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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Monday, June 21, 2010

New Orleans Dining: K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen

The Sensible One was vastly amused by Prudhomme’s “star system,” reattaching her collection of stars to her driver’s license. Her sense of humor, however, wasn’t fully appreciated by the state trooper brandishing a radar gun and ticket pad.

When a long line forms outside a New Orleans restaurant, it can often prove amusing to observe the reactions of some city residents. Should they know someone in line, they cite it as proof that New Orleans is one big street party where the locals sure know their food. Should they not, the restaurant is pilloried as a tourist place unworthy of local patronage.

For more than fifteen years, Paul Prudhomme saw plenty of the latter at the front door of K-Paul’s, his runaway success of a restaurant in the French Quarter. When opened in 1979, the restaurant had a miniscule capacity of 62 guests, creating the need for “community seating,” the polite euphemism for guests from more than one party being required to share a table with others. The arrangement was tolerated when K-Paul’s was only open at lunch, but when the restaurant expanded its operation to serve dinner, people started to balk at the notion of sharing a relatively pricey dinner with total strangers.

People grumbled and griped about seating and other rules instituted to keep things manageable for the small restaurant, but they kept flocking to K-Paul’s because a revolution was taking place in Prudhomme’s tiny kitchen.

For generations, diners in New Orleans had been hardwired into Creole cuisine, the refined style of cooking cobbled together from the foods of many nations, but with its underpinnings being predominantly French. The other Louisiana niche cuisine was Cajun, a heartier country style of cooking from Bayou Country, commonly dismissed as rustic by city dwellers. In fact, when Prudhomme opened K-Paul’s in 1979, there was only one authentic Cajun restaurant of any real renown in New Orleans, the Bon Ton Café with roots going back to the early 1900s.

Prudhomme, the caboose of thirteen children from a Cajun farming family in Opelousas, spent a great part of his childhood cooking with his mother to feed the rest of the family, which worked the fields. He opened and closed a pair of restaurants before he was thirty and worked in kitchens across America before landing a job, at age 35, as the executive chef at Commander’s Palace, which had just been taken over by the Brennans, New Orleans’ family of celebrated restaurateurs.

It was at Commander’s where Prudhomme’s star shot skyward. By integrating Cajun ingredients and techniques into the Creole cuisine through which the restaurant had built its reputation, Prudhomme created the new fusion cuisine that came to be generally known as “Louisiana” or “South Louisiana” cooking. While at Commander’s, Prudhomme revised classic New Orleans recipes for the Brennans, including barbecue shrimp, turtle soup and others, a number of which are still served today in the family’s various restaurants.

If Prudhomme’s star was rising at Commander’s, it was at K-Paul’s where it went stratospheric, and it was primarily due to a remarkably simple idea that blended nine everyday herbs and spices, some butter and a piece of local fish in a black iron skillet so hot it literally smoked. The dish was christened “blackened” redfish, and it catapulted Paul Prudhomme into the national culinary spotlight, a place that seemed as innate to the man from Opelousas as a bayou is to a gator.

Prudhomme was a natural for television. A chef of tremendous girth at the time, he was a colorful man from a colorful place, gregarious and fun loving; in short, he was an easy interview and his cooking was new, chic, exciting and exotic for its time. As word of blackened redfish spread across the country, several phenomena occurred. Blackened foods started appearing on menus all over the country with mixed results; Gulf of Mexico redfish (actually a specimen of the drum genus) was overfished to the brink of species extinction; and the lines of people waiting for a seat at K-Paul’s and hoping for a glimpse of its suddenly superstar chef stretched down Chartres Street before turning the corner and continuing on Conti.

Prudhomme’s staff, mostly family in the restaurant’s earliest days, shared the larger-than-life chef’s joie de vivre and playful nature, applying stick-on foil stars to customers’ faces, the star’s color being determined by how clean a customer’s plate was once he or she pushed back from the table. The Sensible One was vastly amused by Prudhomme’s “star system,” reattaching her collection of stars to her driver’s license. Her sense of humor, however, wasn’t fully appreciated by the state trooper brandishing a radar gun and ticket pad.

