Chef Paul Prudhomme passed away on October 8, 2015 after a brief illness. He was 75.
The Opelousas-born Prudhomme first gained local notoriety in 1975 as the chef at Commander’s Palace. In the 1980s he rose to national prominence after introducing his concept of blackening food at his French Quarter restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. His reputation continued to explode world-wide as a television personality, a cookbook author and a spice manufacturer.
OffBeat interviewed Prudhomme in 2005. About being Cajun, he said, “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.”
Prudhomme opened his first restaurant in Opelousas in 1957, called Big Daddy O’s Patio. After the restaurant went out of business and his first marriage ended, he moved to New Orleans. “I left home in ’57. I was 17-years-old. I had gotten my first restaurant and failed in my hometown. I worked at Brennan’s as a busboy and I worked at Café Du Monde as a fill-in. I started working as a cook and decided to leave the state. I stopped in Texas, went to Vegas, ended up in San Francisco. I lived in Denver for ten years; I was the chef at Elkhorn Lodge.”
Prudhomme moved back to New Orleans and joined Commander’s Palace. “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. I told her 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.”
Prudhomme told OffBeat about the creation of their famous bread pudding. “One day Dick Brennan said to me, ‘You know if we could just take the bread pudding and make a soufflé out of it.’ We did one or two and they didn’t turn out real great. One of the problems was we needed the right kind of oven. He said, ‘What kind of oven you like?’ 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 ran 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.”
Prudhomme eventually opened his own restaurant in New Orleans (K-Paul’s, named after his wife Kay and himself), which at first didn’t accept reservations, resulting in long lines. “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.”
About being overweight Prudhomme suggested, “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.”
Recognizing a demand, in 1983 Prudhomme opened a spice manufacturing company, Magic Seasoning Blends. “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.”
Chef Paul Prudhomme received many honors and awards. He was the first American–born chef to receive the coveted Mérite Agricole of the French Republic and was honored in 1986 as “Culinarian of the Year” by the American Culinary Federation. In 2012, Chef Prudhomme was named one of the Pioneers of American Cuisine by the Culinary Institute of America.
Prudhomme reflected, “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.”
Prudhomme is survived by his wife, Lori, and a brother, Eli.