Paul Prudhomme Interview
(Chef Paul)

He is one of America's best-known chefs and considered Louisiana's foremost ambassador of good will.
We're talking about Chef Paul Prudhomme.
Chef Paul has appeared on numerous shows on all the major networks. He's produced two cooking videos which were rated Number One and Number Two on Billboard's chart for 53 consecutive weeks.
In 1980, Chef Paul was the first American-born chef to receive the coveted Merite Agricole of the French Republic, which was presented to him by the French Consul General.
Attempting something that had never been done before, Chef Paul took his act on the road in 1983 and 1985 to give San Francisco and New York City a "Taste of Louisiana." He brought his entire 50 member staff with him, including chefs, cooks, waitresses, bartenders, and dishwashers. Both trips were stunning successes and received major media coverage.
Chef Paul and his staff cooked for the heads of state at the Economic Summit Meeting for Western nations held in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1983, and for the Reagan Inaugural in 1985 as well. He was the official Louisiana representative for the inauguration of the President in 1985.
His restaurant K-Paul's received the 1984 Ivy Award presented by Restaurants and Institutions magazine. In addition, K-Paul's was chosen as one of the top 12 restaurants in the nation in 1984 by Egan Ronay/TWA Guide and was selected by Playboy magazine as Number Six in the Top Twenty-five restaurants in the nation.
In 1983, Prudhomme was the first chef to participate in the Robert Mondavi "Great Chefs of America" series, in both 1983 and 1986 he represented the United States in Tokyo in international cooking festival. Chef Paul was honored as the "Culinarian of the Year" in 1986 by the American Culinary Federation. He has also won the Hornblower's Award, presented by the Public Relations Society of America in New Orleans, and the Young Leadership Council Award.
In October 1992, Chef Paul attended the Culinary Olympics sponsored by the World Association of Cooks Society in Frankfort, Germany, and presented his food during the closing night celebration. In 1993, Prudhomme was awarded the Silver Spoon Award by Food Arts magazine. The National Restaurant Association also selected Prudhomme as a Diplomat for recognition at the 1993 Salute to Excellence in Chicago.
A best selling author, Chef Paul has written several extremely popular cookbooks, including the New York Times bestseller, "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," "The Prudhomme Family Cookbook," "Seasoned America," and "Fork in the Road."
We're honored to present an interview with Chef Paul Prudhomme.

Q. You started cooking when you were just seven years old, is that correct?
A. Yeah. I started helping my mother, holding things for her. Helping her go to the field garden and dig things up, and get lunch ready. Help her dress chickens. I started on a daily basis, when I was seven years old.

Q. Was that something you enjoyed immediately, or did it take awhile?
A. I think first I enjoyed being with my mother, because she was a lot of fun. She was the type of person that always told stories, played games, and gave you information in a steady stream. It was fun to be around her especially when there was no one else to distract our communication. I think it went from there to watching what the reaction was when people ate the food. We would talk about food all the time. We would talk about when the corn was coming and what it would taste like; when the crawfish were gonna be there and what it would taste like; and how are we gonna cook it? This was a constant thing in my home.

Q. You're lucky you didn't have cable t.v. when you were growing up, or you might not have become a chef.
A. Isn't that the truth. I probably would not have learned near as much as I did.

Q. I know you come from a large family. Did any of your brothers or sisters go into the cooking field?
A. My youngest sister worked with me in New Orleans for about a year and a half, maybe two years. It was very hard on her 'cause she didn't like being that far away from the family. We're about 100 miles away from here (New Orleans). Eventually she said, "I can't stay here anymore. I gotta go home." About a year after that, she found a little location. She's got nine kids. Her and the kids went to work in a restaurant and made it happen. She now has a real nice restaurant. She does a great business. Matter of fact, she's got two cookbooks published.

