Chef Paul Prudhomme

Chef Paul Prudhomme

When a group of hungry guests of the Southern Foodways Alliance gathered for a 2011 dinner honoring Paul Prudhomme at Cochon in New Orleans, the larger-than-life chef and culinary personality began the evening on a humble note:

Hello, everybody. My name is Paul Prudhomme and I’m a cook. And I mean that very, very strongly.

And while this genuflection of modesty certainly speaks to Prudhomme’s affable nature and love of the kitchen, what everyone in the room knew well is that the Opelousas-area native was so much more than a cook: He was a man who fundamentally changed the face of what it meant to be a chef in the United States — all while creating a madcap frenzy around Louisiana cuisine.

As an (ahem) younger person, when I first learned about K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen — Prudhomme’s iconic ode to forward-thinking, history-respecting Cajun cuisine in the French Quarter — I automatically assumed the “K” stood for “king” because, well, why not? It made perfect sense given Prudhomme’s oversized stature in both regional lore and national edible history. Soon, though, I learned that the “K” actually represented a queen: K Hinrichs, his late wife and business partner, who was responsible for making the atmosphere and experience at K-Paul’s one that magnetized out-of-town guests and, ultimately, charmed the nation.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Paul himself wasn’t royalty. A proud product of the Cajun prairie who carried the area’s signature lilting accent until his death in 2015, there’s little about his path to acclaim that followed the traditional route at a time when becoming a lauded chef meant climbing the lockstep rungs of a culinary ladder and staying, mostly, out of the public eye.

Instead, Prudhomme carved out a very public-facing path with sheer Cajun tenacity — and therein lay his strength. One of 13 children and the son of a sharecropper, Prudhomme did things his way, meandering through stints in magazine sales, failed hamburger joints and failed marriages to finally bring a style of cooking — first to New Orleans diners, and then, the world — that was completely, deeply, in his blood.

“If that culture wasn’t there, if Mother hadn’t handed me this stuff, and my sisters and my cousins and my uncles and my aunts, if they hadn’t shown me all this by putting it in my mouth and talking about it all the time, I wouldn’t have done any of this…

… I don’t kid myself. I wasn’t born with it. I may have been born with the drive. But the food was taught to me by the family and the people around. It’s their food as much as it is mine,” Prudhomme recalled as part of an exhaustive oral history conducted by The Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson in 2005.

And while Prudhomme is, undoubtedly, celebrated as a chef and restaurateur (where would contemporary Louisiana cooking be today, after all, without his blackened redfish?), he also played a critical role in shaping how the public perceives food as not only diners, but as an audience. Prudhomme and K both knew that eating and entertaining are inextricably linked, and through avenues that were novel at the time, heightened Prudhomme’s profile by making the excitement of the dining room at K-Paul’s accessible to the masses. If anyone was an influencer, brand builder and pop culture force of nature long before we had names for these things, it was Chef Paul.

But his massive role as a sculptor of our current food media landscape seems to be glossed over far too often in national discussions. Julia Child gets almost all the credit for bringing televised cooking into living rooms across the country, but it was Prudhomme who showed that regional cuisines are just as likely to get viewers to tune in. Prudhomme protégé Emeril Lagasse has made a career out of Bam!-ing his way into pop culture consciousness as the quintessential Louisiana chef, but it was Paul who did it first — in an era largely unaided by syndication and social media. And while Prudhomme’s longtime friend Alice Waters is best known for sparking the farm-to-table movement at her California restaurant, Chez Panisse, it would be hard to surpass Chef Paul’s passion for encouraging chefs and home cooks alike to seek out and use the freshest possible ingredients. (After recalling how, as a child, he and his mother would dig up new potatoes fresh from the field to use while cooking, Prudhomme told Nation’s Restaurant News that he “recognized at that point how important it is to have fresh ingredients, and I’ve been battling that battle ever since.”)

A role model for authenticity and staying true to your roots — all while innovating, achieving and, of course, altering dining history — it’s easy to look at the ways Prudhomme succeeded in the kitchen and call him a legend. He was, after all, the first American-born executive chef of Commander’s Palace. But in our ever media-hungry world, it’s more important than ever to begin talking about how Prudhomme was, in part, an architect of something larger, a foundational example of how a chef goes from celebrated to full-blown celebrity.

