They are probably the two professional compliments that I treasure the most in my life – and both came from Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, who passed away in New Orleans today at age 75.
One was that he always claimed to be the one who told me I should write about food. “You be good to food and food’ll be good to you,” he quoted himself. Though I didn’t remember the encounter, I’m honored he thought I was worth claiming. The second was that he’d long considered the hour-long interview I did with him for my own EasyFood magazine in New Orleans the best article ever written about him. Sure, he must have known I’m a sucker for a pretty compliment, but that one has inspired me every day ever since.
I certainly wasn’t afraid of talking with him, since Paul Prudhomme could and would talk with anybody. It’s one of the things that made him a celebrity, in real life, in cookbooks and especially on his by-our-standards primitive Cajun cooking series. On another occasion, when I went to a taping at the PBS station in Baton Rouge, I was impressed that he kept a chair in which to take naps between recipe segments, while the set and cameras were being organized. To this day, I’m jealous of any nap taken by anybody anywhere.
But on this day, we talked about everything – include his “Fork in the Road” project that took him away from cooking Louisiana foods laden with butter and oil, about his years of anger at European chefs who prevented Americans from getting ahead, about how he learned that cooking for women equaled instant seduction (I was too married to do anything about it, but I took note. Hint: Apparently it only works if you cook like Paul Prudhomme) and even about early run-ins with the law I’d heard about from a friend from a small Cajun village near Paul’s. But then, gulping a bit, I risked being Ted Baxter and essentially asked him “how it felt” to lose his wife Kay (the “K in K-Paul’s) only months earlier at much too young an age, as though any age were not too young.
“I’ve always been a scattered person,” he said, walking around the question until he found a doorway inside, “never satisfied and always reaching for something else, whether it was a new dish of food or a new business. Kay wasn’t that way. Kay was in love with this restaurant. This was her restaurant in the sense that she would not allow it to change. She was in control, and I liked it that way. I would say jokingly, but I really meant it, that I cooked for her and created for her. As long as it satisfied her, we knew it was in the customer’s direction. Now that’s gone, and that’s a huge void for me.
“It doesn’t mean I want to give up the restaurant. It’s a huge part of my life, and it was the beginning of everything that’s happened to me in the last fifteen years. But I miss having that real solid connection, through her. Now if I want to have that connection, I have to spend every day, hours and hours here, to get the same I’d get from her in five minutes.” When Paul slowed down I asked him about his smile, the one that brightens any retail space from the cover of any of his cookbooks. Was it difficult to make that smile happen, I asked, to get it right, after Kay’s death? “It was relatively easy, because she would have wanted me to go on and do what I’m doing and have fun. That’s a fact. I knew what she wanted to leave behind and I knew what she wanted me to do after she left. She would want me to do it the best that I could. When I had to be on, it was easy, because I could be on for her.”