Q. What's the name of your sister's restaurant?
A. It's Enola Prudhomme's Cajun Cafe.

Q. You spend 12 years traveling throughout the country apprenticing with different chefs. At that time, was there anything like the Culinary Institute of America around?
A. I think the Culinary Institute of America was there. It was part of a college. It was like a home course. I didn't know about it. There were no schools around that I knew of. There were colleges that taught management. I didn't even know I was doing an apprenticeship. It was like, well, I'd like to see what the country looks like, so I'm gonna travel. I found out, when you travel, it's real easy getting a job cooking. So, I'd pile up like $500-$600, which back in the early 60's, was a considerable amount of money. When I'd get down to $50 or $100 I'd stop and go to work. I'd just tell people where I was from and that I could cook. I tell you, I never looked for work more than three days in my entire life. I'd get a job, go to work, and when I'd get a couple of thousand dollars saved, I'd hit the road again.

Q. Where would you work, at top restaurants?
A. Oh, no. I'd work anywhere; I've worked in truck stops. There were no top restaurants, if you think about it in the 60's. There were maybe two in Chicago and four or five in New York. They were not the kind of places I wanted to work because at that time they were doing French food. I didn't want to do that kind of stuff. I just wanted to cook. So, I'd end up in truck stops. There were times I'd stop at a place to eat and like the town, and meet somebody I'd like, and I'd stay there for three months, six months. There were other times when I'd take a job, like I worked the mountains in Colorado and I'd take a job for the season. I got where people knew about me in the mountains. So, I'd work the winter season as a chef and then the summer resorts would hire you for the summer, and I'd have a month off in between the two. I'd come back to Louisiana for a month, and I'd do that a couple times a year. I did that for four or five years. I worked in the city of Denver. I worked in San Francisco. I worked in Las Vegas. It was just having fun. Probably by the time I was 23 or 24, I realized that it was such fun that I didn't want to do anything else, and started really learning about cooking.

Q. Is it possible to get to a school like the Culinary Institute and by the time you're through, you're a chef?
A. No. In the first place there's so much misunderstanding about the word chef. It's a French word that designates manager. It designates position. A chef to me in a kitchen is the boss. He's the person who runs the kitchen. Now, we call them executive chefs. First, you gotta be a cook. Between being a cook and a chef is years and years and years of work. I think the Culinary Institute of America is the best cooking school in the world now, and I really mean that. I've been to cooking schools, and I lecture at 'em and I do demonstrations at 'em. What they do I think is really fantastic, but, it's just two years. When those kids come out of there what they're ready for is to further their college and become a and Beverage Manager in management or go to work in a restaurant and start learning how to cook. I don't mean that in a bad way. Being in school is so different than being in a restaurant. One of the things the Culinary Institute has done, is build restaurants that the students can work in. But, it's not like they can work in the restaurant for a year. When you're in a realistic situation in a restaurant, the amount of work is awesome. You have this lag in most restaurants from the time they open at five thirty or six, especially for dinner, at seven people start coming. The dining room is full; everybody's screaming at you, they want the food now. You're working under that pressure, that heat, is the first thing you gotta learn before you become a good cook. And then you gotta go on to understand all the styles and kinds of cooking that there is, and the ways of cooking things. Just growing and developing yourself. If I had a son I would've taught him a lot during his time coming up. When he was 18 or 19 I would send him to the Culinary Institute. After his two years, I would put him in my friend's restaurant that I knew that cared about food, for a year, for really five years, until he got a feeling for food. Food is something that's a real special thing. It's a very personal thing. Each restaurant has their own style of doing things. If you really want to be a successful professional in the food industry, in the kitchen, you have to understand that. You have to be willing to adopt it. You have to learn your own style of creativity.

Q. The food critic Craig Claiborne said of you, "A celebrated, internationally known chef who just happens to have been born in the U.S." Does that mean that most internationally known chefs are not born in the United States?
A. When he wrote that, it was true. In the 60's and 70's, ninety-nine per cent of the hotels and restaurants that had the ability to pay a reasonable salary, had Europeans in the kitchen, as the boss. I have nothing against and I appreciate the fact that many Europeans, French, German, and Austrian taught me a lot in the kitchen. I would return the favor anytime to those cultures. But, the fact is that I knew I was capable of doing the job that they were handling and sometimes they were making as much as two to three times the money I was, and there were no Americans in those jobs. I was just very upset about that. I decided way back then to make an effort, as much as I could, as one human being, to change that, and put Americans in the kitchen. I think those things have happened even though I had very little to do with it. My wish came true.

