Paul Prudhomme, the chef who popularized spicy Louisiana cuisine, died on October 8 at the age of 75. He became one of the first American restaurant chefs to become known throughout the world.
Soon after opening K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the early 1980s, Prudhomme became prominent as he sparked an enduring interest in the Cajun and Creole dishes that he had known while growing up in Louisiana. Dishes such as gumbo, crawfish etoufee, and jamabalaya became household words in the United States and elsewhere because of Prudhomme.
Chef Paul was known for innovations such as 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 he lamented that diners had stopped ordering his other specialties. In a 1992 interview, he said "We had all this wonderful food, we raised our own rabbit and duck, and all anyone wanted was blackened redfish."
Raised by his sharecropper parents near Opelousas, in Lousiana’s Acadian region, Prudhomme was 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 fresh vegetables, poultry and seafood. He once said, "My mother was a fabulous cook. With her I began to understand about seasoning, about blending taste, about cooking so things were worth eating."
After graduating high school, Prudhomme travelled throughout the country and cooked in bars, diners, resorts and hotel restaurants. Returning to New Orleans in the 1970s, despite having no formal training, he became a chef in a hotel restaurant. In 1975, Prudhomme became the head chef at the esteemed Commander's Palace restaurant. He and his wife opened their own restaurant, K-Paul's, four years later. Despite its modest décor, K-Paul’s soon became the most popular restaurant in New Orleans: a city already renowned for its cuisine.
Prudhomme’s outsize frame became familiar on television talk shows in the 1980s. He encouraged Americans to add spice to their food, when many ventured further than adding salt and pepper to their meals. K-Paul’s became an upscale destination restaurant where people lined up for hours to sample its cooking. His cookbooks became bestsellers, as did his spice mixtures.
His weight, as much as his cooking skills, was Prudhomme’s 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. By 1992, he had trimmed down from 580 pounds to 200. Speaking to a crowd, he said "I used to taste things this way," he said while filling a large cooking spoon. "Now I taste them this way." He poked a fork into a single piece of carrot and held it up.
Prudhomme’s first wife, Kay, died in 1998 at the age of 48. He is survived by his second wife, Lori Bennet.
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