Last week, we lost a legend. No one died, but one of this nation's most important restaurants closed permanently. The legendary New Orleans restaurant K-Paul’s will be one of COVID-19’s latest victims.
K-Paul’s owner, Paul Prudhomme, was a culinary genius. Period. He was also one of the most iconic figures in American cooking and was one of my early kitchen heroes. The restaurant that bore his name was just as iconic, and one of the most important restaurants in the history of local/regional American dining.
Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children who grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana, cooking at his mother’s side. He rose to local prominence in the kitchens of Commander's Palace. He and his wife opened K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in 1979 and gained national prominence immediately. The early version of the restaurant was no bones, communal seating, and all about the food. When they served their final meal in May, the dining room had been spruced up, communal tables had been replaced by four-tops and two-tops, a few private dining rooms had been added, but it was still all about the food.
Along with Alice Waters, Prudhomme – through his efforts and creativity at K-Paul’s – was the founder of America’s regional cooking movement. K-Paul’s is the home base from which he brought that movement to the world.
No chef in the history of American cooking impacted the food scene more than Paul Prudhomme based out of K-Paul’s. He brought the method of blackening proteins to the world. No one outside of a bayou shack or fish camp knew anything about blackening proteins before Paul Prudhomme introduced it in the early 1980s in his first cookbook, “Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen,” which has never been out of print. The blackened redfish that appears in those pages and on the menu at K-Paul’s impacted a species of fish so much that it had to be regulated. It’s true, so many people wanted redfish after learning of Prudhomme’s cooking method that redfish started to be “fished out” in Gulf waters.
K-Paul's restaurant was also the very first pop-up restaurant. The restaurant was so popular when it opened in the early 1980s that Prudhomme took it on the road to San Francisco for an entire summer. It was a pop-up restaurant in the grandest sense of the term. He didn’t set up shop in another space for a night or weekend, he took the entire K-Paul’s staff to another city for three months and lines were down the block. The next summer he took the entire restaurant to New York. No restaurant had ever done anything like that. Ever. I don’t know if a restaurant has done it – at least to that scale – since.
K-Paul’s was the pride of Chartres Street. It hit its heyday in the 1980s, and I will admit that as the 1990s rolled in, I started frequenting all of the newer restaurants around town headed by younger, trendier chefs. Prudhomme was such an impactful chef, and K-Paul’s was such an important restaurant in the history of that city, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that now, but it made sense at the time. In those days, I was looking for culinary inspiration and new ideas, and newly opened concepts offered that.
One day, in the early 2000s my family and I ate lunch at K-Paul’s. It was the first time I had eaten there in over a decade. The food blew me away. I instantly regretted waiting so long to return and vowed to never let that happen again.
Prudhomme was a master of rich and complex stocks and K-Paul’s was his workshop. All cooks know that ground zero for superior cooking is in the quality of the stock. No one made better stocks, period. The sauces and soups that were served from the K-Paul’s kitchens were unmatched in the complexity of their flavor profile and their depth of flavor.
I have often stated that the shrimp Creole, jambalaya, and etouffee that were produced in the K-Paul’s kitchens were the finest examples of those dishes ever created. End of discussion. They were the gold standard.
Over the course of his life, Prudhomme won countless culinary awards and accolades, lectured around the world, fed heads of state, gave tirelessly to charities, wrote eight cookbooks, and produced six instructional cooking videos, two of which topped the Billboard charts for 53 consecutive weeks.
In the days of image-conscious and cleavage-bearing TV chefs, designer foams, elaborate vertical presentations, and salads made with fiddlehead ferns, it was refreshing when a world-class chef stuck to the basics. Prudhomme had the knowledge to prepare any type food he wanted at K-Paul’s. Lucky for us, he stayed true to his roots.
I don’t have many regrets in life, though one of them is not eating at K-Paul’s as much as I could have during that decade-long period in the 1990s. I pledge not to let that happen again. I will support the stalwarts and the restaurateurs on the frontlines carrying the torch for roots cuisine. As soon as New Orleans legend Frank Brigtsen,a protégé of Prudhomme, opens back up in his Riverbend shotgun house, I want to be at the first table on the first day, and for many days after that.