Marcelle Bienvenu remembers the late Chef Paul Prudhomme
In 1971, Time Life Books released the book American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, as part of its Foods of the World Series. By some lucky stroke of fate, I landed the position of local consultant for the publication. I soon realized that few people (me included) knew of the existence of something called “Cajun cuisine.” Up until then, most people thought of the local fare as “what your mama fixed you.” It was rice and gravy, crawfish étouffée or bisque, smothered okra, smothered pork chops and a plethora of other things “smothered” with onions, bell peppers and celery. (No one at that time called this trio the “Trinity.”)
A few years later, I found myself working at Commander’s Palace in the catering department. You see, Ella Brennan, of the Brennan family that owned Commander’s, and I became fast friends while the Time Life cookbook staff and I were investigating the Creole cuisine of New Orleans.
In 1974, when Paul Prudhomme appeared on the culinary scene in New Orleans preaching the gospel of Acadian (Cajun) cuisine, he quickly caught Ella’s attention. She was fascinated by the creativity of Paul Prudhomme and dubbed him what she called “a foodie.”
When Ella and her family announced that they were going to hire Paul, I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine a restaurant of Commander’s Palace’s caliber having a “Cajun” chef. At the time, you would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant in the Crescent City offering chicken and andouille gumbo. (Heck, few people — other than those living in Acadiana — had ever even heard of andouille.) I explained to Ella that the chicken in the gumbo was cooked “with bones and skin,” and that I didn’t think the sophisticated diners at Commander’s wouldn’t like to have to handle whole thighs and breasts in their bowl of gumbo.
“No problem, Marcelle. We’ll take the chicken off the bone before it’s served,” said Ella, who always knew how to solve any problem for her dining guests.
Paul was named executive chef, the first American-born executive chef at the city’s prestigious Creole restaurant Commander’s Palace.
Needless to say, I was anxious to meet a Cajun chef who was born and raised in Opelousas, not far from my hometown of St. Martinville. We hit it off; I was quite charmed by this country chef. The story about him having little bags of his special seasoning blends is true. In the midst of cooking, he would pull out a wad of his seasoning mix to deftly sprinkle into the pot.
I loved his philosophy of using the freshest of the fresh ingredients from local growers, and he easily convinced the Brennan family (and his increasing number of fans) that a potato or any vegetable — okra, tomatoes, corn — grown and picked locally was far more flavorful than those exotic ones that were trucked in from who knew where. He knew this firsthand, because he and his family cooked and ate whatever their home gardens supplied. This belief became an epoch in the ever-evolving cuisine of South Louisiana. When Paul wanted to put quail on the menu, he sought out a farmer in South Mississippi — close to home — to provide the birds for Commander’s.
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
When Paul left Commander’s to open his restaurant K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, there was no doubt in my mind that his casual establishment was going to be a smash hit. The first time I dined at K-Paul’s, I was in awe of his fried mirliton pirogues, filled with fried shrimp and fried oysters and dressed with a béarnaise sauce flavored with bits of tasso. Wow! He was a magician at combining flavors that tickled your taste buds.
I consider myself lucky to have enjoyed his blackened fish and pork chops. He reinvented turducken and brought tasso (once made with trimmings from a boucherie) to great heights by making his own tasso from a better cut of pork — the shoulder.
I always remember Paul sitting at a table near the kitchen, tasting each and every item on the menu before it went out to his guests. And I know how lucky am I to have worked with him and the Brennans.