Interview with Chef Paul Prudhomme

October 2011

Chef Paul has become an icon for regional cooking. He has kept the tradition of Louisiana's cuisine alive but still adding his own twists. His love of cooking was handed down through many generations of his family. He is here with us to share what he has learned and to teach us how we can inherit his love of cuisine.

StarChefs.com: Where did your inspiration to become such a culinary icon come from?

Chef Paul: It wasn't a conscious decision. I was from a large family, I was the last of 13 children. Someone had to help mother feed all these people.We were a farm family...we had no gas or electric. We had a wood burning stove. My mother would put me on a wooden box at the stove and tell me to call her if certain things would happen. Like if the steam turns blue that's dangerous. If the noise from frying gets too high call me....She would then come and correct those things. These are my earliest cooking memories. Some people absorb in different ways. I didn't realize until I was 15 years old how much I retained.

I live in the skillet. I talk to it. Tell me how to make it better ...all of a sudden I realize I had done that when I was little. Change taste...add color.......ruin it if you add too much color.

SC: The blackened redfish that you made famous is now all over the country in dishes like blackened chicken, pork, etc. Is this a technique that works for everything or do you think that people have gone to far?

Chef Paul: Yes, they season too much. 98% of it is misunderstood. If you put the improper amount of color you evaporate the moisture. The fibers get dry. For example, paper won't burn until you take the moisture out. It's a controlled process. If you have acid in food you need to sugar it. At a high temperature the acids are changed to sugar. If you understand it ...stop there....leave the moisture inside. The best is naturally in a piece of meat.

SC: Many people are confused about the difference between Cajun and Creole food. Would you mind defining each and describing the difference?

Chef Paul: It's very simple. Cajun is country food by farmers and fisherman that arrived in Louisiana from Acadiana, Canada. Four hundred years ago they came from France to Canada, they isolated themselves in the bayou of Louisiana. My father's family arrived from France the documentation is very strong, they arrived in Louisiana in 1763. They had a land grant from Spain owning 50,000 acres from 1767 -1940. My family spoke nothing but French. So Cajun came from Acadiana.

Creole is New Orleans city food. Communities were created by the people who wanted to stay and not go back to Spain or France. All these prominent citizens needed servants. And entertainment was part of business.....if you set a great table in the 1700's to 1800's you were successful. And...having a great cook was very important. Many people had servants that drifted from job to job. They'd go from a Spanish family, to a French one, to an Irish one. And the best place to be was in the kitchen, they made the most money and were the most important. As these nationalities mixed Creole cooking was created. Creole has a tremendous food knowledge.

As times changed and families couldn't keep their help, they would open restaurants.....and that is how great restaurants got started.

SC: What is the history of that famous soup gumbo? And do you prefer sassafras or okra as a thickener?

Chef Paul: Literally the word is in the African language which means okra. When Africans came over as slaves, okra was an important part of their life. Okra seeds were brought over in the braids of African hair. Sassafras is also called "fiel" in French, it grows naturally in Louisiana.....Cajuns were introduced to it by the Indians.....if you keep adding water, it actually creates a string... As a kid we used the roots to make medicine and teas.I use both okra and sassafras.

SC: Another famous dish of your area is Jambalaya -- could describe the roots of this dish and what characterizes it?

Chef Paul: I can describe it from my own experience.First time I did Jambalaya, I did it on the Today Show . When I saw my brothers & sisters (and I have many of them) they called me aside and said...(I was the youngest, they still call me "boy"......why did you do that old dish on TV for? That's the worst. That's poor man's food . This almost blew me away. He didn't know it was one of the most precious things we had. I grew up with no refrigeration.....our Jambalaya was created from leftovers. We'd take everything...fish,frogs legs.....chicken.......my mom would put everything together and cook it until it got color. We had no freezer to save food, so wed just put it in the pot.

SC: Sounds delicious. When you developed your line of spices did you ever think that they would become so popular?

Chef Paul: No, we never expected it. It was gradual. I was traveling for 12 years. I would get a job in LA.....and they hadn't tasted anything like the food I made with theses spices. So, when I came back to LA one of my missions was to teach. But it was hard to explain........however, if I mixed them together no one would make a mistake. Customers would ask for some spices .....it was easier to put it in a little tin foil or them to take home. Then a waitress named Sally, drew a cartoon of a chef and scotchtaped it to a jewelry bag. They started to sell really well.So...since we were only opened Monday through Friday, on the weekend we'd borrow a pastry chef's blender and put them in bottles and glue the labels on . When we finally got a glue machine we were so excited that we didn't need to put the glue on anymore. Finally we heard about a distributor and we were hoping he'd take the thing off us. By the end of '82 a company was officially formed. Now it's in 30 countries! Now we can do 150 in a minute! This would have taken us a year to do!

SC: What do you think is the defining dish of your area?

Chef Paul: What I think and what the world thinks is totally different. I know what I eat. When I was young we'd butcher a hog, cure it and smoke it, cover it with hot lard to preserve it for the rest of the year in order to have meat. Each neighbor would slaughter something and help each other. Everyone would take a portion until it was gone. We'd literally make a candy out of the sweet potatoes. We'd make dirty rice with ground pork, beef or duck gizzards. We'd dig up potatoes to make potato salad and boil eggs with them. We'd take the yolks beat them with oil and make mayo. When I am done with this meal you can have my life. It is heaven.

SC: What one simple tip could you tell our StarChefs readers?

Chef Paul: It would be the one I give most during cooking demonstrations. It's about understanding the raw material.I'll give you this example: We trust something in a grocery store and assume it's good. We don't learn about the most precious thing in life..the food we put in our body. Educate yourself. Don't get fancy. Have you cooked an apple pie? You don't know what you did wrong? Do this: Take 2 or 3 apples. Put them on a table. Study them. First there was a flower, then the apple started growing, then it changed color, then there was a stem on it.....see the small indentation where the stem was. See the rim of color. Take the skin off . See if there is a lot of acid or if it is sweet. Is the skin too thick,too thin? Think about it when you chew it. Note the texture...is it crumbly, hard, juicy? Is there an after taste?

SC: You've been such a pleasure to talk to.

Chef Paul: One more thing i'd like to say to you. One of the problems of our youth is that the family unit is broken up. When we'd sit down to dinner together as a family with my brothers and sisters we'd learn about each other. We had something people don't get today. We didn't do wrong things because we didn't want to embarass our parents. It's the sense of what family is at the dinner table. It was aobut he joy of knowing htat mother was in the kitchen making our favorite dish. It was part of our fibre. I wish more people would do this and recall the joy of life.