with Celebrity - Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Susan Spicer
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For the past century, the musicians of New Orleans have used instruments, concert halls and recordings to tell the world about the rich cultural traditions of their hometown. More recently, New Orleans ambassadors of another type have been telling their own story, only they use gourmet kitchens on TV cooking shows, bustling restaurant dining rooms and best-selling cookbooks to make the case for the good life here.
New Orleans has long been known for its distinctive cuisine and now, in the era of the celebrity chef, it has more than its fair share of high-profile kitchen royalty to personify that ever-evolving culinary heritage for a hungry world of gourmets and home cooks. The reach of their influences extends far beyond the Crescent City and Louisiana to have worldwide impact on the way people cook and appreciate food.
There was a time, for instance, when the terms jambalaya, crawfish pie and Creole gumbo were best known as the lyrics to a Hank Williams song. Then along came Paul Prudhomme, the Cajun chef with a world-class cooking pedigree and a personality as big as the flavors he creates. From the early 1980s on, his jolly, smiling face was virtually the embodiment of Cajun cooking and his reputation helped usher in a spicy new national food trend.
Prudhomme was born in Opelousas, a small Cajun country town about 90 miles west of New Orleans, where he learned to cook by his mother’s side in a farmhouse with no electricity, and thus no refrigeration. Prudhomme has often credited this part of his upbringing with his appreciation for fresh ingredients. From these humble beginnings , the chef-to-be traveled extensively, cooking in a wide variety of restaurants and sprucing up local dishes as he went with his own combinations of spices and seasonings. Returning to Louisiana, he built a name for himself in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington St., 504-899-8221), a revered Creole institution, until in 1979 he decided to open his own restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen (416 Chartres St., 504-524-7394). The unusual moniker is a combination of the chef’s first name and that of his late wife, K Hinrichs Prudhomme, and it was originally conceived as a casual French Quarter eatery serving down home Cajun dishes. But as its popularity exploded and lines of tourists and locals began to form on the sidewalk outside, the restaurant evolved into a fine-dining destination and attracted national attention.
Through a series of cookbooks, beginning with the best-selling “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” published in 1986, and four TV series aired on public television stations nationwide, Prudhomme introduced signature dishes like blackened redfish and turtle soup to audiences and readers who may never even visit Louisiana. Further, the chef’s line of seasonings and smoked meats, marketed under the name Magic Seasoning Blends, gives home cooks and restaurant professionals across the country the tools they need to experiment with Louisiana cooking themselves.
New Faces, New Flavors
New Orleans’ first celebrity chef was Madame Begue, who became famous in the 1880s for breakfasts served at her Decatur Street restaurant that were so lavish they could last for hours. Today, the restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel (300 Bourbon St., 504-586-0300) is named for her.
To find the city’s latest culinary superstar, however, one needs only turn on the TV or walk into practically any bookstore. Emeril Lagasse is arguably the world’s most prominent and successful chef, known to millions the world over for his spirited approach to gourmet cooking. Though a native of Fall River, Mass., Chef Emeril’s rise to fame and fortune began in New Orleans when he was hired as chef of Commander’s Palace, the alma mater of Prudhomme. He opened his own restaurant, Emeril’s (800 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-528-9393), in 1990 in the Warehouse District. Surrounded at the time by warehouses and industrial shops, it was an unlikely location for a new culinary hotspot, but indeed the restaurant was an almost instant success, garnering praise in national magazines and many accolades for the chef. Lagasse opened his second restaurant, NOLA (534 St. Louis St., 504-522-6652), in the heart of the French Quarter two years later. The name is shorthand for New Orleans’ return address (N.O., LA), and its contemporary take on New Orleans classics propelled the chef’s rising star even higher.
In 1993, he published “Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking,” a bestseller and the first of eight cookbooks that together have sold more than two million copies to date. That same year, Lagasse began his ongoing presence on the Food Network, where his two shows reach an audience of an estimated 78 million viewers. By the time he opened his third New Orleans restaurant, Emeril’s Delmonico (1300 St. Charles Ave., 504-525-4937), renovating a stalwart New Orleans steakhouse, the chef was also food correspondent on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Chef Emeril’s vision of modern Creole cooking gets around on more than airwaves and cookbooks. In addition to his three New Orleans restaurants, he has eateries in Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and Las Vegas where travelers from around the world can sample New Orleans barbecue shrimp, thick pork chops and bread pudding.
Among the next generation of celebrated New Orleans chefs, one seems to be a case of name equaling fate. Susan Spicer (yes, it’s her real name) has been instrumental in starting a number of local restaurants, from the traditional, Parisian-inspired Bistro at the Maison de Ville (727 Toulouse St., 504-528-9206) to the offbeat and colorful Cobalt (333 St. Charles Ave., 504-565-5595). Her most renowned venture, however, is Bayona (430 Dauphine St., 504-525-4455), where she can be found on most nights in the kitchen. Housed in a 200-year-old French Quarter cottage, the restaurant serves such contemporary Creole dishes as pecan-crusted rabbit, chicken stuffed with shrimp and boudin sausage and chocolate beignets.
As long as New Orleans remains a worldwide epicenter of great dining and cooking, the city will produce celebrated chefs to spread the word about what’s new and what will never change in the food-crazed Crescent City.
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”