Friday, October 09, 2015

Chef Paul

Chef Paul's book

Paul Prudhomme's impact on the New Orleans restaurant scene, on Louisiana food and tourism, on the way people think about American cuisine itself, is beyond measure.  Here are some links that were passed around yesterday that give you something of a sense of that.

"A book could be written about his influence on the New Orleans, Louisiana, American and world cuisines," said WWL Radio restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris in his New Orleans Menu daily email. "In his prime in the early 1980s, there was no chef whose fame exceeded his. Nor was there ever a time when, in his reflected starshine, Cajun and Creole food was held in greater regard."

"But for all that, Chef Paul's greatest achievement was in changing the way American people - especially young adults - looked upon the restaurant industry. Chef Paul changed the image of a cook from just a a job into a career. Of course, he himself was the best illustration of the possibilities. He grew up in a large, poor Cajun family and turned himself into a world-class chef."
From John Pope's obituary of Prudhomme from NOLA.com
Prudhomme also trained chefs to carry on his way of cooking; among them are (Frank) Brigtsen. Teaching new chefs ''was important to him,'' Brigtsen said. ''It's the next generation to him, almost like a son's going off and making something of himself so Dad could be proud of him. ... It's absolutely an investment in the future.''

In Brigtsen's case, the restaurateur said, Mr. Prudhomme did much more than teach him about seafood and sauces. He lent Brigtsen $135,000 so he could buy the camelback building at 723 Dante St. that became the highly regarded restaurant bearing his surname.
From Ian McNulty's Advocate obit 
As Prudhomme’s star rose higher, his French Quarter restaurant became a hotbed for culinary talent, drawing prospective chefs eager to learn at his side. For instance, Mary and Greg Sonnier, the husband-and-wife chefs who later opened the restaurant Gabrielle, met in K-Paul’s kitchen in the early 1980s.

“We would go in so early and leave so late, but he made it such an interesting place to be as a chef. You learned so much every day there,” Greg Sonnier said.

A table at the back of the dining room served as Prudhomme’s office, where he sampled and assessed dishes his cooks were developing.

“We’d taste the food together, and he would show you how it was supposed to taste, how the flavors should meet your tongue and palate,” Mary Sonnier said.

Here is the story WWLTV ran on the evening newscast.

But the thing to read, really, is this. In 2005, Brett Anderson put together a fantastic "oral history" in conjunction with the 25 anniversary of K-Paul's.
BRIGTSEN: "I remember the first time Paul brought back tasso from the country. I can guarantee you that was the first time tasso crossed the parish line."

PAUL MILLER, executive chef of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen: "Upstairs (from K-Paul's) was called Louisiana Grocery. They had different sausages, tasso. They had meat pies, they had cakes, they had pat├ęs. They also had plate lunches and po-boys. We did seven different kinds of mayonnaise."

BOURG: "I don't think he could have (served crawfish) at Commander's, because that was not restaurant food. Crawfish was not really restaurant food. There was crawfish cardinale at Antoine's, but crawfish otherwise wasn'treally found in restaurants until the late '70s, early '80s."

BRIGTSEN: "I remember when Chef was first invited on the 'Today' show in New York. . . . The interesting thing about that story is what he chose to cook: jambalaya. I grew up in the city. Paul grew up in the country. I didn't grow up eating jambalaya. A lot of this stuff was new to me. Anyway, after that show, one of Paul's brothers called Paul and was furious: 'How could you cook that trash food?' This was a time when calling someone a Cajun was a derogatory comment. To them, jambalaya was what poor people ate. It wasn't something that they were necessarily proud of. Paul changed all that."
Prudhomme revolutionized an industry. Which is a strange thing to say because, by the time I was a young adult in the mid-to-late 1990s, he was so much an institution that, to my generation, he seemed more like a bad tourism industry cliche.

I had something of a front seat to this phenomenon working in the hotels.  By this point, the newly renovated K-Paul's had become a tool for measuring what sort of tourist you were dealing with.  The ones who asked you to help them get a table there would appear as yahoos looking to be monrailed in to Cajun Epcot for some down home blackened Aiieeee! or whatever they imagined it was called when a whole grilled alligator is delivered to your table by Justin Wilson.  That got old real quick but it's worth noting that these were the nice people.  The ones who did not want to go to K-Paul's were far worse.

These were the far more pretentious "authenticity tourists."  (Yes, kids, they did exist before Treme. And in depressingly large numbers too.) Not satisfied with whatever they imagined the rubes were being conned into, these better classes always made a little display of telling you they weren't impressed by some played out fad or a TV chef. (So no K-Paul's and no Emeril's.) Instead they would want to go to.. Brigtsen's or Gabrielle, or Jacques-Imo's, or any number of New Orleans mid-to-high range restaurants that were only there because Prudhomme either existed at all or had directly trained their owners and staff. 

But that's the nature of the tourism business. It's driven by fashion and conspicuous consumption of fashion. The quality of a product or experience is secondary to its presentation. As the oppressiveness of that scene swallowed more and more of the city, the locals were swallowing less and less of the fare at K-Paul's. I never had any interest in going there. It seemed like it wasn't really even for me.

That didn't change until Katrina.

We're still recovering from the trauma of K10 so I don't want to get too bogged down in this.  If you were here during the first few months after the flood you remember the half ghost town we existed in. You'll remember the curfews, the intermittent power outages that went on for days. (Strangely no boil orders, though.)  You'll remember also how weird just getting something to eat was.  First there MREs and non-perishables available at FEMA distribution centers, then there were a few stores open but with impossibly inconvenient hours, and then, gradually, other things started to come back.

Prudhomme, who had already been back in town helping to feed recovery workers during September, reopened K-Paul's in October with a limited, cut-price menu.  I can't remember exactly when he brought the brass band in to perform out in front of the restaurant.  But seeing what would have been a groan-inducing trope just a few months prior suddenly became a sight for sore eyes.  The following spring, K-Paul's was one of the first New Orleans restaurants I brought Menckles out to for a date.  She liked the turtle soup.  After that we made it one of our regular special occasion places.

Anyway what is the point of this?  Maybe it's a little bit about how tourism and hipsterism distort our perceptions of things that are essentially good in their own right.  But moreso I'm thinking about the importance of appreciating those things on their own merits while we can. K-Paul's is a great restaurant. We never had a bad time there. Chef Paul was sui generis.

His first book is interesting in a way you might not expect which, I think, further demonstrates Prudhommes unique creativity.  For a mass market "introduction to Louisiana cuisine" these  recipes are pretty complicated. Many things you might think of as one pot or one pan meals are spun out into multiple steps and processes that seem, frankly, unnecessary.  I don't think I've ever followed one of these recipes exactly to its letter. Maybe I should try sometime.

One of the things that always stands out at K-Paul's are the assortment of homemade breads and muffins that come out before the meal.  So to finish out this post, here's a fairly simple recipe from Chef Paul's book for "New Orleans Black Muffins"

3/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup milk
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
11/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans, dry roasted

In a medium-size bowl combine the hot water and molasses, stirring until well blended. Stir in the milk until blended.
In a large bowl, sift together the flours, sugar baking powder, baking soda, and salt
With a rubber spatula, fold the liquid mixture and pecans into the dry ingredients just until flour is thoroughly incorporated; do not over-mix. Spoon into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake at 300 degrees until done, 45 minutes to about an hour. Remove from pan immediately and serve while hot.

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