Culinary legend and beloved Louisiana native son Paul Prudhomme died on Thursday, October 8, at the age of 75 following a brief illness. Prudhomme was one of America's first celebrity chefs, renowned for his introduction of the regional cuisine of Louisiana to the world in the 1980's. This trailblazer remained on the forefront of culinary trends throughout his career and his influence redefined American cooking. He was a pioneer in the exploration of food, flavor and taste, popularizing new dishes including his most famous effort, Blackened Redfish - a totally original creation, which became such a sensation that commercial fishing of the species was temporarily banned in order to prevent it from becoming extinct. He also introduced Turducken, an elaborate poultry dish. ""Every now and then somebody comes around who is the right person at the right place at the right time, and that person was Paul for us, for New Orleans and for the whole food world,"" said Ella Brennan of her long-time friend and colleague. ""He wanted to share with the world his great love and passion for Louisiana food. He really cooked with instinct and was always searching for the next, greatest flavors. He used to say, ""I want it to go 'Pow' in your mouth!"" He truly was at the forefront of getting America excited about food and we give him credit for helping to put New Orleans on the map."" Prudhomme's stories, recipes and seasoning mixes made Cajun food and the culture of Louisiana a sensation, but it was his 64-seat restaurant in the French Quarter that first propelled him into the spotlight. In 1979 he opened K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen with his late wife Kay Hinrichs. The couple originally envisioned a casual local eatery, but Prudhomme's magic in the kitchen transformed the restaurant into a culinary mecca that had both local diners and world travelers lining Chartres Street for a taste of his intricately seasoned fare. The chef-entrepreneur originally created seasoning blends strictly for his restaurant, never intending to sell them commercially. At the request of his customers, however, he began handing out small samples of his homemade seasoning mixes and the demand grew until it reached the point where in 1983 he created his own line of all natural herb and spice blends. Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends products are now made in a 130,000 square foot plant in Elmwood and distributed in all 50 states and more than 30 foreign countries. The celebrity chef wrote nine cookbooks and his first, The Louisiana Kitchen, a New York Times bestseller published in 1984 won a Culinary Classic Book Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Of that book Prudhomme commented that ""it created a whole new trend just by reaching into a very earthy, very country and very simple culture and putting their food out there."" In the 1980's, long before the pop-up phenomenon, Prudhomme took his show on the road with a West Coast tour in 1983 and a trip to New York in 1985 that made headlines when the Board of Health closed his temporary location. The city's mayor Ed Koch intervened, ending what the press dubbed the ""Gumbo War"" and for five weeks diners lined up for blocks to sample his native Louisiana dishes. Through the years this ambassador of Cajun cuisine fed numerous heads of state. In 1983 he cooked at the world economic summit in Williamsburg, Va. and he was picked to head Louisiana's delegation for President Ronald Reagan's 1985 inauguration, feeding 1,000 D.C. insiders regional specialties like oysters and brie pie and chicken smothered in black-eyed peas. He cooked for members of the U.S. Senate at a Congressional Barbecue and returned to the Capital in 2005 for the second inaugural bash of President George W. Bush. An international presence, Prudhomme made personal appearances and gave lectures and seminars throughout Europe and the Orient. He served as a consultant to Team USA of the American Culinary Federation and was one of 12 chefs chosen to particulate in the celebration of Jerusalem's 3000th anniversary where each chef created a kosher dish, which was served at the King of David's Feast in March 1996. Prudhomme was the first American-born chef to receive the Merite' Agricole of the French Republic and was honored as ""Culinarian of the Year"" by the American Culinary Federation, as well as Restaurateur of the Year from the Louisiana State Restaurant Association. He was also the first chef to bring attention to Cajun and New Orleans cooking on national television, where he was a featured guest on hundreds of network and local talk shows through the years including Good Morning America, The Today Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Larry King Live and many others. In 1995 he starred in Chef Paul Prudhomme's Fork in the Road, the first of five public television series taped at WYES-TV in New Orleans. The programs attracted a league of loyal home cooks across the nation and continue to gain new audiences in repeat showings. ""My mission is to make your dinner better,"" he regularly told his viewers while inviting them to discover a new direction in cooking. When Katrina hit the city, Prudhomme was forced to close K-Paul's but the restaurant became a relief center for military personnel, relief workers and French Quarter residents, with his staff cooking over 6,000 meals during a ten-day period following the storm. For his efforts following the hurricane, in 2006 Bon Appetit magazine awarded Prudhomme its Humanitarian Award. His final television series Chef Paul Prudhomme's Always Cooking! was taped in August 2006 in the stripped-down shell of the WYES studio, only a year after the Lakeview facility was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina floodwaters. ""Doing 26 shows, sharing recipes, is the snapshot of what's happening throughout New Orleans,"" he said during the production. ""Energetic, devoted people coming back with the minimum of conveniences to produce the maximum of emotion."" In his books, in newspaper and magazine articles, and on television this son of a sharecropper shared his incredible life story. Prudhomme grew up in rural French-speaking Opelousas as the youngest of 13 children born to Eli and Hazel Prudhomme. As the ""baby"" of the family he was responsible for helping his mother prepare meals for the large family, a task that he loved. ""The kitchen was my favorite place to be,"" he often said. He told stories about the family farm and explained what he learned from a life that revolved around the seasons - lessons on the use of fresh, indigenous ingredients that left an indelible stamp on his cooking style. At 17 he opened Big Daddy O's Patio, an Opelousas hamburger stand that failed after nine months. He worked as a busboy, cook and magazine salesman in New Orleans, then headed west, cooking in restaurants and resorts for 12 years before returning to Louisiana. In New Orleans he became the sous chef at Le Pavilion Hotel for a year and then got a job as chef of the Maison Dupuy Hotel. Prudhomme would say in a 1995 newspaper article that this is where ""things really got going."" ""They wanted to do Louisiana food and they wanted to do the real stuff. The restaurant was an immediate success,"" he said. Within two or three weeks the restaurant had lines for both lunch and dinner. ""A star is born"" declared the Times-Picayune. He was lured to Commander's Palace by Ella Brennan and was the first American-born executive chef of the venerable Garden District restaurant. While working at Commander's and with the blessings of the Brennans, Prudhomme opened K-Paul's with Kay Hinrichs, a waitress whom he met at the Maison Dupuy. The business partners would later marry. Prudhomme left Commander's to expand service at K-Paul's from lunch to dinner. On his first night at the stove he served his signature dish, Blackened Redfish, and the rest is history. ""Chef Paul has been my mentor, friend and has been like a father for 38 years, and his death leaves a big hole,"" said K-Paul's Executive Chef/Manager Paul Miller. ""The restaurant is his legacy. It has been and always will be run according to his taste and insistence on quality. That will never change."" Prudhomme is survived by his wife, Lori Bennett Prudhomme; his brother Eli Prudhomme; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. Visitation will be on Sunday, October 11, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home, 3827 Canal Street. A Funeral Mass will be held on Monday, October 12, at St. Louis Cathedral at 10:30 a.m., with a visitation to begin at 9:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to: The Chef Paul and Lori Prudhomme Foundation, 720 Distributors Row, Harahan, La. 70123. Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home in charge of arrangements. You may sign the online guest book at www.schoenfh.com.
Published by The New Orleans Advocate from Oct. 9 to Oct. 12, 2015.