At K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen during the early 1980s, chef and owner Paul Prudhomme would drive to his hometown near Opelousas in his pickup truck and come back loaded down with supplies reflecting his native Cajun cuisine.
Way before farm-to-table was hip in the foodie crowd, Paul Prudhomme restaurant was making its own andouille sausage.
”The way Paul approached everything was to try to make things more local, more regional, fresher, cooked to order,” said chef Frank Brigtsen, who worked for Prudhomme for seven years. ”At the time all those concepts were fresh and new. Now we all cook that way.”
Prudhomme died Thursday after a brief illness, according to Tiffanie Roppolo, the CFO of Prudhomme’s businesses. He was 75.
Prudhomme became prominent in the early 1980s, soon after opening K-Paul’s, a French Quarter diner that served the meals of his childhood. He had no formal training, but sparked a nationwide interest in Cajun food by serving dishes – gumbo, etouffee and jambalaya – that were virtually unknown outside Louisiana.
The distinctly American chef became a sensation at a time when the country’s top restaurants served virtually nothing but European food.
”Paul was the selfless promoter of all things South Louisiana – from our culture and hospitality to our generosity and food – and I will miss him greatly,” said New Orleans restaurateur John Besh.
Prudhomme was known for his innovations. His most famous dishes used the technique he called blackening: fish or meat covered with spices, then seared until black in a white-hot skillet. Blackened redfish became so popular that Prudhomme lamented over customers who stopped ordering the traditional Cajun dishes that he loved.
”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 flavors 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 traveled 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, he became the head chef at the esteemed Commander’s Palace restaurant.
Brigtsen recalled reading a front-page story about Prudhomme being hired.
”That was a tremendous leap of faith,” he said for the restaurant to hire a local Cajun chef with no formal culinary training.
But that leap of faith paid off. Liz Williams, who heads the city’s Southern Food and Beverage Museum, said Prudhomme took Commander’s Palace’s traditional menu and turned it into a truly ”from here” kind of fare. For example, he began using pecans instead of almonds in the trout almandine because pecans could be found locally.
Prudhomme and his wife opened K-Paul’s four years later.
K-Paul’s was inexpensive and unassuming – formica tables, plywood walls and drinks served in jars – 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, turning it into an upscale operation. He published bestselling 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 Williams.
Prudhomme’s success brought regrets, as well. Prudhomme 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 blistering hot.
”I’m at least partly to blame that so many people think all Cajun food is red-hot and spicy,” he said. ”I see people dumping red pepper on food and I feel like crying.”
Prudhomme’s weight, as much as his cooking skills, was a career trademark. Just over 5 feet (1.52 meters) tall, he had trouble squeezing into chairs. He had a bad knee, used a cane and usually moved in a scooter instead of walking. In the 1992 interview he said he was working on ways to take the fat out of recipes without losing the flavor.
But later in his career he significantly slimmed down. During a 2013 cooking demonstration in New Orleans – done from his motorized scooter – he told the crowd that at one time he was 580 pounds (263 kilograms) but now weighed in at 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
Eating the right things and eating less had made the difference, Prudhomme said.
”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.