Paul Prudhomme, the Opelousas native who popularized Cajun cuisine in the 1980s, has died at 75 after a brief illness resulting from an infection, WWL-TV reported this morning. A worker at his restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, confirmed the news.
Prudhomme, the youngest of 13 children, began cooking in Opelousas before apprenticing in kitchens around the country. He came back to Louisiana and worked in New Orleans at Maison Dupuy and Le Pavillon before being named executive chef at Commander's Palace in 1975. Prudhomme opened his signature restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, in 1979 on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. It brought national attention to the ingredients and rustic cooking style of rural Louisiana, including a national vogue for "blackened" meats and fishes after Prudhomme's own blackened redfish recipe.
K-Paul's also was famous for its eccentricities: no reservations, no substitutions and diners who cleaned their plates received gold stars. For a while, lines stretched down Chartres Street with locals and tourists waiting to get in. He told The Providence Journal in 1984: "A lot of people don't get any fun or pleasure out of eating. I like to see them eat my food and see their eyes light up when they first take a bite. I like to watch when they don't know I am looking at them . . . their whole expression changes.
"That's what keeps me cooking."
With his Falstaffian beard and build, Prudhomme became one of the first celebrity chefs in America, recognizable to many who didn't follow the food world. He capitalized on his fame with more than a dozen cookbooks, a line of spice mixes and many personal and television appearances. Among the many local chefs who got their start or learned from Prudhomme were Frank Brigtsen and Greg and Mary Sonnier. He also had five nationally distributed cooking shows on PBS, which were taped locally at WYES-TV.
WYES executive vice-president Beth Arroyo Utterback, who was executive producer for all 130 episodes of Prudhomme's WYES shows, told Gambit, "He really connected with viewers on a very special level. His latest series, which we did eight or nine years ago, is still running and is one of the highest-rated programs [on WYES].
"He was obviously a genius, but also a genuine, kind and thoughtful friend," Utterback added. "He loved to be able to share his knowledge."
Though his restaurant never maintained the height of its initial popularity when Cajun food was a trend, it continued to please visitors and locals. In 2011, reviewing K-Paul's revived lunch service, Gambit food critic Ian McNulty wrote, "Lemon and anchovies practically leap from the dressing for Caesar salads (which is sometimes topped with fried chicken tossed with garlic butter). There might be Cajun-style smothered beef masquerading as beef Stroganoff, the meat cut from the same tenderloins used at dinner, the house-baked roll ready to sop up the gravy, the divider plate holding discreet portions of steamed vegetables netted under caramelized onions."
"Chef Paul Prudhomme changed forever the way Louisiana food is regarded in the world," Poppy Tooker, the local food historian and host of Louisiana Eats!, told Gambit. "He had such an incredible influence on our cuisine that you could find a touch of Paul on restuarant plates across the city and the country today." U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy tweeted, "So many fond memories cooking Paul Prudhomme's dishes. We in Louisiana are grateful he helped share our culture with the rest of the world."
The Brennan family of Commander's Palace issued a statement attributed to Ti Martin, Lally Brennan, Alex Brennan-Martin, Brad Brennan, Dottie Brennan and Ella Brennan and the entire Commander’s staff:
Our entire family is so saddened to hear of the passing of our dear friend Paul. We admired him immensely and loved his talent and his effusive love of people. Paul was a joy to work with and he’s been an inspiration to all of us in the food world. Cajun and Creole cuisines crashed in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace in the 1970s with Paul Prudhomme and Ella Brennan and the Brennan family. Prior to that, Cajun food had not been a part of New Orleans cooking. The result was an explosion of spectacular flavors and wonderful cooking that influenced the city, state, country and the world.
There’s been no better ambassador for New Orleans and Louisiana than Paul Prudhomme and he will be greatly missed.
In a statement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said:
My thoughts and prayers are with Chef Paul Prudhomme and his family. K-Paul was an internationally-renowned chef and a New Orleans legend that represented and popularized Louisiana’s authenticity and culture. He was an innovator that inspired countless professional chefs and the millions at home who watched him on television. I am confident that his influence and legacy will continue through those who knew him best. He will be dearly missed by all.
Prudhomme is survived by his wife, Lori. Memorial arrangements have not been announced.