For Cajun Chef, Swamps Nourish Inspiration


CHEF Paul Prudhomme is peeling onions. One hundred pounds of them. In the front of his K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, tourist diners line up to eat jambalayas, gumbos, crawfish bisques, corn bread, and red beans and rice. Just in back of the cramped, communal dining room, cooks work in bursts of steam to turn out the highly spiced dishes that made Cajun food a national craze.

Chef Prudhomme is most known for the technique of "blackening," which involves searing food in an iron skillet using very high heat and spices. His blackened redfish became so popular that commercial bans on redfish were imposed in some areas.

"I invented the first new cooking method in a couple of centuries," he says, in a gentle voice that somehow sounds humble.

Why is the renowned chef doing the lowliest job in the kitchen? "Because it's here to do, and I do anything," he says. "Besides, it's good for my timing."

He peels with steady, rhythmic strokes, pausing only to lop off an ingrown peel or to sharpen his blade every dozen onions or so.

Cajun cooking, he says, owes its inspiration to the natural environment. "I can't get away from nature. I use local ingredients, fresh and natural, shiny shrimp that smell sweet. I get them right from the fisherman who caught them the night before. There's no way you can't be excited about cooking that.

"Now our truck is out getting strawberries 50 miles away. The taste is awesome. I use strawberry juice instead of water in cakes. Get back to that and dining gets exciting."

"Cajun cooking," he adds softly, "is a little more emotional than California sprouts."

Prudhomme grew up in Opelousas, 59 miles west of the capital, Baton Rouge. "I grew up in a swamp. My father made $300 a year, but we lived off what we grew. I was the 13th child. If we wanted something to eat we just went out into the swamp to get it.

"Everything is there," he says: "Deer, wolves, frogs, rice, honey, alligators, rabbits, coons, possums, wild vegetables, herbs."

He learned to cook from his mother and opened his first restaurant at the age of 17. "My 13-year-old nephew is very talented," he says.

He is asked what it means to be a talented cook.

"The taste has to talk to you, just like words," he says. "Chicken has a taste. You add spices, and something makes it taste more like chicken. If we cook food right, as you eat it, the taste changes. Taste has to be structured in order to be emotional. When you taste something, you expect it to leave a round flavor in your mouth. But if it tastes oblong or has a hole, you add something to close it."

A cook, as if on cue, comes in the side door with a small cup of sauce for "Chef Paul" to taste. "Fifteen minutes more and you've got it," he says. "No," he calls out, after the cook moves a few steps away. "It's all right. Leave it."

What happened in between the first taste and those few steps?

"The second taste came through," he says. "I told them to put more vegetables to sweeten it the last time. I tasted it this time, and after a few seconds, I got a second and a third taste. I knew it was enough."

He calls to workers in the back: "Is there any more to do?"

"Two more bags, chef."

"Bring them out," he says, as he sharpens his blade.

Is he really going to peel another 100-pound sack?

"Why not," he says. ve already peeled five others this morning."

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