A tip of chef’s hat to Mr. Prudhomme

Published 1:16 am Saturday, October 10, 2015

“Paul Prudhomme died,” Mr. Honey reported Thursday. “You know, he’s the reason we did well in the restaurant business.”

For the uninitiated, Prudhomme was the rotund Louisiana chef with a personality as big as he was. He was 75.

When Mr. Honey credited Prudhomme with his own success in the restaurant business, I assumed it was because he had used a ton of his signature seasonings – especially Seafood Magic, Blackened Redfish Magic, and Blackened Steak Magic.

But as I read more about the iconic chef, I learned that he was responsible for Americans’ love for Creole and Cajun cooking. The 13th child of a sharecropper, Prudhomme started cooking beside his mother when he was 7, in a country kitchen with no electricity. By the time he was 17, he had launched his fist restaurant Big Daddy O’s Patio.

He became the first non-European chef of the legendary Commander’s Palace in 1975, and convinced the influential Ella and Dick Brennan to allow him to incorporate the ingredients and dishes he grew up eating into the menu. Soon, diners in the haute cuisine restaurant were introduced to the wonder of Andouille gumbo.

Back in our restaurant days, we had a loyal customer who was shaped a bit like Prodhomme who would invariably trip up a new waitress with the question, “Is your gumbo fresh?”

While most foods are best served fresh, this customer understood that gumbos and soups get better as the layers of flavors meld. It takes a day or two.

“I came to realize that the joy of cooking Cajun and Creole food was not just that I appreciated its goodness so much, but that there was this great pleasure I got from watching other people eat it and seeing the joy in their eyes,” he once said.

I love to sit quietly in a busy restaurant and listen to the sounds – a blend of kitchen sounds and the low din of conversation, accented with the occasional click of a wine glass. It is the sound of happy people, and when you have a role in that, it is music.

New York Times food critic Crag Claiborne, said in 1988 that because of Prudhomme, “People said, ‘There must be more to Southern cooking,’ and he opened up the floodgates to the whole field.”

Imagine what the world would have missed without him. Heck. Even turnips and collard greens make the menus of fine restaurants these days. And why shouldn’t they? When seasoned well (OK, I have to admit it, with pork fat), there’s not much better.

A tip of the chef’s hat to Mr. Prudhomme. He helped the world see part of what’s great about the South. May he rest in peace – or in a kitchen – which was sort of like heaven to him.