When it comes to salivating fans, Mick Jagger and The Grateful Dead have nothing on chef Paul Prudhomme.
Every day for the last month, hungry San Franciscans have been lining up for four to eight hours to eat Cajun gumbo, blackened prime rib, jalapen o cheese bread and sweet potato pecan pie. In this city, where restaurants are the opiate of the people, Prudhomme has established his cathedral of cooking and worshipful masses have followed.
For one month only, the chef has brought cooks, waiters, crayfish, softshell crab and sausage from New Orleans, where he operates K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. The restaurant here was established in temporary quarters downtown.
The food, which is so heavy it makes matzo balls look like nouvelle cuisine, has received three-star ratings from nearly everyone who has dined there. Because Prudhomme doesn't take reservations, he has created the spectacle of the line, inhabited by people who have enough money that they rarely have to stand in any line.
The other day, a woman from Marin, dressed in a fur wrap, arrived at 2 p.m. with the prospect of dining about 10 p.m. She was later joined by three friends carrying a bright yellow briefcase that unfolded into a cozy table and benches. Setting up their checkered tablecloth, flowering plant and candles, they snacked on pa te', marinated vegetables and a vin so ordinaire they hid it under the table. By 4 p.m., Marilyn Oleson, one of the friends, said, "We probably won't be hungry when we get in."
At the head of the line, Yvonne Daniel, who arrived at 10:30 a.m., took a lesson in Persian from one neighbor in the line and a culinary lecture from another. The three shared bran muffins and cappuccino. "I'm fasting, so to speak," said Daniel.
For Ramin Davarpanah the line was profitable. Paid $40 to stand there from morning till evening by his lawyer, who would replace him, Davarpanah left just as K-Paul's doors swung open at 6 p.m.--he said he had to go to work at the Perfect Hamburger near Chinatown.
Many in the line carried their own wine, Scrabble and cheese. Some were even calorie counting.
Arletha Clay sat quietly engrossed in "The 30 Day Way to a Born-Again Body." "I probably will finish it before I eat," she said, "and I'll start on my diet Monday."
Further down, a young man taught himself to write backwards "to keep myself busy. Da Vinci used to do this and he's my hero," he said.
Peggy LaTour spotted a young man behind her with an empty ice chest. Wanting to fill the void, LaTour and others filled the ice chest with California Chevre (goat cheese), beer and wine, which they then proceeded to empty.
"I missed Christo's fence when it was here," said Steve Weisberg, referring to the conceptual artist's billowing cloth that stretched through many rural communities north of here several years ago. "This is the next big art form."
One woman objected to her friend's medley of Ira Gershwin tunes but then, she added, she was only reading Susan Sontag "and you don't have to concentrate that much."
"I love lines," declared Paul Chopak, who once waited overnight for Bette Midler. Chopak rated K-Paul's "a much better quality line. It has a better class of people."
"I wouldn't do this for any other restaurant," said aeronautical engineer Hector Figueroa, who can rattle off what Prudhomme cooked for whom and in what city. "The only reason I'm doing it, is it's cheaper than going to New Orleans," he said, even if it takes a little longer.
The line and K-Paul's close this weekend, when Prudhomme returns to New Orleans. In two years, he says, he plans to take his show to Manhattan.