Chef Paul Prudhomme dies at 75
NEW ORLEANS — 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.
Sharon said she found out about Paul's passing around noon Thursday, when a past employee called to offer condolences.
"It was kind of a shock," she said. Paul died early Thursday after a brief illness. No funeral arrangements had been made by Thursday afternoon.
Sharon first met Paul after she married into the family in 1990.
"I was the Yankee wife with the weird accent," she said. But, Paul welcomed her with open arms.
"You would talk to that man and think you knew him since you were a kid," Sharon said. "He was a super sweet man. He was nice to everyone."
She remembered after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Paul and his staff at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen moved equipment outside to serve food to those who needed it.
"He was a good man in the community," she said.
Sharon said she cherishes stories from Paul, including one about how he learned the restaurant business.
"Paul had his first restaurant when he was 17," she said. It failed, but that didn't keep him away from the business.
After high school, "he packed two suitcases and then he would go to all the big cities all the way to California. He would find the best chefs in the area and get a job with them. When he was off and not on the clock, he would approach the chefs and say he'd back them up for free."
He prepped ingredients and did grunt work to learn the tricks of the trade. When he felt like he learned enough from that spot, he'd pack up the two suitcases and move to the next restaurant, Sharon said.
He 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. He 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. Word spread through town and around the country, and people soon waited in line for hours to taste Prudhomme's creations.
Paul became prominent in the early 1980s. 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 the chef 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."
Paul 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 red-hot skillet. Blackened redfish became so popular that Paul 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.
Paul 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.
"My mother was a fabulous cook. With her I began to understand about seasoning, about blending taste, about cooking so things were worth eating," he said.
"Chef Paul" was known for experimenting in the kitchen, often altering recipes with different seasonings and cooking processes. He particularly liked varying blends of three peppers: black, white and cayenne.
Paul'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.
Paul's success brought regrets, as well. He 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.
"It's my fault. I admit it. 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. They can't taste anything but the pepper. Cajun foods have tons of different flavors. Don't cover them up."
His 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, he 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.
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