Despite the overflowing plates of a new American fusion cuisine and the joy with which it was served, a considerable number of condescending residents dismissed K-Paul’s as “okay for tourists” and stayed away. In the midst of runaway success, Prudhomme was in danger of becoming its victim. But instead of growing alarmed by the situation, America’s hottest chef considered it an opportunity to grow his flourishing business.

Fifteen years ago, the restaurant expanded its capacity to 200 people on two floors, a balcony and a courtyard, resulting in revived favor with the city’s local diners. Business is still booming and most people know it would be foolhardy trying to get a table without making a reservation.

It’s difficult to believe that K-Paul’s is now over thirty years old, and perhaps even more difficult to believe that Prudhomme himself is seventy. Although he no longer cooks for customers in the restaurant at 416 Chartres Street, having turned over Executive Chef duties to Paul Miller some years ago, his presence remains regular and, even on those occasions he’s not on the premises, palpable.

In the wake of Katrina’s destruction, Prudhomme was adamant about K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen being one of the first French Quarter restaurants to reopen for business. Knowing that the city’s community of musicians was hit just as hard as the restaurant industry, Prudhomme hired jazz musicians to play on the sidewalk at his front door, a practice that still occurs from time to time, now years after the fact.

Over the past quarter century, Prudhomme’s circle of operations has expanded. Samples of spices requested by early customers grew into Magic Seasonings Blends®, a spice and sauces company doing business in all 50 states and more than two dozen nations. His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, is nearing its 100th printing and has been followed by eight more books. Despite the spice blends, books, television enterprises and image/brand licensing, the true wellspring of the empire continues to come out of the Chartres Street kitchen six nights a week.

It may be misleading to say the cuisine has developed over the past thirty years; the more appropriate word is probably “refined.” While the relatively short menu is rewritten daily to both reflect and take advantage of the seasonal and regional offerings that give Prudhomme’s signature brand of Louisiana cooking its identity, there are always a few basics to be found.

Of course, there is a blackened fish, although these days it’s far more likely to be a black drum than a classic redfish. From time to time, a “bronzed” fish (or other meat), the result of less heat and peppers, appears on the menu. While tamer than their blackened cousins, these dishes are still probably too intense for people gauche enough to ask their waitperson, “Is it spicy?” On that note, most of the food coming out of the Prudhomme/Miller kitchen can certainly be considered to be “full-flavored” if not out-and-out spicy, and those with nervous stomachs or overly delicate digestive systems should really consider going somewhere else and leave the hard-to-get seats for those who will truly appreciate them.

The kitchen notably turns out magnificent etouffées, the “smothered” stews of seafood or chicken cooked with the “trinity” (celery, green pepper and onion) in a smoky roux and serve around a mound of rice.

Prudhomme has been known to say that, “Everyone in South Louisiana makes their own special gumbo – and they are all fantastic.” While I’m inclined to disagree, having tasted a few that certainly fall short of Chef Paul’s level of enthusiasm, it would certainly be an injustice not to highlight the chef’s own rendering of what amounts to the national dish of Louisiana. It is rich, smoky and twice as filling as it looks sitting so innocently in a cup. Interestingly enough, Prudhomme enjoys his gumbo with a scoop of potato salad in it. Figuring “If that’s how the master eats it, I’ll give it a shot,” I did. It was, well, interesting, but not enough for me to make a habit of it, particularly when both elements are wonderful on their own.

Prices at K-Paul’s strike some people I know as high, the impression I initially had – at least until my first forkful. At that very moment, any correlation between a handful of nickels and a single bite of manna became sheer folly.

Money isn’t really the point at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and perhaps it never has been. For over a generation, Paul Prudhomme has been more than a chef, spice merchant and cheerleader for a city recovering from the largest disaster in our national history. He’s been a true American culinary icon, a Louisiana answer to Frances’ Paul Bocuse and Auguste Escoffier, as well as the successor to Julia Child and the acknowledged trailblazer for what has become New Orleans’ Golden Age of Chefs.

And how does anyone put a price tag on a national treasure?

K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 419 Chartres Street (Between Conti and St. Louis Streets)

Lunch served Thursday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Dinner served Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

All major credit cards honored

Reservations emphatically recommended. To make a reservation, please call the Reservations Department at (504) 596-2530 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. CST, or visit the online reservation service.
Cell phones are not allowed in any of the dining rooms.

Website: www.chefpaul.com

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