Paul Prudhomme Was My Mentor and My Inspiration
My mother, Aida, loved to travel, and, as she told me in a letter she wrote to me three days before she died, “We were good travel companions.” We would often go on the road together. She was infinitely generous, and had boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm. We'd talk for hours about things we’d never thought to say in 30 years, and she told me family stories that I always suspected she embellished, so I never knew what was true and what was not. Consequently, I got to know, love, and appreciate her as a woman who wanted to accomplish much in life, but, in her own words, had compromised too much and lost sight of her dreams and the chance of a truly fulfilling, happy life. In this way, I also came to realize that she was living the life she dreamed of through me.
On one occasion, in 1981, we planned to take a cooking class, with Julie Dannenbaum, who taught regularly at the famed Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Mother relished a great hotel, and this one was known both for great service (there was a ratio of two service employees per guest) and luxurious accommodations. She wanted to add this experience to my album of memories — but just as we were about to depart, we were informed that the employees had gone on strike, and the class was cancelled. This was during the Jimmy Carter years, and Mother suggested we go to Atlanta in place of The Greenbrier. I turned her down. I had no interest in learning how to make peanut soup.
We decided on New Orleans instead, and called the Chamber of Commerce to inquire about cooking schools there. They recommended a place called The Enraged Chicken. On the first day of class, I discovered that this was not a serious program, but rather a cooking school/restaurant where the students made all the food served to patrons at dinner. The first day we made… peanut soup — from peanut butter and canned chicken stock. I quit.
Ever the optimist, my mother told me not to worry, we’d spend our time dining at different restaurants and duplicate the food when we got home. Early the next morning, we took a class at the New Orleans Cooking School, and had the jambalaya we learned to make for breakfast. That was followed by an exquisite lunch with sole amandine at Galatoire’s, then a stop by the Central Grocery to sample its trademark muffaletta sandwich — a giant crusty roll dripping with olive oil from its deliciously tangy, salty, crunchy olive and celery salad filling. We followed that with beignets and chicory coffee at Café du Monde.
Courtesy of Zarela Martinez
On our way back to our hotel, we walked past K-Paul’s, the restaurant of the famed chef Paul Prudhomme (who died on October 8 this year). Our morning instructor had recommended it, and Mother insisted that we stop and try it, although neither of us thought we could eat another bite. But a spoonful of the restaurant's hauntingly smoky shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo reawakened our appetites. We ordered bracingly spicy Cajun martinis and tucked in. The waitress suggested the sticky chicken for my mother and I had three exquisitely tender filets (veal, pork, and beef), each served with its own magnificent sauce. These were flavor and texture combinations we’d never experienced, and we realized that this food was not conceived by an ordinary mortal, and this was no ordinary restaurant.
The atmosphere was casual and electric — I’d almost say euphoric. Years later, a customer would tell me that he knew the food at my own restaurant would be good because all the staff walked around smiling; but here the servers, extremely friendly in that Louisiana folksy “honey-chile” sort of way, seemed to be always laughing. I later learned that the floor was tightly run by the chef’s wife and partner, Kay — the "K" in K-Paul’s. Long-legged and rail-thin, she not only looked a little like Juliet Prowse but carried herself like the famous dancer.
They had sat us at a table right near where chef Paul was presiding, checking every dish that came out of the kitchen. Snappily dressed all in white, with his cap placed at a jaunty angle, there was no doubt that he felt good about himself, despite his girth at 500 or so pounds. We noticed that he was watching our reactions intently with his kindly yet penetrating grey eyes. He was obviously trying to figure us out, and Mother suggested I go talk to him. I was very shy then, and hesitated. She insisted. I refused. She pressured me some more, and just to shut her up I said, “OKAY!!!”
It would turn out to be a life-changing moment. I introduced myself to Paul and told him about our disappointing cooking class. With a heart as big as his body, he invited “Mom” and me to cook in his kitchen for the rest of our stay — we’d teach him some Mexican dishes and we’d learn from him in turn. From that moment on, we became fast friends.