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Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme dies at 75

In 1996, chef Paul Prudhomme was the headline chef for a Kansas City Star Food Festival. Although knee issues confined him to a motorized cart, he was eager to mingle with the crowd of fans in Kansas City.
In 1996, chef Paul Prudhomme was the headline chef for a Kansas City Star Food Festival. Although knee issues confined him to a motorized cart, he was eager to mingle with the crowd of fans in Kansas City. The Associated Press

Paul Prudhomme — the Cajun chef who introduced American palates to blackened redfish — died Thursday at age 75.

“Such sad news that we have lost a culinary visionary and friend,” fellow New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse tweeted.

One of the country’s first celebrity chefs, Prudhomme launched a once-unknown ethic cuisine to worldwide prominence.

Prudhomme learned to cook from his mother and spent his 20s traveling across the United States to sample regional cuisines. His website, chefpaul.com, says his culinary travels took him to an Indian reservation and a five-star restaurant.

Prudhomme, the youngest of 13 children who was born and raised in a home without electricity in Louisiana’s Acadian countryside, got his first taste of culinary stardom as executive chef at the famed Commander’s Palace.

He catapulted into the popular consciousness after opening K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the heart of the French Quarter in 1979. A bearded teddy bear of a guy, Prudhomme also hosted PBS cooking shows, wrote a slew cookbooks and created Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends, which are available in virtually every supermarket.

Throughout the ‘80s, food editors such as myself often complained it seemed as if cooks everywhere were trying to “blacken” anything that moved. We might not have been too far off base: Redfish actually became so popular commercial fishing restrictions were enacted to keep the species from extinction.

In 1996, Prudhomme was the headline chef for a Kansas City Star Food Festival. I had the honor of introducing him before he went on stage for a cooking demonstration. Although knee issues confined him to a motorized cart, he was eager to mingle with the crowd.

He had just written his sixth cookbook, “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Fiery Foods That I Love” (Morrow) and was working on a line of seasoned rice products.

“I resisted simplifying my recipes for a while,” he recalled during an interview, “but I know I’m employed by those people out there. I’ll spend as much time as they want talking to them. And what I hear is they want food that is simpler and faster.”

True to his word, if you look up the recipe for blackened redfish on paulprudhomme.com there are but three ingredients — your choice of his seasoning blend, a half stick of butter and six fish fillets.

Meanwhile, Cajun is part of the culinary landscape and isn’t going away. So the next time you make a Cajun brisket in the slow cooker, order a Cajun chicken pasta at a restaurant or slam down a Cajun martini at the bar, you have “Chef Paul” to thank for putting the flavor profile on the culinary map.

Jill Wendholt Silva is Chow Town’s food editor, restaurant critic and blog curator. She tweets at @kcstarfood.

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