The late great American chef and icon, Paul Prudhomme created and developed thousands of recipes in his lifetime. His books are filled with his culinary genius and creativity. Though, above all the recipes listed in all the indexes in his books, the one recipe that will still be attributed to him decades from now will be blackened redfish or blackened anything for that matter.
If you are in a mid-scale chain restaurant in Bozeman, Montana, and order a blackened chicken breast salad, or a seafood restaurant in the Florida Panhandle and order blackened grouper, you can thank Prudhomme. That is how one leaves his/her impact on an industry.
Prudhomme probably didn’t invent blackening. It’s likely something he picked up in the home kitchens and campsites of the remote bayous of his South Louisiana childhood home in Opelousas. But he is the one who brought it to town. And he is the one that started using that rustic cooking process in a fine-dining restaurant. And he is the one who made that process so widespread and popular that an entire species of fish— redfish— bordered on the edge of extinction and had to start being regulated by the government for fear that it may vanish from the Gulf. True story.
Chefs typically have signature dishes that follow them around for their entire career. John Currence brought Shrimp and Grits to Mississippi. He learned the dish while working for Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Currence brought it to The Square in Oxford when he opened City Grocery. I would venture to say that Shrimp and Grits—though Neal brought it from the Low Country into a restaurant— is more attributed to Currence these days than Neal.
There is no chance of shrimp being over-fished, but that hasn’t stopped that particular dish from spreading all over the country. We serve a version in one of our restaurants. We also blacken proteins.
A dish that has been associated with me for the past 30 years is white chocolate bread pudding. I didn’t invent it. To my knowledge, the chefs at Dickie Brennan’s Palace Café created that dish when that restaurant opened on Canal Street in the early 1990s. I ate it there around that time and loved it. I went back several times determined to break down the recipe and take it back to our restaurant, and recreate it. I brought friends with me and had them try it. I ate a lot of it early on.
It’s now been so long that I can’t remember if I asked the restaurant for their version of the recipe or if I just winged it back in our kitchen until I got it right. But I do remember making several changes to the way the Palace Café seemed to be preparing theirs, in that I put the bread and loose custard into a mixing bowl with the paddle attachment and slowly blended those two which gave the end result a smooth, ribbony custard-like texture.
We have been serving white chocolate bread pudding since then. It’s been in my books. It’s been served at catering events and weddings. I once served it at a fundraising event for one of Emeril Lagasse’s charities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and we served over 1,200 portions even though there were 800 people there. They kept coming back for seconds. It’s one of those things— as far as recipes go— that has stuck to me, even though I didn’t create it from its inception.
At the end of the day, I would like my tombstone to read: “He was a good husband, a good father, and a good friend.” At this rate it will likely state “Here lies the white chocolate bread pudding guy.”
I have created a few hundred recipes at our restaurants. Most of those recipes were created in the early days when I was working as a full-time chef in the kitchen. I don’t get behind the line anymore (I would greatly slow down the process), though I still occasionally work side-by-side with our chef team these days to develop new menu items or cookbook recipes. Out of all our menu offerings and cookbook recipes, there is one recipe that has become popular, that can 100% be attributed to me that is probably the most requested recipe in my arsenal. It’s a dish I created in the late 1990s, baked shrimp and squash.
The dish came from the need to get rid of a surplus amount of squash we had in the restaurant. I combined a basic squash casserole base with sauteed shrimp that I seasoned with Old Bay seasoning, and it became a hit.
A perfect recipe crosses boundaries. The white chocolate bread pudding is that way. Due to the silky consistency, people who don’t like bread pudding-like it because it has the texture of a custard. People who don’t like custard-like it because it’s more like a bread pudding. People that don’t like either custard or bread pudding enjoy it because it doesn’t remind them of either and it just tastes good.
The baked shrimp and squash is similar. People who don’t like squash love this dish, because it’s more like a seafood casserole. People who don’t like shrimp. Well, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like shrimp.
A perfect recipe is versatile. The good thing about that shrimp and squash recipe is that it can be served in a casserole dish as a buffet item at a nice dinner, or in a Pyrex dish on a trivet in the middle of a table for a casual lunch. It can also be portioned into individual rarebit dishes as we do in the restaurant and served as a single entrée. At the all-vegetable summer lunches at our house, baked shrimp and squash will sit among the butter beans, black-eyed peas, new potatoes, fried corn, and okra as the stand-alone protein.
A perfect recipe also has a sense of place. My baked shrimp and squash is a perfect example of what I call Piney Woods Cuisine. It is a dish that is “of” its region. We are one hour due north of the Gulf of Mexico, home to the world’s best shrimp. We are 90 minutes northeast of Louisiana where Creole flavors have a large influence in our dishes. And the South Mississippi garden provides ample amounts of fresh squash. It’s inside that triangle that encompasses the Mississippi Coast, New Orleans, and Hattiesburg Mississippi where my favorite food is prepared and served.
My friend and chef, Martha Foose, recently posted a letter on my Facebook page: “Dear Robert St. John, Could you publish the shrimp and squash casserole every year in July? Thanks. Your pal, Martha.”
Here ya go, Foose.