Paul Prudhomme (1940-2015)
The story goes, about 40 years ago chef Paul Prudhomme was cooking one afternoon in the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant, when the phone rang.
Prudhomme accepted the interruption and had no choice than to take the important call. Back in those days that meant steeping into an adjacent office, since wireless mobile phones didn’t exist. Trouble started when the telephone call went way longer than was expected.
While the chef was away, several slivers of freshly-caught redfish basted in butter and coated in Cajun spices were left to simmer on an open stove in a jumbo-sized cast-iron skillet. When he returned to the kitchen, plumes of smoke were fuming everywhere. Prudhomme discovered his redfish completely charred and blackened, seemingly inedible.
Prudhomme was about to toss out the blackened redfish and start over again. However, one of his employees intervened and insisted on taking the charred remnants, hoping to make the best of the loss. Why let delicacy be wasted? Little did anyone know at the time, one of the signature dishes of Cajun cuisine and traditional New Orleans cooking originating from famed chef Paul Prudhomme had been created entirely out of an accidental misfortune. Thank goodness the phone rang when it did.
Indeed, success often stems from failure. Consider Prudhomme’s first restaurant, opened up in the late 1950’s in backwater Opelousas, LA which was a small hamburger joint that flopped and closed down after just eight months in business. Had the hamburger stand succeeded, it’s very unlikely Prudhomme would have eventually relocated to New Orleans, as he did. Accordingly, one of the gems of the Garden District — Commander’s Palace — would probably have folded long ago and likely been forgotten. K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen at 416 Chartres in the French Quarter would certainly never have opened up. And we wouldn’t have a delicious dish called “Blackened Redfish,” either. Moreover, the world might not have never come to know the name Emeril Legasse, who’s career was pretty much set into motion by Prudhomme’s increment success and eventual restaurant gamble.
Prudhomme (a.k.a. Gene Autry Prudhomme) died this week at the age of 75. I met him many times in and around New Orleans over the past ten years. He was a man of several passions, although he was best known for cooking. Prudhomme took the best traditions of his own Louisiana heritage, infused them with creatively experimental instincts, and essentially changed an entire cuisine and the tastes of a region in the same manner Miles Davis once altered the techniques of jazz.
Prudhomme might as well have been “Mr. New Orleans.” In a city personified by the joy of cooking, eating, drinking, music, and living life to the fullest, the great chef not only embraced his rural Louisiana roots, but he expounded upon them. He succeeded even to the unthinkable point of elevating Cajun cooking to heights that simply did not exist and might never have otherwise blessed this city had he not left such an indelible imprint and welcoming attitude for new and sometimes exotic tastes bordering on the blasphemous. Consider the notion of Cajun cuisine, once thought to be grossly subordinate to Creole cooking. Consider his stewardship of Commander’s Palace, which until Prudhomme arrived, languished as a sort of ignored stepchild among the far more stately and socially acceptable Antoine’s….and Galatoire’s….and Pat O’Brien’s….and Dickie Brennans….et. al. Prudhomme didn’t just turn around Commander’s Palace, he introduced many of us to yet another neighborhood most visitors might never have ventured into. Today, Commander’s Palace stands as one of the “must visit” places in a city with many places that must be visited, and enjoyed.
When Prudhomme opened up his own place called K-Pauls in the Quarter, he wasn’t sure he’d made it yet. After all, his previous restaurant had been a dismal failure, leaving him broke and despondent. And New Orleans was probably the most competitive upscale restaurant city in the entire country. So, Prudhomme decided to hedge his bet, training his chefs at K-Pauls during every possible waking hour, while keeping his steady full-time gig over at Commander’s Palace. When it became apparent that K-Paul’s would indeed make it and become one of the great restaurants within the Quarter, Prudhomme tendered in his resignation. His replacement in the orphaned Garden District icon was someone new and completely different named Emeril Legasse, who would ultimately surpass the teacher and create his own empire as the world’s best-known celebrity chef.
Beneath the felt derby he often wore, even when in the oppressive New Orleans heat, Prudhomme was a quiet man. He never bragged. He never called attention to himself. When he met a stranger, he usually introduced himself simply as a chef, making one think perhaps that he was a fry cook somewhere making $9 an hour. He lacked formal education, but also had the greatest kitchen smarts and culinary instincts of anyone who ever grew up in and around New Orleans — and that’s saying a mouthful given this city’s extraordinary culinary history. He could give lectures on the intricacies of cooking that would last for hours and have the entire audience salivating.
Prudhomme certainly didn’t lack for money during his later years. He loved to play poker often, which he found to be relaxing. He played several nights a week in the regular No-Limit Hold’em cash game at Harrah’s Casino, usually buying in for no more than $500, a paltry sum given what he made in the royalties off of his food products marketed all over the world, let alone his immensely successful restaurant which became a local institution. I have no idea if he was any good at poker, not that it mattered. Prudhomme liked the competition and the sense of community that gathered around a poker table.
No surprise given the all the rich temptations New Orleans has to offer, Prudhomme struggled with obesity during the later part of his life. He often moved around by scooter. Always immaculately tailored and an imposing presence, Prudhomme stood out, even in a city defined by great tastes and distinctive fashion.
Whether you knew him or not, whether you met him or not, or whether you’ve ever enjoyed one of his meals, Prudhomme left us all with a joyous legacy not only to be remembered upon the occasion of his death, but celebrated in honor of what he embodied while he lived.
Next time the phone rings and interrupts what you’re doing, just think of all the possibilities.