Monday, October 12, 2015

Washington Social Diary: Remembering Paul Prudhomme

Paul Prudhomme.
by Carol Joynt

The world’s food community, and its fans, suffered a big loss this past week with the death of Chef Paul Prudhomme at the age of 75. I felt the loss, too. Not just for what he contributed to American cuisine, and not just for watching him in his original New Orleans restaurant a couple of times, or the night I was fortunate to be at the Corcoran Gallery when he cooked a private dinner before President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. Those all are very good memories, but there’s one even sweeter: the night I spent with him and Charlie Rose and a handful of other talented people, celebrating the revolution in American cuisine.
Prudhomme, cooking at a White House Congressional picnic.
It was 1984, an era long before “Top Chef,” and I had the privilege of producing a landmark two-hour CBS News broadcast about food, the full two hours from a hotel kitchen, hosted by Charlie, and all of it live and in the middle of the night.

Charlie and I both worked for the overnight CBS News broadcast “Nightwatch.” He was the host, I was a staff producer. Nightwatch was a great place to be a producer because the fact the show was on between 2am and 6am meant the “suits” at the Broadcast Center and Black Rock rarely watched what we were up to. And we were up to a lot. To be innovative was our mandate. A good idea got attention, and a crazy good idea got on the air.
Charlie Rose in his natural habitat, at a desk, but once he did a two-hour show on American cuisine, live from a hotel kitchen.
I was intrigued by what was happening with food in the U.S. The food writers called it the “new American cuisine” but what it was, really, was the first wave of American chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs planting flags in food and menus derived from our own melting pot heritage. We take a lot of it for granted now, but then it was exotically new. Prudhomme was at the forefront – and not from New York or L.A., but New Orleans.

The late '70s and early '80s were when young Americans put their food obsessions to work, to shake it up, as businesses. It brought the birth of the “foodie.”
Paul Prudhomme was a food marketing entrepreneur famous for, among other items, his packaged seasonings.
In New York, the iconic Lutece, still wonderful, was in its sunset. The new places to go included Dodin Bouffant and Le Plaisir on the Upper East Side, and downtown upstarts Montrachet, La Tulipe, Chanterelle and The Odeon. Young stars included David Waltuck, David Bouley, Larry Forgione. Some of them may have been doing French cooking, but they were doing it with American attitude. The most sought after reservation was at Barry and Susan Wine’s The Quilted Giraffe at Madison and 55th. It delivered, too. Oh, what a pleasure to get fortified with a starter of Beggar’s Purses (delicate, bite-sized crepes filled with caviar and crème fraiche), followed by other temptations of Wine’s innovative cuisine that pulled from the U.S. heartland, France, and Japan.
The Quilted Giraffe, which was located in the AT&T Building's rear arcade.
Eating the Beggar’s Purse at The Quilted Giraffe ("Put your hands behind your back, lean forward, and scoop it up in one bite.")
Add to this the rising impact of California – from Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Jeremiah Tower in San Francisco, to Michael McCarty and his Michael’s in Santa Monica.

My food idea, while unusual, was attractive to the executive producer, an eccentric but creative man named Jon Ward. When a talk show is two hours long, and live, and five nights a week, the need for content is comparable to a great white shark’s appetite. Jon did not look at me like I was nuts when I suggested: “Hey, why don’t we do a whole show on the new American cuisine, live from a kitchen, with chefs cooking, and Charlie talking to experts … right there in the kitchen, with the chefs and all?”

Jon said, “sure. Look into it.” And I was off and running.
Out in front at the beginning of "new American cuisine," were, in the foreground, Michael McCarty, and behind him Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel and Ken Frank. This is 1979 at Michael's in Santa Monica.
I found a hotel in Washington’s West End neighborhood – it had just opened, The Grand – and got permission to use their kitchen. It meant having TV trucks parked outside and cables running from the street, through the hotel, and into the kitchen, but they didn’t fuss about it. They were good sports all the way through.

Next it was booking the chefs. At the top of my list was Paul Prudhomme, because down in the French Quarter he was changing everything with his landmark Cajun restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and his ballsy and authentic approach to food. He was making American food that was a revelation to all of us, and even to our culinary friends in Europe and beyond. He was a sensation.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen.
Prudhomme outside his landmark New Orleans restaurant on Chartres Street.
Paul had been a hit when he was head chef at Commander’s Palace, but with K-Paul’s he made his own unique statement. Paul also was big fellow, at this time perhaps 400 pounds or heavier, and it wasn’t easy for him to move around. I begged his wife, Kay, though. “He’s the most important part of this show,” I said. “He’s the one. Please, please do it. Please come to Washington.”

Kay eventually said “yes,” and I’m sure I danced a happy dance, and then set about filling out the show. I wanted California represented, of course, and I tapped Jonathan Waxman.  He had transplanted to New York, and had his own cool place, Jams, on East 79th, but his background was solid California – Chez Panisse and then as McCarty’s chef at Michael's. (Today he is the chef and owner of Barbuto in the West Village.) I also wanted someone new, an emerging star, and working with the food of his own region, and for that third spot I booked Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of the still young Inn at Little Washington in rural Virginia.
Chef Patrick O'Connell at his Inn at Little Washington last year.
Michael McCarty and Jonathan Waxman in 2012.
Mentioning that Paul Prudhomme would be in the line-up made it easy for me to lure Jonathan and Patrick into the cast. I rounded it out with William Rice, then the editor in chief of Food & Wine Magazine. And I booked a wine expert, too, because as quickly as “foodies” were becoming fetishistic about what they ate they were also becoming obsessed with the grape, especially from California. (The craft cocktail revolution would come later, in the 21st Century.)

