American-born French chef in the New Orleans style
Probably the most exciting regional food in the United States today is the Creole-Cajun cuisine found in a small, plain cafe in New Orleans's French Quarter, called K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, named for its two owners, Chef Paul Prudhomme and Manager Kay Hinrich.
Those seeking the true flavor of Louisiana cuisine for miles around start long queues hours before the opening of this three year old restaurant with its internationally known chef.
Paul Prudhomme once told me that Orleanians would go through floods, blizzards, droughts, most anything, for a plate of really good food.
In this city, famous for its food in 2,000 restaurants and its people known for discriminating palates, Chef Prudhomme is known as one of the most creative, inspired, and respected of all chefs.
Orleanians flock to his place for Creole and Cajun foods, from jambalaya, chicken gumbo, and crawfish bisque to his own special dishes such as Blackened Redfish, Trout With Pecan Sauce, and Bread Pudding With Chantilly Sauce.
The menu changes constantly. His scouts range the countryside for fresh boudin or andouille sausage, the tenderest okra, and the first soft-shell crabs, which appear immediately on the menu, hand-lettered every morning.
The son of an Opelousas sharecropper in Louisiana's sweet potato country, and one of 15 children, Prudhomme owned his first restaurant in his hometown when he was still in his teens.
Since then Chef Prudhomme has been executive chef for Commander's Palace in New Orleans and for Brennan's Restaurants in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.
But now he is doing what he really enjoys - cooking the way he likes to cook in a small, unpretentious restaurant of his own.
As an old friend, I have learned that early morning is the best time to catch Chef Paul. As he sits at one of the restaurant's small tables his work revolves around him.
A new sausagemaker in town brings him a sample of a new sausage. His young nephew arrives from the countryside around Opelousas with a truck load of whatever seasonal foods are at their peak.
Stanley Jackson, his good right hand in the kitchen and his young sous chef, George Rhodes, have a brief conference with him about the new pecan sauce for trout, then head for the kitchen.
There was, however, a time not long ago in New Orleans when Cajun food was considered something poor people out on the bayous ate while dancing to back-country fiddlers. But today it is well liked, appreciated, and sought after.
Perhaps it's because of Paul Prudhomme himself, and perhaps because of Louisiana's last governor, Edwin Edwards, a Cajun.
Many people ask for a definition of Cajun food and this chef has the answer. The word Cajun is a corruption of the word ''Acadia,'' the name of the area in eastern Canada where the French first settled. Chef Prudhomme's family moved to Louisiana from Nova Scotia more than 200 years ago.
''Cajun cooking,'' he explains, ''is old French cooking that was transformed into a Southern style when my ancestors migrated to Louisiana. It is spicier with pepper than authentic French food.
''When I have cooked for French chefs visiting this country, they said, 'That's how my grandmother used to cook.'
''Creole is more sophisticated. It is actually a combination of Spanish, French, Italian, and other ethnic groups who settled in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana.
''The wealthy had black servants, and it was the Negroes who formulated Creole cooking. They worked as maids and cooks, and as they moved from family to family they learned how to cook for various nationalities with their own variations. Creole cooking was the result.''
This recipe is an incredibly good chicken-and-sausage gumbo. I have used Polish kielbasa instead of the andouille sausage, because it is easier to find, and it works quite well.
This eggplant-and-shrimp dish is an unusual recipe which he created to call attention to the wholesome quality of the seafood off the shore of St. Bernard Parish. Paul Prudhomme's Gumbo Ya Ya 1 5-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces Salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup oil 2 cups chopped onions 2 cups chopped green pepper 1 1/2 cups chopped celery 6 cups chicken stock 1 pound andouille sausage or kielbasa, diced 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic Salt and freshly ground pepper Steamed white rice
Arrange chicken on baking sheet and season evenly with salt, cayenne, and garlic powder. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature. Combine chicken pieces and 1 1/2 cups flour in large paper bag and shake until chicken is well coated.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Loosen any browned bits on bottom of skillet. Using whisk, add 1 cup reserved flour to skillet and stir constantly until roux is very dark brown. Remove from heat and add onion, green pepper, and celery, stirring to blend thoroughly and prevent burning.
Transfer to large saucepan. Stir in stock and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, add sausage and garlic, and simmer 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove chicken from bones and cut into 1/4-inch pieces. Return to saucepan and heat thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately over steamed rice in individual soup bowls. Serves 8. Eggplant-Shrimp St. Bernard 8 to 12 shrimps per person 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/4 pound unsalted butter 3 cups eggplant, peeled and diced 1 1/2 cups onion, diced small 2 whole eggs 3/4 cup cream or milk 3/4 tablespoon baking powder 1/2 cup water 1 cup corn flour 1/2 cup cornmeal
In large skillet, heat oil until very hot. Add eggplant and onion and cook on high heat until brown. Add butter and simmer until very soft. Cool, then puree eggplant, eggs, and onion in food processor or blender. Add milk or cream. Blend. Add baking powder, corn flour, and blend.
Put cornmeal in a small bowl. Heat water to a boil and add to cornmeal. Stir and add to ingredients in blender. When thoroughly blended, remove to bowl. Dip shrimp in batter and fry in deep fat until golden brown at 350 degrees F.
The shrimps have a wonderful crisp covering, with an intriguing eggplant flavor. Chef Paul's Own Creole Seafood Seasoning 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon salt 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon paprika 1/3 cup cayenne pepper 1/4 cup black pepper 1/4 cup garlic powder 3 tablespoons granulated onion 2 tablespoons thyme
Combine all ingredients in small bowl and mix thoroughly. This can be kept indefinitely in tightly lidded glass jar. Makes 2 cups.