Celebrity chefs spread Louisiana’s culinary fame
Great chefs have "spread the gospel about Louisiana food," says food writer Marcelle Bienvenu.
Louisiana cuisine speaks for itself, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few powerful personalities singing its praises. With cooking TV shows, cookbooks and branded kitchen products, and with their own restaurants wowing visitors, a cadre of high-profile chefs have become ambassadors for Louisiana’s distinctive cuisine.
“One of the great things Louisiana’s celebrity chefs have done is explore our local food ways, find the roots and use the attention they get to showcase just how good and versatile our cooking can be,” says Marcelle Bienvenu, a food writer and educator from St. Martinville. “They’ve spread the gospel about Louisiana food.”
There was a time when the terms jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo were best known outside Louisiana as lyrics of a famous Hank Williams song. Then along came Paul Prudhomme, a gifted chef from an Opelousas farming family. In the 1970s he landed the top chef position at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where restaurateur Ella Brennan made him the restaurant’s public face. He opened his own K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in 1979 in the French Quarter, and through the cooking shows and cookbooks that followed he introduced America to the full glory of his native Cajun cuisine.
Commander’s Palace was also where Emeril Lagasse got his start before opening his own Emeril’s Restaurant in 1990. His vivacious personality and mastery in the kitchen made a perfect fit for the new cable TV food programming just then coming into its own, and Emeril soon became a household name. He now runs 11 restaurants around the country, including three in New Orleans.
Head upriver a bit to Donaldsonville, and you’ll find the home base for a culinary empire built by globetrotting chef John Folse. Through books and TV programs, with a robust line of specialty Louisiana food products and at his Lafitte’s Landing restaurant, he deciphers Creole and Cajun traditions for diners worldwide.
Even chefs who have kept closer to home have made far-reaching contributions to Louisiana’s reputation as America’s food capital. Leah Chase is revered as the first lady of Creole cuisine, and her Dooky Chase Restaurant has hosted several U.S. presidents along with lower-profile visitors.
Times change, but Louisiana cuisine endures. Today, chefs like John Besh and Donald Link are leading a new generation of ambitious kitchen talent eager to share the state’s culinary heritage and make their own mark along the way.