Food Arts presents the March 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Paul Prudhomme, the first American superstar chef.
Prudhomme, the 13th and last child in a large Cajun family, was born on July 13 and has 13 letters in his name—a trio of signs he interprets as lucky. Through a combination of his good luck, personal charisma, genius and hard work, he was catapulted from Louisiana's backwoods to a life that includes Lear jets and limousines as he travels the world as an ambassador of regional foods and tradition.
From their down-home K-Paul Louisiana Kitchen, opened in New Orleans's French Quarter in 1979, Prudhomme and his wife, K Hinrichs Prudhomme, who died in December, ignited a craze for Cajun food that blazed its way across the country and even threatened extinction of species, as it seemed no redfish would go unblackened. As an author, he's a mega best seller with three cookbooks chalking up sales well over a million. His two cooking videos have been outsold only by Jane Fonda's workout tapes. Some 100,000 pounds of his Magic Seasoning Blends are sold throughout the United States and in 15 countries worldwide every month. He was the first chef to take his show on the road, opening his restaurant for a few weeks' run first in London in 1980, where eager customers paid off the maître d' for tables, and then in San Francisco and New York City, where long lines of hungry fans rivaled those for blockbuster movies. And speaking of movies, there was no mistaking the intended identity of the king-size chef wearing the newsboy style cap in The Big Easy.
Prudhomme's wild popularity has enabled him to accomplish an important personal goal: gaining respect for the American chef. Early on, he was distressed to see less talented chefs with foreign accents getting the best jobs. "First I started developing an accent," he recalls. Then a better remedy struck him: He set out on a mission to prove that food can speak American English.
An important turning point came in 1979 when Prudhomme, then still corporate chef for Commander's Palace and the Brennan family's other restaurants, had an opportunity to test his mettle against several young gastronomic starlets from France and Italy at a series of lunches and dinners at Tavern on the Green in New York City. Prudhomme was the one who received a standing ovation and it lasted seven minutes. To judge from the wire service coverage, the era of the American chef was at hand.
Prudhomme's other great crusade is to enhance the chef/farmer connection. As a country boy, he came early to the realization that the freshness of food is the key to its taste. Raised on a farm in rural Opelousas, Louisiana, he started cooking by his mother's side when he was seven. Though the family was poor in dollars—in lean years they had no more than $300 for groceries—it was rich in produce and foods available from hunting and gathering. They worked or bartered for staples. "I know what real cow's milk tastes like because I milked the cows," Prudhomme says. "I know what a new potato tastes like right after it's dug up."
Because he believes all chefs need to have these reference points, he is designing a culinary education program, possibly Louisiana State University, that would include work on a farm.
Prudhomme is a man who cares passionately about food and about the people he feeds. A tireless worker, he believes in doing things right. But in spite of all the hard work, he describes his career as "loads of fun" and his relationship with the public as "a raging love affair." He's known affectionately by friends and employees as Chef Paul. When he autographs copies of his books, he wishes the recipient what he believes are the three best things in life: "Good cooking, good eating, good loving." He carries forward one of the most fundamental Louisiana traditions: Laissez les bons temps rouler!