for Clarence and his family and friends sometimes. Like the guy who did the fountain there—I worked on that fountain.
Jack DuArte opened a bistro in the French Market and I worked for him for awhile. That’s where I met Terry Flettrich and she wanted to do a cooking school at her house on Bourbon Street. She had had lunch with Ella [Brennan, proprietress of Commander’s Palace] and came to me and said, “Ella needs help.” I went to talk to her and she had been through a bunch of chefs and was having a hard time with it. I told her because I was free in the mornings that I would come work lunch for her. I went and did that and the chef was on vacation so I sorta took his place and he came back and he resigned. Then Ella and Dick [Brennan] came to me and said, “Do you want to take the job?” I really didn’t so I asked for a huge salary—a ridiculous salary. They said, “We’ve never paid anybody that much.” I said, “I understand.” That way, it got me out of it—I wasn’t telling them no. Because I liked them. They were good people.
About an hour later, Dick came back and said, “I want to talk to you.” He used to do that to me a lot. He wasn’t a big, flashy guy. I learned so much from Dick the five years I was there. He would come to me and say, “Got a minute?” Because he stuttered a little bit. I’d say, “Yeah.” And he’d take me in a corner of the kitchen and talk to me about stuff.
One day he came in and said to me, “You know, if we could just take the bread pudding and make a souffle out of it.” I said, “Oh, that’s pretty easy, Dick—I can do that.” We did one or two and they didn’t turn out real great. I said, “One of the problems is we need the right kind of oven.” He said, “What kind of oven you like?” So I told him. He said, “You agree to do this, I’ll agree to buy the oven.”
Ella was just brilliant as a manager. We made a great team because she a great front of the house and I built a great kitchen there. It was a huge learning experience for me. She taught me you could have just as much pride, as she called it, “in a buck as a great plate of food.” And she’s right.
K and I started going out together pretty regular. Word gets around in this city—it’s a very small community and back then it was even smaller. She was working as a waitress at a little corner joint near K-Paul’s. She didn’t complain but I picked up that she was getting hassled a lot because of me—I was doing television and you know how people are, especially when they’re half-drunk.
We just started talking and said, “Let’s open our own restaurant.” It took us probably two, three years to find a place. The real estate person called me at Commander’s and said, “I think I found a place for you. I’ll wait for you outside until you get there.” She was waiting outside because she was afraid to go inside by herself.
I thought it was perfect because it was very small. I knew I could basically handle the kitchen by myself with a couple of good guys and a dishwasher. K could handle the dining room. We didn’t have any money—a little bit, enough to buy the restaurant’s equipment: $4,700. The rent was 50 bucks a month. When it went from the owner to his son, he doubled the rent on me and it went to $100 a month. It was like dirt-cheap.
What is the one kitchen tool you cannot live without?
It’s got to be a fire. Fire is the most important thing there is in the kitchen, if you use it correctly. But most people—and especially in commercial kitchens—just turn it on all the way. If we do our job correctly, we did it with the fire and herbs and spices. Those things together can turn on a fresh anything and make it just mind-boggling, emotional. It’s what the restaurant’s been about since it opened.
If you were a condemned man, what would your last meal be?
It’s really simple for me because I have a meal that mother made that was a holiday meal and it was just really absolutely spectacular. She would take a roast and punch holes in it. We didn’t have a refrigerator—we had an ice box. And she’d stick garlic and herbs and spices in the holes—all stuff that we grew or could find in the swamps. She’d wrap up the roast and put it in what we called “the cold room,” which was just a corner of a room in the house that was away from the sun. And it would stay there over night. In the morning, we’d crank up the wood-burning oven and we’d put the roast in when it was very hot. It would cook for like five, six hours and it was just incredible because the juices would push up from the high heat and it would come out the holes—and we had a lot of ’em in there—and the holes had the seasoning in them and it would pour out over the top. In the beginning it would go into the pan but as time went on, it would just go about halfway or a third of the way and stop and it formed this crust on top—it was just spectacular! And then she’d make—one of my favorite things—candied yams. And she’d make dirty rice and she’d do a warm potato salad. We made the mayonnaise from scratch with egg yolks. Those things, today, mean family, great times, that mama’s still there. That was the best meal I ever had and it was repeated a lot of times. If you tell me, “We’re going to kill you tomorrow—what do want to eat?,” that’s what I want.
You believe that food is much more than just food.
Yeah, it’s so misunderstood and it’s getting worse. It’s because we’ve got such abundance. You can take a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, maybe even a 40-year-old, and they never met anybody who was hungry. I used to meet people who were hungry. We had food because we raised it. We didn’t leave the house because we fed anybody who came by—black, white, no matter what. When we left the house, we left food on the table and it was set up where anybody who walked in that house knew it was for them and they could have it.
It’s such an emotional part of life and people don’t realize it. What do you do for your wedding? You throw a food party after you say, “I do.” What do you do when you care for somebody and you’re going to take them out? You go to dinner.
I understand so much from a cultural point of view, from other people. But I also understand that a cook is a very unique part of the system of life. When a cook prepares food and a person eats it, it’s the only way they can build human body cells. They cannot build a body cell any other way, from my knowledge and I’ve asked people all over the world.
