Paul Prudhomme — the man who not only created a dish so popular it impacted an entire species, but entered Cajun cooking into the national consciousness — died today in New Orleans. He was 75 years old.
Prudhomme rose to fame through the restaurant he started with his wife, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter.
“In keeping with Mr. Prudhomme’s gospel of fresh ingredients, the restaurant had no freezers,” writes the New York Times. “It did not accept credit cards or reservations. The rent was $50 a month. It was an instant hit, and with just 64 seats it filled up nightly for four or five seatings; dinners were about $5.
“Mr. Prudhomme tried to keep the news media at bay, but in no time, K-Paul’s became one of the most influential restaurants in the United States, and the gregarious Mr. Prudhomme its highly visible face, a frequent guest on countless television shows that invited him to share the pleasures of Cajun cooking.”
Cooking in Estes Park at the Elkhorn Lodge, Prudhomme recounted to food writer Bret Thorn in 2000 where his love of fresh ingredients came from. The memory starts with his mother and some little red potatoes.
“I was very excited because I love them,” Prudhomme said. “I think they’re so creamy and delicious and wonderful.
“Within an hour I cooked a batch of them, and I didn’t like them. I tried putting butter with them. I tried all kinds of seasoning. I still didn’t get it.
“So I decided to go back to a day in my life with Mom because when I helped her do these potatoes, they were wonderful. I wanted to see what she had done to them. And the most phenomenal thing happened; it changed my life. I remembered that the first thing we did was we went out into the field, and we dug them up.”
The chef was a big dude, weighing more than 500 pounds at one point, and big of spirit. Icons of American Cooking recounts one such time after Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans in 2005.
“Three weeks after the storm struck, he and his crew cooked for 3,200 military personnel — first responders and rescuers who had been living off MREs (meals ready to eat) and canned goods. … He and his team went on to provide over 30,000 meals for police, firefighters, soldiers, and other people who had come to help.”
But Prudhomme really blew up when his first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, took blackened redfish to the top.
“Indeed, blackened redfish became so popular and was reproduced in so many restaurants across the country at such frequency that the Louisiana legislature had to restrict commercial redfish catches to save the species from extinction in the Gulf of Mexico,” reads Icons of American Cooking.
The book’s social impact was equally undeniable.
“The cookbook and its new recipes took the nation by storm, and in 1986 it made The New York Times bestseller list. Prudhomme had become a bona fide celebrity chef.”