Several years ago I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (there is a pedestrian lane) when I got in a conversation with another walker. Upon learning that I was from New Orleans he asked about the city’s reputation for good food. As part of my response I asked if he ever heard of Paul Prudhomme? He thought for a moment and then answered, “Is that the fat guy who burns his fish?”
That might not have been quite the description that Prudhomme would have liked but it certainly showed his celebrity status that even he drew recognition during a random conversation high above the East River,
There have been many great chefs from New Orleans but Prudhomme has the distinction of being the first major celebrity, certainly during the media age. Emeril Lagasse is second, but his star power came in a different way, not for a specific dish like Prudhomme’s blackened redfish, but for his expressive personality. His “Emeril Live” cable show was punctuated with catchphrases such as “Pork fat rules,” “Kick it up a notch,” “Oh, yeah babe,” and “Bam!” In doing so he made cooking shows friendlier to wider audiences.
In earlier times, travelers to the city could have heard about Madame Begue who in the 1880s was famous for her breakfasts, served at 11 a.m., which provided sustenance for dockworkers in the French Quarter. (Her meals may have been a forerunner to the concept of the “brunch.”)
There are many great chefs in the city, though national recognition should not in itself be considered a measure of that greatness. To the contrary, the tradition has most often been for head chefs to work quietly behind the scenes. That has certainly been the norm in the classic French restaurants where the chefs preside over a system in which even the wait staff has a hand in dishing out the food. The chef is the organizer and creator but not intended to be a star.
Nevertheless, this is an age when the act of dining out has become so popular that readers want to know more, hence our annual dining issue that boldly pinpoints the best in several categories including chefs.
We are blessed with a great culinary scene guided by chefs who know when it is best to kick it up a notch and when to just let the pot simmer.