It was the summer of 1970 when my college roommate, Jeanne Rorge-Dibble, and I left Wisconsin and headed to Estes Park, Colo., for our summer job at Elkhorn Lodge. We were summer waitresses who would cover all three shifts and then (supposedly) have the later evenings for fun and relaxation. That was before we received our orientation and interview with Chef Paul Prudhomme. He and the manager were very clear about their expectations and we hit the floor running.
However, Chef’s pastry chef/baker was reporting to work each day a “little under the weather” which left Chef holding the dough. I’d had limited baking experience at my grandparents’ bakery, so Chef soon popped the question—would I work with him in the bakery all night and still waitress all three shifts? I immediately answered, “Yes!” and convinced my roommate to join in the fun. In those days we didn’t worry about 40-hour weeks—we just worked until we were weak or until the job was done. Paul’s work ethic was incredible and he expected nothing less of those who worked with him. But it was no problem for us, because that was how we were raised.
That is how Paul Prudhomme and I met, but that wasn’t the beginning of his story. Usually, very good stories have unusual beginnings—Paul Prudhomme (born Eugene Prudhomme) had one of those beginnings. Some of his popularity came from the fact that his rise to fame was a “feel good” story of a boy growing up near Opelousa, La., as the youngest of 13 children born to parents who were sharecroppers. His aptitude for cooking, flavors, and quality started at his mother’s apron strings where she taught him to pick out the oldest hen in the coop and recognize the different stages of recipes bubbling away in the cast-iron pot on the wood-burning stove.
Family meals helped Paul understand the power of good food and the emotions that came with it. His parents taught him the important rules of life and as soon as he graduated from high school at 17, he opened Big Daddy O’s Patio in his hometown and married his high school sweetheart. Within nine months he realized he was not prepared to be a restauranteur or a husband and with those revelations, he left his hometown to learn what his parents could not teach him.
During the next few years, he worked in every type of restaurant possible. He read every cookbook he could get his hands on, and he took cooking lessons with anyone who was brave enough to give him time in the kitchen. But one has to wonder where and how Paul developed his innate talents and unusual ability to taste the rawest ingredients and drive the flavor to the finished dish or a well-balanced spice blend. He utilized his senses in totally different ways than most of us. He knew how new potatoes smelled and tasted when they were first dug, when to pick the sweetest corn, how to separate cream from the milk, and use only the ripest black bananas for the best banana nut muffins. He applied these lessons of smell, taste, touch, and look to everything he created.
Eventually, Paul realized that the best place to cook Louisiana food was in New Orleans, so he headed back home. In the early 70s, Ella Brennan hired him as the executive chef of her world-famous Commander’s Palace. He credited Ella for teaching him that a successful restaurant had to not only serve great food, it also needed a strong business structure. He loved the Brennan family and valued their advice throughout his life.
The next big step in Paul’s career was opening K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in 1979 with his soon-to-be wife, K. Together, they set the town and the country on fire with their lively French Quarter restaurant that was only open for dinner Monday-Friday (community seating; no reservations; cash only). The food was irresistible, fresh, and seasoned to perfection. Quality and consistency were Paul’s daily mantra, and he reminded his staff that they were only as good as their last meal. He was a mentor to many chefs, many of whom went on to open their own restaurants around the country. Paul was a man of few words in the kitchen, he was calm and remarkably focused on every detail. K-Paul’s was the birthplace of his Magic Seasoning Blends because he used them exclusively in everything from his blackened redfish to turducken creations.
Paul and I reunited in 1984, and he asked me to join him just as he was igniting the growth and stability of Magic Seasoning Blends. Although leaving our family and friends was an emotional decision, moving from New Jersey to New Orleans was exciting, and I figured that I had hit a home run in my life cycle. I grew up in New London, Wis., lived in New Jersey, and moved to New Orleans—three New’s seemed to be very symbolic. A year later my husband, John McBride, joined the company as vice president of sales and marketing. Paul always recognized John as the “guru” behind the development of the brand, the trademarks and the expansion of the business around the world. With Paul’s blessing, John developed a strong sales team who definitely helped with this endeavor. There was always a clear understanding of how to market Paul’s brands, his name, and his talent.
Shortly after taking over the responsibility of president/CEO, I learned an extremely valuable lesson that guided me through my next 30 years of business. It was a normal, hectic day at the seasoning plant when Bobby, Chef’s older brother and master spice blender came into my office looking confused because he had a 20-pound bag of salt left from a blend he was producing. He was not sure if he had calculated correctly. My first reaction was to calm him and say that 20 pounds of salt could not make that much difference in a 1,500-pound batch. However, a little “spice angel” prompted me to suggest that we take the blend to Chef. We gave Chef no information and asked him to taste it and tell us what he thought. He did his usual three fingertip touches and said, “It needs 20 more pounds of salt.” That one little taste test taught me to never, ever underestimate this man’s taste buds—-they were incredibly sharp throughout his career.
We surrounded ourselves with dedicated, loyal and talented staff who together helped build K-Paul’s into a world-renowned restaurant and Magic Seasoning Blends into an international spice company which covered every trade channel and employed over 200 people. We also owned and operated an artisanal meat plant which made Louisiana andouille and tasso. These three businesses, along with eight cookbooks, several PBS cooking series, and consulting around the world propelled Paul into a success level he could never have imagined.
In addition to being a master in the kitchen and creating unique recipes and well-balanced seasoning blends, he had a catching smile and a “country way” of communicating that held your attention as powerfully as did his food. His decisive, positive manner drew people to him and created a wide, devoted fan base. While remaining involved, he turned over the day-to-day operations of his businesses to his trusted and trusting staff who shared his vision of “making your dinner better.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina put us into action that we had never envisioned. Paul’s big heart and caring nature demanded that he take care of his employees, customers, victims, first responders, and volunteers with fresh, comfort food that kept everyone nourished and hopeful during some very difficult times.
Finally, my thoughts and memories of Chef Paul as a person reflect on his generosity, charisma, and demanding approach that yielded the best in those around him. His intense passion for flavors and quality were never ending. Lasting, loving friendships were formed around the world and remain in place today. His “on-camera” cheerfulness was backed by a steadfast devotion to his craft and all his employees who he always touted as “his family.” Paul had no formal culinary training, but his “school of hard knocks” education and innate culinary skills made up for it. His perseverance and dedication to quality and innovation helped make him an industry icon and one that will long be remembered for his many contributions to the culinary world. He loved sharing good food with family, friends, employees, fans—and even many U.S. Presidents. May God Bless His Soul and all of those who dedicated their lives to him and his dream. I am certain everybody in heaven is lined up for his culinary delights!