One of our country’s best-known chefs, Paul Prudhomme, began life under an inauspicious cloud. Raised on a farm outside Opelousas, Prudhomme was the 13th of 13 children. “I was born on the 13th day of the month, and my name has 13 letters,” he adds. The more triskaidekaphobic among us may have given up hope of success, but Prudhomme didn’t. He went on to become a culinary outlier, one of America’s first celebrity chefs in a time where folks in the kitchen did not enjoy the popular attention that they do today. Along the way, his bearded, crinkle-eyed visage has become an icon of Louisiana food and flavor. The piquant products of his company, Magic Seasoning Blends, are distributed worldwide, and his landmark restaurant, K-Paul’s, remains a top draw in the French Quarter.
Prudhomme began cooking out of necessity at 7 years old when his father sent him to help his mom out in the kitchen. “Father was a traditional man who believed in traditional roles for his boys, but there were just three girls out of 13 kids. We were out on a farm with no gas and no electricity. And so one day my dad told me, ‘You gotta get in the kitchen and help out your mother.’”
Prudhomme noticed early on the power of good cooking. When his siblings, typically preoccupied with fighting in the yard, were summoned for dinner, something transformative happened. They would sit down angry and, about halfway through the meal, would start being nice to each other again. “It just changed their whole disposition,” he remembers. “Good food just makes a person happy.” His brothers’ and sisters’ moods thereby transposed, peace returned. “Until, of course, they got back outside,” he laughs.
Cooking quickly became the most important thing in his life. He wasn’t comfortable behind a school desk and preferred boxing to classrooms. He grew up in a colorful, rough-and-tumble world. At 13 (that number again) his uncle, who owned a bar, put Prudhomme to work as a card dealer in the back room. “The city people would drive in to play and the games would go all night, usually on Saturdays, until it was time to go to church.” As his cooking skills became clear, a cousin who ran another back-room casino built him a restaurant. That restaurant failed … and the next one, then the next one. But from each one that failed, he took away experience. “I paid my bills and then started getting restaurants that worked. I learned something from all of them along the way,” he says.
Eventually a mutual friend introduced Prudhomme to Ella Brennan. Around that time, Commander’s Palace lost its chef, and Brennan asked Prudhomme to step in temporarily while they looked for a replacement. Shortly thereafter Brennan, recognizing that their search had ended with Prudhomme, pulled him aside and offered him the job. He didn’t want it initially and asked for a lot of money, figuring that would scare her off. She called his bluff. “I almost fell down,” he laughs. “At that time, it was so much money that I backed down. I said I don’t want all that money up front; I want this amount and when I’m ready I’m going to ask for the rest.” He said he had to get the kitchen straightened out first. Three months later, Brennan and her brother came in and gave him the rest plus a little more.
“To this day it still gives me chills. It was so wonderful,” he says.
From Brennan, Prudhomme learned how to make money as a restaurateur. He credits her with instilling the business sense into him. “Up to that point I really hadn’t understood that. I just wanted the cooking to be the best, whether it made money or not. She made me realize that if you really are going to be a businessperson, you need to make money. And she just hammered away at me until I understood that.”
Paul went on to found K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in 1979, his eighth and most successful restaurant. The rest is culinary history. His famous “blackening” technique sparked an insatiable craze, which almost doomed the red drum as a species. He put Cajun food on the national map, published a slew of cookbooks, hosted multiple television shows and founded Magic Seasoning Blends. These days he works in his test kitchen, personally developing new seasoning blends to customer specifications while tailoring his own pet-project line of salt- and sugar-free seasoning mixes. At 70, he remains a creative force in the national culinary community and active in charities, fundraisers and educational programs nationwide. For all he has done and continues to do, the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience is pleased to present to Chef Paul Prudhomme its second Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.