Several years ago I was was walking along the pedestrian lane crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. At one point, high above the East River, I began talking to a native from Brooklyn, somewhat obvious to me by his accent. When he learned that I was from New Orleans he confessed that he had not been there for a while and asked if the food was still good down there. I began to tell him about a culinary revolution and then I asked him if he had ever heard of Paul Prudhomme.
“Paul Prudhomme,” he thought out loud. “Is that the fat man who burns his fish?”
Thinking back at that conversation, I realize it was really a compliment to the chef. The word “blackened” had not yet become part of the standard culinary language, at least not as an adjective in a dish’s title. Today, though, I am sure that the man on the bridge knows now that to blacken is NOT to burn, but to skillfully add seasonings that creates a savory dark crust, most often on fish.
Much has been written and said about Prudhomme since his death last week. He was clearly one of the most important chefs of the past century. When done right, his Blackened Redfish is an exquisite dish. So much so, that the Gulf of Mexico was once in danger of being depleted of the species and a moratorium had to be established. To create a dish that is so popular that it empties a gulf is quite a tribute to the chef—and perhaps to the fish.
A point that has been overlooked in the coverage is that Prudhomme didn’t just make Cajun cooking famous, he redefined it into something Cajun in spirit but of a new age. I call it “Nouveau Cajun.”
Cajuns of old did not blacken their fish and, for most, redfish, which comes from the gulf, was not a common meal. More common was the seafood of the bayous and rivers. They would eat catfish, gaspergou, shrimp and, increasingly, crawfish. They were also meat eaters, especially pork, and masters of the boucheries, from which a multitude of pork products were made. If they splashed hot sauce on their food, it was not because cayenne pepper grew wild in their yards (they were imported), but because they bought a bottle at the store just like the rest of us.
Prudhomme, a native of Opelousas, took the sprit of his region, but developed the flavors particularly through working at such a pronounced Chef’s mill as Commander’s Palace. From there he made his own creation. Cajun country gave him the image; New Orleans gave him a setting at which he could attract global attention. We would not be talking about Blackened Redfish had it been served just in Opelousas.
His restaurant, K-Paul’s, became an epicenter for a hot (literally) version of a native cuisine. The lines to get in were so long that locals, who did not like the restaurant’s practice of group seating, stayed away, yet they appreciated Prudhomme and the impact he was having on South Louisiana.
One sensation generated another. Prudhomme created the image of Cajun food being hot and spicy; another New Orleans entrepreneur, Al Copeland, would take that concept and apply it to fried chicken and call it Cajun style. He even added dirty rice, a classic Cajun side dish. Truth is Popeye’s chicken would more accurately be linked to Prudhomme's Nouveau Cajun, than to what the early Cajuns preferred: chicken stewed to create a thick gravy to go over rice.
All food, like all music, is ultimately fusion. Prudhomme had the genius to fuse the right ingredients and create a method of preparation that would become classic. And, as far as I know, he never did burn his fish.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and web sites.