Q. Why are so many well known chefs in the famous restaurants men?
A. I don't know why, it was a long time ago. Well, yes, I do, but I don't really know. If you go back and imagine being in a commercial restaurant, and you were using wood burning stoves and you were using heavy machines, you were working physically, lifting huge very thick pots and making enormous amounts of food, it was a physically demanding job. Just that factor made it a man's job. Even though the mother, or the housewife, or the woman cooked at home, that was much less physical. Over the years, I think the physical part of it is just not a factor any more. Women do a great job in the kitchen. I love to, even though I have a very hard time to, I like to keep my kitchen balanced with at least 20-40 percent females, but it's still not easy to do. There's still not many out there that are easy to get.

Q. What has changed in the kitchen, over the years, to make it less physically demanding?
A. You got stock pots with cranks on 'em. You got ways to move food around that's much easier than it used to be. You no longer get 500 pound pieces of meat in the kitchen. You could just go on and on. You don't have to cut wood to start the fire. Yet, the kitchen is still in the dark ages. Every time I think about it, I get upset. We have not used the technology world and the advancements that this society has made in technology better or easier. We're still doing things, including me, that were done 50 years ago. The only place technology has ever moved into the restaurant is in the cash register and in the order taking of the waitress station job, by sending the order back to the kitchen. And, they gave us lousy printers! (Laughs.) At least they could've give us great printers back there. But, it's been very frustrating. I'm trying to plan a strategy that will use a lot more technology in the restaurant just to make things better, more consistent. You can forget something's cooking in the kitchen and really damage the initial possibility of taste. There's just a lot of things that could be brought up to date in the kitchen, such as our understanding and usage of electronics that could make it a lot different and easier.

Q. That could be your next project, to work in a high tech, state of the art kitchen.
A. Well, that's certainly something I’m thinking about. I'm not thinking about it probably in the same way most people would. I’m thinking of it to protect the food. Most kitchens today, when they build 'em brand new, they put steam tables in 'em and these very unsophisticated controls, and within six months or a year everybody just turns 'em wide open. They put food on a steam table, and they got the fire up high, and 15 minutes after they put it on there, it's already changed it dramatically.

Q. Let's see if we can't stir some people up with this question, who makes a better chef, a man or a woman?
A. I think the person makes a better chef.

Q. That's a politically correct answer if I ever heard one.
A. Well, it's not that. It's the truth. I have seen men that are really wonderful and they have the finesse of women. I have seen women that can work 16 hours a day in the kitchen and be fresh and excited. That's what it takes to be a great cook. To love people is what it takes. I think it's so individualized. If you can't care abut someone you've never met that's sitting in that dining room... it's very hard to get a reputation as a cook. It's very hard to really go up in status in the world because you gotta have enough pride and sensitivity to not to want to ruin someone's evening, and to make sure everything you send out into that dining room is the way it should be. If I eat in a restaurant, I get so offended if the food is overdone or it stays in the lights too long or they take something that's cooked too much on one side and turn that side down on a plate. It ruins somebody's evening when you do that. Some people decided to go out to eat and maybe can only do it one time that year. It may be somebody's birthday. It may be somebody's anniversary. They've thought about it for a week and they made the reservation and put the money aside, and came out to spend it. I think we should care about it. We should understand what they're doing, and we should always want to do the best we can for them.

Q. What about the threat of chain restaurants versus individual restaurants.
A. The future of the food industry is changing and it's changing at absolutely lightning speed. Now the supermarkets are entering the food industry. In the last ten years packaging and knowledge of temperatures have gotten to the point where the average person will be satisfied with food that's been packaged. Most foods that have been frozen, people really don’t like that and they won’t pay very much for it. But now you can package food for a week, ten days, two weeks, and ship it across the country and have a reasonable quality product in a package and people will buy it. If you understand the system of running a restaurant, and you put enough where people help themselves a lot, and keep things simple for the kitchen, where you don't need to have a high paid crew in the back, and you have a formula for popping those billings in, you can have a reasonably good restaurant. We don't know where the industry is gonna end up at. For years I've been saying there's gonna be two kinds of restaurants, one where people cook and love to cook and do it because they want to make another person happy. Then they're gonna have another restaurant where people feed like you do at mass feedings of cattle. I'm not putting it down, I just don't know what example to use. But, it's where the food is almost neutral. It's not good. It's not bad. People need food cheap and they need it fast. Every supermarket chain today is trying to tweak a formula that they can put out food that's of good enough quality that the average person will see it as a quality product, and sell it in the store. They know that's the wave of the future. If they sell something that's packaged in a store as a raw product, if they get a dollar for it, they can turn around and sell it as a cooked product for three dollars, and they know it. And, they'll still be cheaper than any restaurant around.

