CHICAGO - Paul Prudhomme, one of America's best-known chefs who was credited with popularising Louisiana's spicy Cajun cuisine, died on Thursday at age 75.
The star chef was in New Orleans when he died after a brief illness, a spokeswoman for his restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, told AFP.
The rotund, bearded Prudhomme became a household name in the 1980s through countless television appearances - including his own cooking shows - in which he encouraged viewers to spice up their lives and expand their palates.
With a string of cookbooks and Cajun-themed products to his name, he was also the first American to receive prestigious France's Merite Agricole award for services to the farm world.
He was, in some ways, too successful. His blackened redfish recipe became so popular that the government imposed a ban on commercial fishing in 1987 to help stocks recover from near-collapse.
Added spice to US palate
"I think that Paul Prudhomme has had the greatest influence on American cooking, in cultivating the public interest in American food, of anybody I know," the leading New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne said in a 1988 interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
"He created this great interest in Cajun and Creole cooking. People said, 'There must be more to Southern cooking,' and he opened up the floodgates to the whole field of Southern cooking."
The youngest of 13 children, Prudhomme learned his love of fresh food from his mother, cooking at her side while growing up on their sharecropping farm in rural Louisiana, according to the introduction to his best-selling cookbook "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen."
The family's poverty helped him learn the importance of truly fresh ingredients, he wrote. They didn't have a refrigerator, "so we'd go out in the fields to get what we needed."
In his early 20s, Prudhomme set off on a culinary journey working in restaurants across the United States where he was struck by the reactions people had to tasting his Cajun recipes.
"I began to understand how unique the traditional foods of my family were," he wrote. "I came to realise that the joy of cooking Cajun and Creole food was not just that I appreciated its goodness so much, but that there was this great pleasure I got from watching other people eat it and seeing the joy in their eyes."
Prudhomme returned home to New Orleans in 1975 to work at the prestigious Commander's Palace before opening his own restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, in the French Quarter in 1979.
His signature dishes, from seafood jambalaya to crawfish "etouffee" - or stew - helped popularise the distinctive cuisine of Louisiana across America and beyond.
"He had the guts to take the food he knew and grew up with as a poor Cajun boy and make it presentable in a white-tablecloth restaurant," his fellow New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen told the Times-Picayune.
"When he started, the food was unique. Also, there seemed to be a groundswell of interest in regional American food, and, obviously, Louisiana food is one of the strongest."
He was also one of the first American chefs to capitalise on his fame by selling his own line of spices - Magic Seasonings Blend - which are currently exported to 30 different countries and found in grocery stores across the United States.
"Paul had a great sense of showmanship," Ella Brennan, his former boss at Commander's Palace's told the Times-Picayune.
"His timing was perfect. He came right after nouvelle cuisine, and people were more food-conscious... He was at the right time with the right place. That sounds opportunistic, and I don't mean it to be. I don't think he went out searching for fame. It came to him."