Yogi Berra, the great catcher of the New York Yankees, was once asked about a famous Italian restaurant in his hometown of St. Louis. Berra. who was known for his malapropisms gave one of his all-time great responses: “Nobody goes there anymore,” he answered, “it’s too crowded.” This was the same guy who was said to have once ordered pie a la mode at a restaurant and then added, “put some ice cream on top.”
Berra’s comments came to mind last week with the announcement of the closing of K-Paul’s restaurant on Chartres Street. Founded in 1979 by Chef Paul Prudhomme and his then wife, Kay, the restaurant was unpretentious from the outside but revolutionary on the inside. Prudhomme (who died in 2015) created during his career a new genre of food; what I call Nouveau Cajun. Before Prudhomme the Acadians of southwest Louisiana never really ate their food spicy and charred. They seasoned with whatever spices they had and there wasn’t much. (A relative once told me of eating crawfish as a young girl that was seasoned in the pot only with table salt.)
There can be no greater measure of a chef’s success than what impact his cooking had on the ecology. Prudhomme’s blackened redfish became so popular that a moratorium was put on catching the fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Prudhomme’s recipe changed menus globally so that it became common to see blackened chicken or blackened shrimp, which, as the world turns, is increasingly showing up on tacos. Back in New Orleans even pre-Katrina Dixie Beer created a spike in its sales by offering a magical specialty called Blackened Voodoo.
During its early days K-Paul’s was so popular that a line of customers stretched down the block along Chartres each night. To get more people seated the restaurant initiated the controversial policy of requiring group seating so that diners were combined at the same table with someone else. Unless a person was desperate for company this was not very popular. Only K-Paul’s could get away with it. To sweeten the deal, if a diner ate the full meal a sever would stick a small gold star on his cheek like those awarded in grade school. Perhaps that was an honor or perhaps it was a subtle hint that it was time to leave the table to someone else. Yet the restaurant’s success was obvious, as the Quarter would sparkle with lots of starred cheeks.
Several years ago, I decided to try the walkway across the Brooklyn Bridge. Along the way I started talking to a native New Yorker who was walking alongside. Learning that I was from New Orleans he replied that he heard that the food was pretty good there. I told him it was, and as an example I asked if he had ever heard of Paul Prudhomme. He paused, the answered, “Isn’t he the fat man who burns his fish?” Blackening is not burning but I knew he meant well as I nodded to the affirmative.
Looking at the expansive Manhattan skyline that night there were no doubt many fooderies where dishes were being delicately blackened at that moment. And it all started at a crowded restaurant on Chartres Street.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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