It’s a thing that’s been in me since mama. She used to say all the time, when I’d help her in the kitchen, “We gotta do this because it’s time the family had some.” Or it’s winter time: “We gotta do this kind of food because it’s good for the body.” It’s something that’s gone now.
My career has been so simple and so lucky because the simplicity of it is I want to be a cook. I’m a little too old and a little too fat and got bad knees so I can’t do it on a stand-up basis regularly. But my job in my company is cooking every day. I run the research and development kitchen. It’s what’s really moved the company. We develop flavors for companies all over the world.
This might be sacrilegious but do you ever use a microwave?
Yeah, I do at home. The one thing a microwave’s good for is heating stuff. Until about a year ago, I did 98 percent of my own cooking. We’ve got a new building under construction and financing that thing was amazing because it’s like four acres. And we still have this building and we’ve got a huge plot of land right past the airport. So the last year, the R&D guys I work with every day have cooked for me.
I’m eating cold stuff a lot and I like it because seasoned stuff is good cold. So I’ll warm it up in the microwave—I did that this morning. We had done four things for a company with six restaurant chains. One was for a Chinese restaurant—a long roll-up thing with meat in it, we call ’em pick-up sticks. We did that and we had some of the mixture left. I do a seasoning blend for every mixture we do. We’ve got over 11,000 seasoning blends in our computer. I did one and I didn’t do it the same way I always do. Normally I lay things out and then I measure stuff out of each container and put it in. But I was in a hurry. They gave me the seasonings I asked for because I have a sheet with everything we have in R&D and I just go down the line. If I’m in a hurry, they weigh the container out and then I don’t have to measure.
I was still in my wheelchair I was in such a hurry, by the stove and I made the blend. That son of a bitch came out wonderful—that’s what I had for breakfast.
What’s your all-time favorite spice?
I don’t think I have one. I think my favorite thing to put in food, if I had to pick one thing, would be salt. You can do a huge amount of things with salt—even make things healthier.
The way we test a new seasoning blend, when it’s for us, we’ve got about 270 people working for us and we give them little packages of it. They take it home and they’ve got to report back. I do that when I do a cookbook. I pass it around among the company and I’ll pay for the ingredients. If they even have ten people, it doesn’t matter—I’ll pay for the ingredients. They’ve gotta bring me a taste and a critique from everybody who ate it. That’s one of the great ways to test something because if you do it every day for life, you can do things that you don’t know that you did. I’m learning still today some of the things I do to food that I’ve probably been doing all my life and didn’t know it.
Why do you think food is so important to the people of Louisiana?
I think it comes from several things. Most of it is our past culture. If you think about the great food of the world, you think about Italy and France, which is where the people of New Orleans come from. I think the blacks made a huge contribution to the food of New Orleans. Because they were the cooks. I think what happened is that they had the instincts and they would work for a family and the family would say, “Well, you’ve got to do it this way. This is what I like.” And then they would work for another family and over the years, the mothers would do it, the daughters would do it, the sons would become cooks and work in the city, and I think that got passed on to what we have here.
It’s sort of the same thing, but in a different way, in Acadiana. Because the Cajuns obviously dominated that area for a long time. But I grew up with guys that were Cajun who were black. They said, “I’m a Cajun,” and they spoke good French, man. All this mixture of cultures became the family pride, for the male in the family to say, “Mama’s a great cook. Come over to the house. We’ll have a good time.” It created the home dances, it created the bands…because we had so much down-time. When the crops were in, we had nothing to do except take care of the animals, which took two hours a day, for another three or four months. You had time for dances, great food, and storing food became an art form. We had stuff in the stump of the tree that was wrapped in all kinds of stuff and it would stay there for years. And we had stuff in the barn.
Tasso—we’re probably the only company in the world that really produces tasso—it’s jerky. That was one of my first jobs as a kid—mother would line up all the kids that were there and she had strips of pork. She had a mound of seasoning and we would rub it in the pork. You couldn’t turn a strip loose until an adult said it was done. What they were doing was a curing thing. They were pounding the seasoning in and then we would put it in the smokehouse.
Mother used to can everything. We had canned milk. We didn’t eat meat every day. My dad would butcher a hog and everybody came—maybe six or eight families and split up the meat. Because you couldn’t keep it unless you salted it down. Two weeks later, another family would butcher and we’d go help them. So it kept going around. That was our fresh meat. When we did a fall butchering, it was like a three-week affair. That’s when we made boudin and cracklings.
We’d basically kill animals that didn’t have any value in their life to our life. In other words, you’d get a cow that no longer puts out milk and no longer had calves, you ate it because you couldn’t sell it. Nobody wanted it.
When you had a boar hog or a lot of bulls around, back then, they used to fight. They could kill each other—vicious fights. We usually had 200 to 300 chickens on the yard all the time. We would buy a lot of stuff with eggs. Mother used to hatch eggs and she’d take a pencil to mark the eggs, so you wouldn’t pick them out. And I’d get desperate for one of those peppermint sticks and you’d get one for two eggs. When I couldn’t find any eggs, I’d erase the pencil marks and go give ’em to the guy for peppermint.
It was great growing up then—such strength came out of it. There were 13 kids and everybody was successful. Everybody.