Luminary chef is still devoted to New Orleans

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Chef Paul Prudhomme, who grew up a few hours outside New Orleans, decided to return from Colorado and devote his career to promoting New Orleans food after he took a trip home and realized that his family members were forgetting the culinary traditions of their childhood.

His restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, has enjoyed phenomenal success, while his cookbooks, TV appearances and his company, Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends, have not only taught America and the world to love Cajun food, but have made Chef Prudhomme a household name and face.

Two years ago, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed entire city blocks of New Orleans, decimated the infrastructure and wiped out the tourist trade, the natural disaster also threatened to seriously undermine New Orleans food culture. Many wondered whether restaurants and other tourist-based businesses could survive a long recuperation. Once again, Chef Prudhomme wasn't afraid to do whatever it took to make sure that New Orleans' food culture was preserved.

Last week, Chef Prudhomme appeared at a fund-raiser at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to celebrate the announcement of the Chef Paul Prudhomme Culinary Scholarship. The school, which offers a culinary arts program, hopes to award the scholarship to one of Chef Prudhomme's current or former employees. That person could pursue an associate's degree in culinary arts or a bachelor's degree in culinary management in Pittsburgh and then return to New Orleans after finishing the program.

Chef Prudhomme's actions before and since Hurricane Katrina have demonstrated an amazing commitment to his employees and his community. He and most of his staff were back in New Orleans "five, 10 days after, but [they] weren't allowed to open the restaurant," he said. So Chef Prudhomme put everyone to work anyway. In the next few months, he and his staff fed more than 37,000 meals to relief workers and National Guards.

When K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen was approved to open on Oct. 18 -- seven weeks after the disaster. Chef Prudhomme and executive chef Paul Miller decided to use plastic silverware and paper plates until they could get a dishwasher crew up and running. Three days before the opening, Chef Prudhomme changed his mind, realizing that he couldn't "imagine serving [his] food on plastic."

It opened three days later and, "The general manager of the restaurant was the dishwasher because there was no dishwasher," he said. The response was immediate. People were thrilled to be able to get a delicious meal, but most of all, Chef Prudhomme heard people say how much they appreciated eating "with a tablecloth and real napkins."

Chef Prudhomme's story illustrates the importance of restaurants. Many people think of dining out as frivolous, a luxury that we can do without. While restaurant meals may not be as important as basic food or shelter, restaurants provide a huge number of jobs, especially in New Orleans' tourist-based economy.

Forty percent of Chef Prudhomme's employees lost their homes in the storm. Many are still living in trailers set up next to the Magic Seasoning Blends factory. Life in post-Katrina New Orleans has raised some serious issues about the haves and have nots in New Orleans. Yet we are left with the reality that unless the tourists and residents less affected by the storm continue to dine in New Orleans restaurants, some of those restaurants will close, and it may be extremely difficult for displaced workers to find new jobs.

Restaurants also play a role in preserving a food culture that might otherwise be lost. Cajun- and Creole-inspired restaurants have had minimal success outside of New Orleans. This cuisine is not only wonderful in its own right, it is also one of the few indigenous American cuisines.

Irrespective of these important issues, a good meal has an incredible power to provide comfort. It is easy to dismiss napkins and silverware as trivial adornments of the table. Yet, for many people, sitting down at a table in K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen may have served as a potent affirmation that life would not always be a constant accounting of what had been lost.

Chef Prudhomme is confident that New Orleans eventually will make a total recovery and that the federal government will fix the levies, preventing another disaster. His optimism prevails even though he is well aware of the current realities.

According to Chef Prudhomme, "none of the restaurants ... in the French Quarter is getting enough people coming in order to break even." He admits that they "expected [business] to come up faster," and the city government hasn't been much help. Businesses with more than 40 employees didn't receive any government help, even businesses such as restaurants, hotels and nightclubs that are the lifeblood of New Orleans.

But if New Orleans represents our vulnerability to disaster, particularly natural disasters, it also demonstrates our resiliency. Business seems to be picking up recently. Chef Prudhomme grew almost gleeful as he announced, "We got our first big convention ... like 30,000 people. ... The last couple of weeks have been great."

Most surprising of all? I had assumed that few new restaurants had opened in the past year, and Chef Prudhomme had assumed the same. But he recently learned that "we got more restaurants now than we did before Katrina."


Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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