Q. Why is Louisiana in your words, "the place for creative cooking in the U.S." What is there about the state that lends itself to that description?
A. The first two things that created what Louisiana is all about when it comes to cooking and eating is that we have lots of diverse cultures. They just happen to be the most emotional cultures of the world, the Spanish, the Italian, the French, and the Black. Over the years, the mixture of these cultures with a state that is very small but has an incredible production of food. We have a 12 month growing season. When I was a kid we had beets, and carrots and onions in the ground in January. You still can do that. But, you also had closed societies and mixed cultures working side by side. My society is a French speaking society. My first ancestor arrived in 1670, into my home area. My father, this was his part of the family, his great, great, great grandfather didn't speak English. The culture was closed to the outside world. So, we needed entertainment and food was the only entertainment we had, and making children. I'm the thirteenth child in the family and we're sharecroppers. It became part of our culture that the most important person in our neighborhood and the most important family was the one that put out the best meal. That way, any political gathering or any gathering at all in the neighborhood ended up at my house, because my mother was a great cook. On the other hand, we had New Orleans that had these great cultures that gave up the state when France owned it, when the Spanish owned it. When they left, they left people behind that were cultural people. They made a lot of money and they had servants that were Black people. The Black person would work for a French family and they had to cook for the family, but they would use their techniques. Then they would cook for a Spanish family and of course had to change the taste of the food still using their techniques and it would marry the ingredients together. Then they would move on to an Italian family and change again. It was basically women dong this at the time. New Orleans went through several bad economic times. A lot of those families opened some of our greatest restaurants. They considered the working staff as part of their family. They couldn't afford them anymore so they'd open a grocery store on the corner and sell food out of the grocery store. They'd open a restaurant and that was a way to keep everybody together. This is not a fantasy. This was a story that was repeated and is historically documented over and over again in the city of New Orleans. You compare those cultures together. We had Indians that considered themselves Cajuns. We had Spanish people. We had Italians. We had all these people over a 200 year period that sort of became one. If they spoke French they were Cajun. There were Black people. Food was the important thing to 'em, and they had it. You didn't have to worry about storing food like other cultures did. You had to smoke it. You had to salt it. You had to cure it. You had to fill it full of acid in order to store it. Our culture wasn't like that. We had enough seasons and enough abundance of food during the season, that we just stuck to the seasons, and just changed. Peppers grow wild and we like hot food. We like pepper being a part of our food. Pepper is good for you when you live in the heat. It motivates your body to perspire, and when that happens, it cools you off. To me, all these things are a direct line to the culture and to the way people lived and to the area that they lived that slowly over a period of 250 years brought it together to this great food. Until the 1970's and 1980's no one had ever shown how this food works. They knew it was here in Louisiana. They'd come here and eat it and like it, but they couldn't duplicate it. When chefs would travel outside of the city of New Orleans, and outside the state of Louisiana they just would go with their knives and their tools. They would buy ingredients from New York or wherever they were at, but they couldn’t duplicate the food, because the ingredients here just makes a lot of difference. When I first started traveling, I realized that, and I took all the ingredients with me. I also took the philosophy of the food and turned it into something people could understand. At this point in time, and not to my doing, the way the food is evolving, it's better than it's ever been. The restaurants that are most successful here serve local food.

Q. What was it like to prepare food for President Reagan's Inauguration?
A. It was fun. It was exciting. It was a challenge. We brought everything that we were going to serve to Washington. We had two giant refrigerated trucks. We had to turn the heating on to keep our food from freezing. It got that cold. We were slated to have 400 or 500 people. We stopped counting at 1,000 people that night. We had a great time. It was just really wonderful.

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