Continuing our celebration of the New Orleans Tricentennial, this month we focus on the trailblazing chefs Paul Prudhomme and Leah Chase, highlighting their accomplishments in the realm of cuisine.
Paul Prudhomme is best known for popularizing modern Cajun and Creole cuisine in New Orleans and across the country. Prudhomme’s popularity began to soar when he became the first American chef to run the kitchen at one of New Orleans’ most treasured restaurants, Commander’s Palace. Eventually, he opened his own restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where he specialized in an assortment of dishes including sweet-potato pecan pie and blackened redfish.
Many argue that Prudhomme’s blackened redfish, a Cajun dish, is his best achievement, as it made this particular style of food noteworthy in the eyes of the world – not just the American South. This was Prudhomme’s real specialty: seeing the potential for unappreciated foods to be appreciated by the masses. His modern-day claim-to-fame is arguably the creation of the “turducken,” a duck-stuffed-in-a-chicken-stuffed-in-a-turkey. Only a man of Prudhomme’s inventiveness and style could have executed a spin on classic French technique with such finesse.
Unfortunately for the city of New Orleans and Prudhomme’s family, the legendary chef passed away in 2015 at the age of 75. However, his legacy continues at his French Quarter restaurant, with its lively and open atmosphere, where many spend their evenings getting lost in blackened spices, leaving with full bellies and happy hearts. In a 1985 interview, a reporter asked Prudhomme about his love for Cajun food.
“Cajun makes you happy,” he said with exuberance. “It’s emotional. You can’t eat a plate of Cajun food and not have good thoughts.”
Known as the “Queen of Creole,” Leah Chase is another food hall-of-famer in New Orleans, especially with regard to southern comfort food. Not only is Chase a powerhouse in the restaurant industry, she is a strong-willed woman who worked her way up in the business, battling history as she climbed. Chase has been cooking in New Orleans since 1946 at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, first opened by her father-in-law.
During the civil rights movement, when African Americans were still banned from white-owned restaurants, its leaders would gather at Dooky Chase’s to eat and discuss plans for integration. And as a pioneer for positive change, Chase made her restaurant one of the only public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups could meet. Chase has served food to many important figures and celebrities throughout the years, including Quincy Jones, Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
A stand-out of the restaurant has always been the art museum that resides inside. A beautiful assortment of African American art hangs on its walls, making the restaurant the first gallery for black artists in New Orleans. A patron and supporter of African-American art, Chase serves on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art and has testified before Congress to get more funding for the arts in schools.
Chase creates an atmosphere of empowering reassurance within her walls that brings a whole new meaning to the term “soul food.” She is praised for her warmth, as well as her genuine love and care for her customers and food. As Leah Chase famously once said: “Everyone can cook. If you try. If you put a little love into it.”
Many thanks to Crane Rehab Center, our Tricentennial Cover Sponsor:
Article by: Jake Collazo, Edit Intern at Nola Family Magazine.
Want more New Orleans history? Check our Nola Family’s Tricentennial piece on the Mardi Gras Indians.