Remembering Paul Prudhomme, The Louisiana Chef Who 'Made Magic'

"Man, in New Orleans we really are fortunate — we got some of the best things in the world," Chef Paul Prudhomme once said. "And one of those things is the muffuletta sandwich."

And one of the best things about New Orleans was Prudhomme himself.

He was known for introducing blackened redfish to the rest of us, for his cooking demos and for his line of magic spices. Needless to say, Prudhomme changed the way the world saw Louisiana cooking.

He has died at the age of 75.

Poppy Tooker, a native New Orleanian and host of the radio show Louisiana Eats!, spoke to All Things Considered's Kelly McEvers on Thursday about how Prudhomme changed the way we think about food.

New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme prepares barbecue shrimp at the annual White House Congressional Picnic in 2007.    MARVIN JOSEPH / WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme prepares barbecue shrimp at the annual White House Congressional Picnic in 2007.

MARVIN JOSEPH / WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

"Paul didn't just change the way the country and the world viewed the food of southern Louisiana, but in fact because he grew up on a sharecropping farm as one of 13, they lived off the land completely. So when Paul got his first big break and worked at Commander's Palace [a restaurant in New Orleans], he began the farm to table movement."

What's more, says Tooker, by "eating local, seasonal, fresh, he revolutionized the entire American food scene, not just Creole and Cajun."

Prudhomme was actually the first American chef hired at Commander's Palace, says Tooker. "Before that time, as in much of the U.S., everybody thought that you had to go to France to get a chef if you were going to have a fine-dining establishment. And he changed all that."

In the grocery aisle, Prudhomme was perhaps best known for his Magic Spice Blend, which contains salt, paprika, white pepper, onion powder, garlic power, black pepper, thyme and oregano. "It was really, really unique and he literally kept it in his pocket," says Tooker.

The menu dish Prudhomme was most famous for is blackened redfish. "He created it almost on a whim, in a black iron skillet," she says. "He passed it out into a restaurant and everybody loved the redfish so much that quickly a fish that had kind of been a trash fish it became so sought after that he was literally responsible through that dish for that entire species almost becoming extinct."

But what Tooker says she will remember most about Prudhomme is "his enormous generosity of spirit. Paul was a man who could never tell you no. His heart was always open, and a smile was always on his face. And whether it was in the pot or in the pan, he was always making a little magic."

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PAUL PRUDHOMME: Man, in New Orleans, were really are fortunate. We got some of the best things in the world, and one of those things is the mufaletta sandwich.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Another one of the best things about New Orleans was Chef Paul Prudhomme. He was known for introducing blackened redfish to the rest of us, for his cooking demos and for his line of magic spices. Needless to say, Prudhomme changed the way the world saw Louisiana cooking. He has died at the age of 75.

Joining us now to talk about Prudhomme is Poppy Tooker. She is a native New Orleanian and the host of the radio show "Louisiana Eats!" She joins us now from member station WWNO in Louisiana, and thanks so much for joining us.

POPPY TOOKER: Oh, thank you. I'm just sorry we have this sad reason to chat today.

MCEVERS: I mean, I think it's difficult to understate just how much Paul Prudhomme changed the way we think about food. Can you give us a sense of his influence?

TOOKER: I think that Paul didn't just change the way the country and the world viewed the food of southern Louisiana, but in fact, because he grew up on a share-cropping farm as one of 13, they lived off the land completely. So when Paul got his first big break and worked at Commander's Palace, he began the farm-to-table movement. Through his influence of eating local, seasonal, fresh, he revolutionized the entire American food scene, not just Creole and Cajun food.

MCEVERS: And we should say Commander's Palace is a restaurant in the Garden District in New Orleans. And it used to be not well known until he took it over, right?

TOOKER: Paul was the first American chef that was hired at Commander's. Before that time, as in much of the U.S., everybody thought that you had to go to France to get a chef if you were going to have a fine dining establishment. And he changed all that.

MCEVERS: Tell me about the magic spice blend. What was that?

TOOKER: Oh, there's everything. It's salt and paprika and white pepper and onion powder and garlic powder and thyme and black pepper and oregano. And it was really, really unique. And he literally kept it in his pocket.

MCEVERS: We cannot let you go without talking about blackened redfish.

TOOKER: OK. Blackened redfish - that's the dish he's probably the most famous for. He created it almost on a whim in a black iron skillet. He passed it out into the restaurant. Everybody loved the blackened redfish so much that quickly, a fish that had kind of been a trash fish - we weren't eating redfish in fine restaurants - it became so sought after that he was literally responsible for the entire species almost becoming extinct.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: What will you remember the most about Paul Prudhomme?

TOOKER: I will remember his enormous generosity of spirit. Paul was a man who could never tell you no. And his heart was always open. A smile was always on his face. And whether it was in the pot or in the pan, he was always making a little magic.

MCEVERS: Poppy Tooker, host of the "Louisiana Eats!" radio show, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about Paul Prudhomme.

TOOKER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.