There was a time when the terms jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé; gumbo were best known outside Louisiana as the lyrics to a Hank Williams song. Then along came Paul Prudhomme.
From the restaurant he opened in 1979, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Prudhomme helped popularize the food he grew up eating on the Cajun prairies and learned to cook himself at his mother's side. His recipes -- and his Falstaff joviality -- have reached infinitely more people, however, through his television cooking series. His latest project, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Always Cooking! will premier locally this weekend on WYES Channel 12 and will be aired on 160 other public broadcasting stations nationwide.
Always Cooking! is Prudhomme's fifth cooking series. Beginning with Louisiana Kitchen in 1983, all of the shows have been made in collaboration with WYES and local producer Terri Landry.
Part of Prudhomme's lasting appeal, Landry says, is that he is not a TV chef or a TV personality. Rather, she says, he is a chef whose genuine personality translates clearly on TV.
"There are schools now where people go to be TV chefs, but Chef Paul is nothing like that," says Landry. "He's a natural."
Prudhomme talks to the food as he cooks it on the show, gentle and coaxing. He shares how cooks can tell when something is done by the color of smoke or sound of sizzle coming from the pan. He constantly dips a spoon into sauces or pinches a little sample of a dish as he prepares it, gauging it step by step as he builds the layers of flavor that are a trademark of his cuisine. Some who have worked with him say it is similar to the approach he brings to cooking and training chefs in his own restaurant.
"Paul taught me everything I know about cooking, he took me on when I didn't have any experience and really taught me," says Frank Brigtsen, who worked under Prudhomme at both Commander's Palace and K-Paul's before opening his own Brigtsen's Restaurant in the Riverbend. "The thing is, I don't remember having any measuring cups or measuring spoons at K-Paul's, or even recipes. Paul taught us to cook by taste and that really trains your palate. You notice what changes are needed.
"He's not a formally trained chef either," Brigtsen continues. "He learned to cook by tasting too and his ability to share that is really special."
Always Cooking! is the first major production from WYES since Hurricane Katrina and required a special effort to produce. The levee breaches filled the station's Lakeview studios with 7 feet of floodwater, destroying equipment, archives and sets and leaving not much more than a shell. Everything had to be brought in for this production, from generators and air conditioning units to portable toilets. Landry's crew used borrowed cameras and operated out of a production van on loan from Louisiana Public Broadcasting parked inside one of the ruined studios next to the set. The station's staff still works out of a dance studio in Metairie.
In the course of 16 shooting days last fall, Prudhomme, Landry and their teams taped 26 episodes that cover 80 recipes and are peppered with Prudhomme's stories of his youth on a Cajun farm, his travels around the world and his career in cooking.
During shooting, the producers did their best to keep the recipes on script so they will match the companion cookbook, also called Chef Paul Prudhomme's Always Cooking! But it wasn't easy. With Prudhomme behind the stove, even with a pre-selected, pre-measured palette of ingredients, improvisation is a constant threat. One beef recipe was so thoroughly modified on the set that Prudhomme decided to change its name from Wyoming brisket to "Basile barbecue brisket," a reference to the tiny Evangeline Parish hamlet where he was born.
Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children, and the only one who permanently moved away from Cajun country. One of his sisters came to New Orleans to work at his restaurant, but Prudhomme says she couldn't stand to be away from home and soon returned. Still, the ideas of family and food are inextricably connected for him. In fact, the restaurant chef considers home cooking to be something like the ultimate expression of family values.
"I recognize that I am who I am because of the dinner table," Prudhomme said while eating lunch on the set with producers and guests one day last fall. "At every mealtime when I was growing up, whoever was there in our house would sit down and we all ate together. It was an absolute rule. There was no exception to it and it turns out to be the perfect educational tool for children. They learn everything. Family, their history, who they are, who their neighbors are. The dinner table is the most natural place in the world to explain to a child who they are and what is expected of them."
Over the next few months, Always Cooking! will give home cooks plenty of convincing arguments to gather their own family and friends around the dining room table.
The Always Cooking! series on WYES Channel 12 begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 5, and will be rebroadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6. The series continues for the next 25 weeks. Check www.wyes.org for more information.
- Chef Paul Prudhomme works on the set of his latest cooking show.