Prudhomme, Louisiana chef who popularized Cajun food, dies

  • By JANET MCCONNAUGHEY and REBECCA SANTANA
  • Friday, October 9, 2015 1:05am
  • NewsNation-World

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Paul Prudhomme, the Cajun who popularized spicy Louisiana cuisine and became one of the first American restaurant chefs to achieve worldwide fame, died Thursday. He was 75.

Tiffanie Roppolo, the CFO of Prudhomme’s businesses, told The Associated Press that he died early Thursday after a brief illness.

Prudhomme became prominent in the early 1980s, soon after opening K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 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.

“He was always on a mission and nothing was impossible for Paul. He did things his way and let the food speak for itself,” said chef Frank Brigtsen, who worked for Prudhomme for seven years. “He changed the way we eat in New Orleans in a major way, by bringing Acadian or Cajun cuisine to the restaurants of the city.”

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.

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 and turned 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 Liz Williams, who heads the city’s Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

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 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 but now weighed in at 200 pounds.

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.

____

On the Net: http://www.chefpaul.com/

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of Feb. 19

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, Feb. 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, speaks in favor of House Bill 143 on Friday. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House approves relaxed environmental rules for ‘advanced recycling’

Applies to facilities using high heat or chemicals to turn plastic garbage into raw materials.

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon (right) discusses the Juneau School District’s financial crisis with school board Vice President Emil Mackey (right) and City Attorney Robert Palmer during a meeting Thursday night at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Meetings to comment on Assembly’s proposed $9.6M of help to school district scheduled next two Mondays

Plan includes $4.1 million no-interest loan, picking up “shared costs” this year and next.

A crowd overflows the library at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on Thursday night as school board members meet to select a consolidation option to help resolve the Juneau School District’s budget crisis. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
School district leaders approve putting grades 9-12 at JDHS, 7-8 and HomeBRIDGE at TMHS

Elementary schools will be K-6; Marie Drake, Floyd Dryden to close this fall if plan gets final OK.

Members of the Alaska House of Representatives celebrate the passage of a sweeping education bill on Thursday. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
House passes $680 BSA increase, with other education provisions

Bill now returns to Senate, which must pass it unchanged before it can head to the governor’s desk.

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, speaks during Thursday night’s floor debate on an education bill. (Screenshot from akl.tv livestream)
House approves $680 BSA increase, extra support for charter schools in education bill

Bill passes by 38-2 vote, Senate expected to concur with changes after days of negotiations.

Most Read