Paul Prudhomme, a self-taught Louisiana cook who seared his way into popular culture as the king of Cajun food, whose gumbo, jambalaya and blackened redfish made him one of the country’s most popular and influential chefs, died Oct. 8. He was 75.
Tiffanie Roppolo, the chief financial officer of Mr. Prudhomme’s businesses, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Other details were not immediately available.
Mr. Prudhomme — who pronounced his name “PROO-dum” — grew up on a farm near Opelousas, La., where he learned to cook over a wood stove with his mother. For the rest of his life, he sought to recreate the flavors and familial warmth of the food from Cajun country.
“We’d taste the dish two or three times while it was cooking and adjust the seasoning,” Mr. Prudhomme recalled in 1987. “No Cajun cook ever thinks a recipe’s finished just because all the ingredients are in the pot.”
Since 1979, Mr. Prudhomme was the owner and operator of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter of New Orleans. People stood in line for hours for a table at the 62-seat restaurant, which became a beacon of a new trend in American cuisine, built on fresh ingredients and regional pride.
“I think that Paul Prudhomme has had the greatest influence on American cooking, in cultivating the public interest in American food, of anybody I know,” New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in 1988. “He opened up the floodgates to the whole field of Southern cooking.”
The first of his many bestsellers, “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” (1984) made Cajun food a sensation, as Louisiana-themed restaurants sprang up nationwide. He cooked at the White House for presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and at an economic summit in Williamsburg, Va., in 1983. Mr. Prudhomme’s short, rotund figure and his soft Cajun accent became familiar through his hundreds of appearances on television.
He had a homespun way of describing his dishes, calling his oyster-stuffed mirlitons — a kind of squash — “one of those kick-you-in-the-pants dishes, boy, I’ll tell ya. It has so many tastes, and every bite whops up on something else.”
Mr. Prudhomme was credited with inventing “blackened” dishes, in which the outside of a fish fillet or a cut of meat was coated with a blend of dry herbs and spices, then seared in a skillet over high heat. He sold so much blackened redfish that a commercial fishing ban was enacted.
Mr. Prudhomme also popularized the turducken, an elaborate poultry dish in which a chicken is stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey. He received a trademark for the name “turducken” in 1986 and had a line of seasonings, hot sauce and sausages.
“He’s a pioneer in regional cuisine,” food critic William Rice told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2005, “he’s a pioneer in seafood, he’s a pioneer in not being embarrassed to use simple ingredients.”
Paul Eugene Prudhomme was born July 13, 1940, in Opelousas, the youngest of 13 children. His father was a sharecropper, and the family lived in a house with no electricity.
In childhood, Mr. Prudhomme went by the name “Gene Autry Prudhomme,” after the singing cowboy. He was 7 when he began to help his mother in the kitchen.
“The flavors my mother could bring out from the bottom of the pan were amazing,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1987, “and she did it simply by the order in which she used ingredients and the temperature she cooked them at.”
Mr. Prudhomme opened a short-lived hamburger stand when he was 17, then held a series of odd jobs before spending 12 years as a cook at truck stops, resorts and even an Indian reservation in the West.
He settled in New Orleans in 1970, worked at a hotel restaurant and gave cooking demonstrations before being hired as the first American-born executive chef at Commander’s Palace, a celebrated New Orleans restaurant.
In short order, he transformed the European-based menu into a showcase of Cajun and Creole dishes from Louisiana. His chicken and andouille gumbo, he said, was “down-and-dirty Cajun. It was what Mama used to do.”
Mr. Prudhomme continued working at Commander’s Palace even after he opened K-Paul’s in 1979. (The “K” in K-Paul’s was Kay Hinrichs, who became his second wife. She died in 1992.) After Mr. Prudhomme left Commander’s Palace, his successor was Emeril Lagasse, who became a celebrity chef in his own right.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Prudhomme opened a New York version of K-Paul’s, which closed after several years. He then concentrated on his New Orleans restaurant, on the cookbooks that repeatedly hit the bestseller lists and on his television shows
One of his later cookbooks featured reduced-fat versions of traditional Cajun recipes, reflecting Mr. Prudhomme’s concern with his weight. He reached a peak of 580 pounds, he said, but by 2013 was down to about 200 pounds. He used a motorized scooter to get around.
Mr. Prudhomme was briefly married in his teens. Survivors include his third wife, Lori Bennett, whom he married in 2010.
After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, K-Paul’s was among the city’s first restaurants to reopen. Mr. Prudhomme received a humanitarian award for donating thousands of meals to rescue workers in New Orleans.
He never strayed far from the food of his childhood or the memories that went with it.
“Things happen in life that influence you, and the things that I remember are just having a good time with my mother, and cooking, and everybody coming in and saying how good it was, and knowing that I was a part of that,” he said in 1986. “Makes you feel good.”