With the cast set, and technical requirements being handled by Jon Ward and the director of the show, Bob Vitarelli, I focused on prepping Charlie. We had the same brain on most of the shows we did together, especially politics, the big “gets,” and entertainment, but food did not prompt a “wow” response from him. He indulged me. “Okay, Carol, I know you love all this but to me food is only fuel.” I wanted to change his mind.

Prep included a dinner at The Inn at Little Washington and a lunch at DC’s Restaurant Nora. That helped. I also prepared a huge packet of research for him. Charlie was a sponge for research. Besides, how else do you get through two hours of live TV? By the time the show date arrived, Charlie was into it.
A photo from 2008 shows Prudhomme leading a jazz band parade in the French Quarter.
Paul, bless his heart, and Kay, traveled to Washington by car, because he brought all his food with him, in cardboard boxes, everything he needed to recreate the cuisine of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, which was then just a very plain, modest but lively restaurant on Chartres Street. It seated 60 people. Patrons would stand in line and wait, and wait – in an era before that was a thing. Later K-Paul’s would be refurbished, expanded to seat 200, and Paul became a brand – a celebrity, a TV star, and marketing success.

We went live at 2am and the show rolled along with energy, a crazy good idea come to life. The secret to a good live show is that its always almost about to run off the rails, but doesn’t. This show had that spontaneity. Charlie and Bill Rice sat at a round café table close to camera one and behind them Paul, Jonathan and Patrick positioned themselves at the burners, with pans and some food, and cooked, with other cameras trained on them. They also took turns talking to Charlie. And we took calls from viewers.  Paul sat on a stool while Patrick and Jonathan moved around him. Charlie seemed happy and muscled through this task I’d given him of talking cuisine for two hours. He aced it.
Paul Prudhomme with K-Paul's executive chef Paul Miller, who started cooking with Prudhomme at Commander's Palace in 1977, and joined him at K-Paul's in 1981.
Celebrity chefs and friends, Paul Prudhomme with Emeril Lagasse, who succeeded Prudhomme as executive chef at Commander's Palace in 1982, when Prudhomme turned his full attention to K-Paul's.
Paul Prudhomme with Wolfgang Puck.
When we went off the air at 4am, exuberant with our success, the CBS News folks – production staff, technical staff, support staff – were ready to go home. But Paul had an idea. “I have all this food, let me cook for you. I’ve got Jonathan and Patrick to help.” The rest of us adjourned to the hotel dining room – just off the kitchen, of course – sat at a couple of large round tables, and got served a delicious meal, which started with vodka oyster shooters followed by his signature Blackened Redfish, Crawfish Etouffée, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo.

It was a feast, a full K-Paul’s dinner at 4:30 in the morning in a mostly empty hotel dining room in Washington DC, served by that gregarious and charming genius, Paul Prudhomme. 

As the sun came up I walked home to Georgetown a very happy television producer with a happy full stomach, too. I carried a brown paper bag. In it was a parting gift from Paul. “This is for you,” he said. It was an Andouille sausage. An awesome gift and the next night I put it to work in a gumbo.
Inside K-Paul's today, still the original location but refurbished.
I wish there were photos from that night, but this was the time before digital photography and smartphones, and there’s no video, either, because CBS News, in an absence of wisdom, did not preserve the Nightwatch archive. It's a shame, because it was a broadcast ahead of its time. We did so many wonderful, smart, wacky, timely, insightful segments. But at our best we did shows such as this show about food, pointing to the future, with some of it scripted but a lot more of it happening organically, in the moment.

And Paul Prudhomme was the star. I hold dear every moment I got to spend with him.
Paul Prudhomme illustrates how to make a roux, a staple of Louisiana cuisine.
Here’s one for you, chef. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

A comprehensive obituary of Paul Prudhomme appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune here.

In the spirit of food and wine, here’s something to try the next time you are in Washington in the vicinity of Le Diplomate restaurant at 14th and Q Streets. Step in and order the Absinthe Service.

Absinthe is an ancient herbal spirit, similar to anisette, and for years was steeped in mystery and myth, thought to be poisonous, that it would make you crazy. In the early 20th century it was declared illegal in Switzerland and France. Banned in the U.S., but that was then. Not now. It’s legal.
Step right in and order the Absinthe Service, though best at the end of a meal.
The ice water vessel is a called a "tower." Once properly prepared, the Absinthe is opaque and milky looking and ready to drink.
The Absinthe Service, when performed properly, is interactive and thus fun. A glass “tower” is brought to the table; it is half filled with ice water. A sugar cube saturated with Absinthe is placed beneath the tiny spigots – there are two – and the water is dispensed slowly onto the sugar cube and drips into the glasses below, creating your drink. Going slowly is key.

What you get is a delicious, lightly licorice-flavored, slight chilled drink, opaque in appearance, which serves as a pleasant and mild digestif. Try it. Any craziness that ensues was already in you, begging to come out.
Not so crazy: CJ, on the left, and her Absinthe crew: Joseph Vergnetti, visting from Ohio, Ellen MacNeille Charles of Georgetown, and Ellen's grandson, George Iverson.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt