Guru of Flavor: Chef Paul Prudhomme

CAMP RED CLOUD, Uijongbu—He’s been called the “guru of flavor,” but when it comes to his passion for cooking, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s greatest pleasure in life is simply to make another person happy with food.

“The greatest emotion that human beings have is eating and so cooking for that emotion is the best job in the world,” said the internationally renowned chef.

Prudhomme, who is in Korea this week to attend the New World Food Show 2002 at the KOEX Center, took a day off from his busy schedule on Monday to share some of his culinary wizardry with US soldiers of the Second Infantry Division (2ID). He spent the morning with soldiers and cooks at Camp Casey where he gave them some hands-on cooking lessons. Later in the evening he gave a cooking presentation at Camp Red Cloud and then served guests a sampling of some of his specialties.

“We spent the day cooking and talking about cooking,” smiled Prudhomme, “my two favorite things in life.”

With his familiar beard and trademark white cap, Prudhomme is one of America’s best-known chefs. With an amazing passion for food blended with his own style of home-grown witticisms and culinary philosophy, his reputation has been furthered through frequent television appearances, cooking videos, and best-selling cookbooks.

He has also won many awards, (he was the first American-born chef to receive the coveted Merite Agricole of the French Republic) taken part in benefit and fundraising efforts, and he and his staff have cooked for various heads of state, President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, the 1983 Economic Summit Meeting in Virginia and the Congressional Barbecue. In addition, he also markets his line of Magic Seasoning Blends and seasoned and smoked meats.

Although Prudhomme has spent over 50 years creating tantalizing dishes and building mouth-watering flavors, he thinks that people in general have lost track of what food is all about.

“Food is all about sustaining life. As a professional cook, I have the distinct honor of building human body cells with my every day work,” said Prudhomme. “There is no other profession that can make the claim, even doctors or scientists cannot build human body cells. I can.”

Born in 1940, in a small town in Louisiana, Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children. When his last sister left home when he was seven, he helped his mother in the kitchen. It was at her side that he learned the value of fresh, quality products, as well as the importance of food.

“My mother taught me various reference points,” recalled Prudhomme. “She taught me that I could tell if something was cooked right just by the way it smelled like something else.”

Even as a child, Prudhomme knew that he wanted to devote his life to cooking. After he completed school, he traveled around the United States working as a cook and learning the importance of seasoning and building flavors that would become his trademark. He later returned to New Orleans and opened his first restaurant in 1979.

Although only intended as a local neighborhood eatery, word soon spread around the French Quarter of the wonderful dishes he was creating in the kitchen. Soon people were lining up to try these savory dishes. Two of his more famous creations—“Blackened Redfish” and “Blackened Steak”—have become widely imitated around the world.

“The reason that Cajun cooking has caught on around the world is that it is a tribute to the food itself,” said Prudhomme proudly.

He describes Cajun food as basically country food: the food of the people that used the basic ingredients that were available to them. According to Prudhomme, it is the only original, authentic seasoned American food. Although Prudhomme

While Cajun cooking has caught on around the world, there are some who have simply used the name Cajun to make their menus seem more exotic. Prudhomme pointed out that some restaurants claim to offer blackened dishes but they don’t have the stoves to blacken the fish or the chicken.

“That doesn’t make any sense because it’s the fire that makes it good!” he exclaimed.

According to Prudhomme, around 1985 there were hundreds of Cajun restaurants in America, but now you can’t find them anymore because they couldn’t do the food and people stopped going. They went out of business, he said.

During his presentation Monday night, Prudhomme also dispelled some of the myths that people might have with Cajun cooking.

“Some Cajun dishes are hot, but not hot in the sense that they have you rushing for the nearest glass of water,” laughed Prudhomme.

He explained that if a food is very hot or spicy, a person’s taste buds immediately set off an alarm to release more moisture to clear out that burning sensation, thereby ruining the desired flavor. Prudhomme though, has found a way to put this “hot” taste in the back of the flavor for one to get the full-bodied flavor of the taste he is trying to create. Likewise, tasting this pepper in the back of your mouth also causes more moisture to be released, but this time to clear your taste buds for the next bite.

Prudhomme also shared some basic cooking tips that have worked well for him over the years.

“People often ask me how they can tell if something is done like chicken,” said Prudhomme. “Most people have the tendency to overcook. Then, when you try to eat it, it takes the moisture out of your mouth.”

According to Prudhomme, it’s important to understand the texture of the food to know when something is cooked.

“I am always in constant communication with the food I am cooking,” he explained, “whether it’s the smell or the taste. What I am really doing is building flavors.”

How much of what he does is an art or a science depends sometimes on the particular dish he is preparing. Nonetheless, his philosophy for cooking is simple: healthy foods and good taste.

The time he spent with the soldiers and the cooks on Monday was definitely a morale booster and an honor according to the 2ID commander.

“The timing worked out for him to come up here,” explained Maj. Gen. Russel Honoré, whose brother is a friend of Prudhomme’s. “He agreed to come up and put on some demonstrations for our cooks.”

Honoré, who is from the same part of Louisiana as Prudhomme grew up watching him on television.

“It’s an unusual thing in the army for cooks to get exposed to a professional chef in their own units,” said Honoré. “It’s an honor to have him up here.”

Before Prudhomme leaves Korea he looks forward to trying some of Korea’s unique dishes. He pointed out that food tells him more about a culture than anything else that someone could explain to him about that culture.

“When you eat a culture’s food you are really looking into the very soul of that culture,” explained Prudhomme who has tried kimchi and other Korean food at restaurants in the United States, “because food is created around the necessities of the ingredients that they have and also the situation surrounding their lives when those dishes were created.”

He will also have the chance to learn firsthand about Korean food from some Korean chefs. Learning how to cook various dishes from another culture is something that he does no matter where he goes. However, when it comes to learning another culture’s dishes, he does not want to simply duplicate them.

“I just want to learn how to use their flavors in the things that I create,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

Perhaps, it’s only fitting for someone who has devoted his life to cooking that his name in French means “proud man.” Without question, when it comes to his passion for cooking and sharing it with people around the world, Prudhomme is proud to do what he does best.

“Good cooking, good eating, and good loving,” smiled Prudhomme, “will always benefit you, no matter how you apply them.”