The Wisdom of Chef Paul

I can’t make Cajun food, Creole food or any New Orleans combination of the two without thinking of the afternoons I used to spend enjoying the company of the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned in every cooking class I’ve ever taught that he was my No. 1 mentor when it comes to piling on flavor.

“Now listen to me, John,” I can hear Chef Paul lecturing, the two of us seated at the tiny table by the kitchen of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter.

“If you take one bite of something and you say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty damn good,’ and maybe a second bite and say, “yeah, that’s pretty damn good too,’ but then you say, ‘I think I had enough,’ that means your food is boring. If you layer the flavors right by cooking everything the way you’re supposed to, then people take one bite, then another bite, and they keep on eating till it’s gone. That means it ain’t boring, John. The one damn thing you don’t ever want to cook is boring food!”

Our friendship – honestly, to say we were friends is boasting on my part, and Paul hated the way some chefs worked in his kitchen for 10 minutes and made that the star of their resumes from that point on – began when I interviewed him for a magazine cover story. He seemed to like the story, or just my company, or whatever else it was. Every so often, from midway in his international fame until his death at age 75 in 2015, he’d call me up and invite me to join him for lunch.

By the end, his niece and her husband, also a “Chef Paul,” were running K-Paul’s (as they are to this day) but that didn’t stop him. All the same, the last time I saw him, he was riding his scooter to Harrah’s casino on a bright Sunday morning, wearing civilian clothes and a rakish hat with a small but brightly colored feather in the band.

“You remember, John, it’s like I told you,” he said to me, stopped on the casino sidewalk, and it proved to be our farewell. “You be good to food and food will be good to you. I told you the truth now, John? Didn’t I tell you the truth?”

JOHN’S CHICKEN & SAUSAGE GUMBO

Every time you think this is traditional New Orleans (with tomato) gumbo, it refuses to be that. But every time you think it’s some sort of heresy away from tradition, it scurries right back into the protection of the past. In the end, every Louisiana cook makes gumbo by a different recipe – or even more commonly, by no recipe at all.

2 lengths Louisiana andouille or other smoked pork sausage, cut into chunks or coins

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 boneless chicken breast halves, cut into bite-sized pieces

3 chicken thighs, some visible fat removed, cut into bite-sized pieces

Creole Seasoning

1 tablespoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra

2 cups fresh or frozen cut okra

10 cups chicken broth

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

Steamed white rice

Louisiana hot sauce to taste

Sliced green onions

Brown the sausage in the olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. When sausage is browned, stir in the chicken and cook until done. Season with Creole seasoning, lemon pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Remove all meat to a large bowl. Add the onion, green pepper and celery to the drippings in the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly caramelized. Add the minced garlic and stir for 1 minute more. Stir in the salsa and okra until incorporated and cook until the okra contributes its clear strings of thickening to the vegetables.

Return all the meat to the pot, along with the chicken broth. In a separate pan or skillet, combine the flour with the vegetable oil to start the roux. Stir over medium heat until it starts to brown, stirring to draw up the brownest parts from the bottom and combine to darken the lightest parts. Cook the roux until dark brown. In preparation for add it to the gumbo, carefully pour some liquid from the pot into the roux and stir quickly (avoiding the steam and platter) until a thick substance develops. Repeat 2-3 times, then stir this into the gumbo. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer for at least 30 minutes. Serve gumbo hot in bowls with white rice, plus hot sauce and green onions. Serves about 12.

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