The food world mourned the passing yesterday of famed Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve probably enjoyed the benefits of his influence at some point, as he is noted for having made Cajun cuisine, especially blackened redfish, famous and popular across the country in the early 1980s. Today, spicy pan-seared “blackened” proteins of every kind dot the menus of mainstream chains from BJ’s Brewhouse to California Pizza Kitchen.
Thinking about this bit of history reminded me of how I first became fascinated by the world of chefs and cookery – maybe some of you reading this have similar experiences. Around the same time that Prudhomme was serving plates of the real deal to folks lucky enough to be in New Orleans, I was a tween learning about crawfish and andouille sausage by watching “Louisiana Cookin’” with chef Justin Wilson on PBS on Sunday afternoons. There was no Food Network and the culture of celebrity chefs hadn’t really arisen yet, so educational TV programming about cooking tended to be what we today derisively call “dump and stir” demonstrations on unrealistic-looking kitchen sets in studios. Except for the “Great Chefs” series – that was another fascinating peek into the world of white tablecloth professionals and it was shot on location in their restaurant kitchens with natural sound. I distinctly remember a very youthful Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger – with awesome ’80s buzzed haircuts! – demonstrating some complicated dish in a French kitchen (this was before they changed geographic muses and launched their own empire in the genre of Latin cuisine). I learned what bouquet garni and demi-glace were, although I was many years and many miles away from sampling dishes that might’ve been made with those ingredients.
Watching shows like these put ideas into my young head that wouldn’t be further realized for another dozen or so years. As an aspiring PR professional freshly relocated to Los Angeles from the “flyover states” of Middle America, I landed at an agency that represented Wesson Oil. Yep, that boring pantry staple once known for Florence Henderson singing its jingle. At that point in time, we were embarking on a campaign to help home cooks get over their “fear of frying,” and my job was to track down the famous authors and publishers of various cookbooks to secure reprint permissions to use their fried dishes in our publicity efforts. With no internet to aid my sleuthing, I spent hours on the phone with the representatives of culinary celebrities Julie Sahni, Elizabeth Andoh, Nathalie Dupree and Marcella Hazan. I went to Citrus on Melrose Avenue to interview legendary chef Michel Richard. I pored over stacks of styled images from a food photographer. The gastronomic world that I had once watched through a TV screen came alive in a very personal, totally enthralling way and I was hooked. Food became my vocation and my avocation.
Whether your career is in food or some other industry, surely you can pinpoint similar times in your life when there have been memorable inspirations that seeded your passions. To all those who have come before and fed our imaginations and helped crystallize our purpose, cheers and thank you.
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