Love it or hate it, it’s nigh on impossible to flip through television channels, stroll down the grocery store aisle or pick up a local event listing without seeing celebrity chefs everywhere. If you were so inclined, it would be all too easy to be eating a dish cooked with Bobby Flay-branded sauce, using an Alton Brown-branded spatula, in a Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman) branded crockpot. You could do this while flipping through 24-hour-a-day celebrity food programming on both the Food Network and Cooking Channel, or while getting dressed to head out to a “secret” pop-up dinner from the latest beloved chef du jour.

And while it’s difficult now to imagine a time when food programming didn’t dominate the television landscape and cooks didn’t launch their own lines of ready-to-eat frozen meals on a regular basis, before chefs like Prudhomme, the thought of a “celebrity chef” seemed almost ridiculous.

Following the runaway success of his first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, in 1984 (which, by the time his first television show aired in the mid-’90s, had sold over half a million copies), Prudhomme found himself the origin point for, and nexus of, a Cajun food mania across the country. And while most restaurant chefs of the era would’ve simply returned to the kitchen and reveled in the throngs of customers drawn in by such a popular work, Chef Paul took a different tact: He found a way to reach even more people by going on television.

Over the course of his lifetime, Prudhomme starred in five separate cooking shows on PBS, beginning with Fork in the Road in 1995 and ending with Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Always Cooking! in 2007, which can still occasionally be found airing on public television stations across the country. And with over 125 episodes of television under his belt — in addition to direct-to-video instructional tapes like Louisiana Kitchen Vol. 1: Complete Cajun Meal Featuring Blackened Redfish and a recurring syndicated news segment called The Magic of Chef Paul — it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Chef Paul was a bona fide television star, and one who scratched out the blueprint for all celebrity chefs to follow.

While Julia Child (and, before her, James Beard) also pioneered televised cooking instruction, Prudhomme gave it flair. Where Julia made cooking that might’ve seemed intimidating — from cheese soufflé to boeuf bourguignon — accessible, everything about Prudhomme was downright affable. Each facet of his television persona sought to reveal something about his Louisiana heritage, diving into both his personal story and the history of the region with a sense of warmth and tradition that, until then, had rarely been seen in a chef on television. It’s difficult to imagine tracing the legacy of any broadcast chef promoting the cuisine of their region, whether Southeastern or Southern Californian, and not see Prudhomme as the originator of this style of culinary TV.

But Prudhomme was not only a representative of regional cooking at its finest and a storyteller extraordinaire: He was a man you wanted cooking for you, beside you or simply having a seat at your table. If the old political test for likability, “Which candidate would you want to drink a beer with?” was applied to celebrity chefs over the generations, I still believe Prudhomme would be a top choice.

“It’s alive; it’s wonderful gumbo!” Prudhomme marvels at a boiling pot of gumbo in an episode of Always Cooking! “I can just see all the taste in it. Take a bowl of potato salad, pour some rice on it, and take the gumbo to it!”

Prudhomme’s sensibility not only as a chef, but as a live performer, also made him a favorite guest on talk shows. Perhaps most notably, he was well-liked by Regis Philbin, who hosted him on his daytime program countless times and gave Prudhomme’s recipes a key role in his 1993 book, Cooking with Regis & Kathie Lee: Quick & Easy Recipes from America’s Favorite TV Personalities.

This charm — combined with top-notch cuisine, of course — came to manifest what could be described as the first-ever celebrity chef “brand.” Whether consciously or not, Prudhomme was a master of self-promotion and branding before the term existed as something an individual could (or would even want to) do. There was his signature look, his Cajun identity (“Cajun makes you happy,” he told People magazine in the mid-1980s. “It’s emotional. You can’t eat a plate of Cajun food and not have good thoughts.”) And then, in the early 1990s, the catchphrase “Good cooking, good eating, good loving!” — which became his official television sign-off.

Prudhomme’s status as a deeply recognizable culinary force unto himself also extended to grocery store aisles, with a line drawing of his likeness donning each jar of Magic Seasoning Blends — his line of signature spices, rubs and, eventually, smoked meat — that debuted in 1982. And while restaurant chefs until this point had, by and large, attempted to keep their recipes and processes close to the vest, Prudhomme took a very different approach, bottling and selling his beloved blends of herbs and spices with a kind of flavor-based populism that was theretofore unheard of.

“When we first opened the restaurant, we were using seasonings and I think we had maybe six or seven blends. The customers would come in and say, ‘Man! This is good! What are you putting on this?’ So we’d actually give them some in foil, take a piece of foil, dump some in and wrap it. They’d come back and want to buy it,” Prudhomme told OffBeat magazine in 2005.

And from the classic blackened redfish seasoning blend, to gumbo filé, to cured specialty meats like tasso, it’s not a stretch to say that the Magic Seasoning Blends brand is now ubiquitous, available in all 50 states and 37 countries around the world.

“The way we work is that the blends are developed — actually next to my house I have a research and development kitchen, and that’s where I work at. We do the blend there, we send it here, they re-blend it and then they send it back to us and we taste it and if it matches, then [we] start blending it,” Prudhomme explained to OffBeat. “Every blend that we do is tasted. It’s looked at, it’s tasted and tested against the last blend. That’s our system of being consistent. We do about 15 or 20 batches a day. If you like that kind of thing, it’s fun.”

Prudhomme was also one of the first chefs — if not the first —to embrace the culture of the “pop-up” restaurant as we know it today. In 1983, Prudhomme took K-Paul’s on the road, setting up a residency inside the Old Waldorf nightclub in San Francisco and revolutionizing how chefs think about sharing their cuisine, with a “have knife, will travel” energy.

“It’s the first time anyone’s been nuts enough to try taking a restaurant on the road,” Prudhomme told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Vlae Kershner during the pop-up, which saw the likes of Jimmy Buffett in attendance over the course of its culture-shifting, 32-night West Coast residency.

“The San Francisco version of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen had lines out the door nightly, with waits of three to six hours. Chronicle restaurant reviewer Patricia Unterman asked Prudhomme, who was holding court at a small table, why he’d allow customers to wait so long. He couldn’t answer at first because of the stream of customers coming up to tell him their waits had been worth it,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bill Van Niekerken in a 2016 tribute to Prudhomme’s pioneering pop-up spirit. “Thirty years later, the dozens of restauranteurs opening pop-up spots in the city should tip their chef hats to Prudhomme and K-Paul’s.”

But cooking for the masses with Prudhomme in an unfamiliar space had its pitfalls — just ask Chef Frank Brigtsen. “I was the ‘blackened’ guy. So I’m blackening redfish, prime rib, lamb chops, and making barbecue shrimp,” Brigtsen recalls in a 2005 interview about his experiences cooking for Prudhomme at the San Francisco pop-up. “The place didn’t have a very good exhaust system, so I had to wear goggles. Every 15 minutes I’m dumping the sweat out of my goggles. It was brutal.”

Soon, the East Coast came calling, and Prudhomme set his sights on New York City. His five-week, Manhattan-based pop-up in 1985 was even more intense and impactful than the San Francisco iteration, with lines often stretching block after block of people trying to get a seat at a table. By the time Prudhomme opened a permanent New York location in 1989, the branding synergy of television spots, a spice empire and pop-ups had turned Chef Paul into a culinary and cultural zeitgeist.

A snapshot from an April 1989 New York Times article about the harried excitement that fueled the opening of K-Paul’s in New York captures the energy Prudhomme brought to the city. “‘This is the closest I’ve been to the source since I first saw his Cajun Magic powder at the grocery,’ said Mario Rizzo, a retail coordinator who lives in Bayside, Queens. After an hour and 45 minutes, he was close enough to be caught in the blue light of the Paul Prudhomme cooking video that played by the front door. Shards of zydeco music and roadhouse smells followed the departing customers and seemed to fade over the technicolor cooking lessons. ‘I like TV,’ said Lilly Bunn [while waiting in line], ‘but my legs are tired.’”

It’s often noted that Prudhomme did not consider his food to be Cajun, exactly, but instead thought of it as Louisiana food. And no wonder: The man embodied and embraced the whole of the state through and through. Even as his brand grew in stature and global reach, the key components of the Prudhomme empire all remained centered in Louisiana, his permanent home base. His nationally televised shows were all filmed at WYES in New Orleans; his internationally renowned seasoning company continues to be based out of Harahan; and, for pop-ups, it was his local staff who traveled right alongside him to cook across the country. But perhaps most important, Prudhomme was able to take the Cajun flavors and jovial spirit of the cuisine on which he was raised and make it something completely fresh and all his own — a little French Quarter Creole, a little sourced from the Cajun bayou — for a brand, and a way of thinking about Louisiana cooking, that changed everything.