|Chef Paul Prudhomme relaxes in his backyard.
Not since chef Hector Boiardi became Chef Boyardee about 30 years before did a "name" chef retool recipes for the home cook with such phenomenal success. "Chef Paul" was one of the first to do it from scratch, though. Unlike Boiardi who came out of a large hotel with its backing and blessing, Paul had one unaffiliated restaurant. Prudhomme also went that extra — and more difficult — mile by making his product line without MSG, additives or preservatives.
From that tiny local operation, Magic Seasoning Blends has grown to 65 employees and international distribution to 30 countries. Prudhomme consults with restaurant chains and large food manufacturers around the world to develop complete or selective menu items and specialty dishes. He and his team of five product developers and three gurus in the R&D kitchen can also create specific flavor profiles or duplicate existing ones.
"I suspect that Chef Paul was a chemist or a doctor in another life," confides Shawn McBride, president and CEO. Friends since he was 14 and she was nine, McBride confesses, "We've not grown old together, just grown up together."
"I'd been using blends for years," says Prudhomme, when asked what inspired him to start the company. "I started making them for the cooks that worked with me because if I gave them six different seasonings for a recipe, they'd never measure. For consistency in the restaurant, I started blending them. Then we started developing individual blends because local customers would ask to buy them after eating at K-Paul's. Sally, one of our waitresses, drew a cartoon of me for the label and taped it to a plastic bag. As they began to sell, we put the blends in bottles and glued the labels on." Soon a labeling machine was needed.
"A friend of mine was in the restaurant business, but his restaurant failed," says Prudhomme. "I suggested he sell our blends. He put them in grocery stores and a few months later he came back and said he needed a truck to distribute them outside of New Orleans. Rather than buying a truck, we decided to get a distributor."
Chef Paul says the key to the company's success is that the blends are consistent, balanced and make foods taste better. "If we could make them for the same price as others out there, they'd be even more popular," he adds. "But we prefer to sell fewer products of higher quality. Everything that goes in the blender or a container is tasted first. Before we buy individual ingredients we taste them. After they are put together as a blend, we taste them again. Then it goes to quality control and manufacturing and after they approve it, it's tasted yet again. If there's any doubt, we put it aside and taste it again. After the taste tests, we go to storage tests, moisture control and shelf-life testing."
|Magic Seasoning Blends has grown to include dozens of products, distributed in 30 countries.
McBride says manufacturers don't have time to let food slow cook and that's where the flavor is developed. "We've worked with companies that make 5,000 gallons of food that has to be out of the kettle in one hour. Our challenge is to work with companies to get the product to taste the way it did in small batches."
Since 1985, Japan has been a top market for Magic Seasoning Blends products, though its distributor Matsu Co. Ltd. "Our current distribution in the U.S. is about 40 percent retail and 60 percent foodservice," says McBride. "With expanded manufacturing capabilities, the company produces custom blends, bulk sizes, contract packaging and co-branding with other food companies, as well." But there are challenges of bringing them to the mass market.
"Controlling the quality is one of the hardest things to do when buying millions of pounds of spices and herbs per year," says Prudhomme. "The other problem is that fluorescent lights in supermarkets change the color of spices – they fade." That's the reason, he explains, they are packaged in jars and boxes.
"When you season steaks and freeze them, it doesn't work well," says Prudhomme. "The proteins and the acids in the meat work on the seasoning. So what we're doing with steaks is giving the manufacturer steak seasonings in a sealed package that the customer can sprinkle on at the last minute. We found while working with large companies that this technique works very well with seafood and vegetables as well."
Everyone on staff comes up with ideas for new products and blends. "Research shows that salmon is one of the healthiest foods to eat," says McBride. "The idea for Salmon Magic, one of our newest products came from John McBride, [her husband and] vice president of sales and marketing."
"We put the ingredients together (the first time) and it was perfect," says Prudhomme. "It takes the bitterness out of the dark part of the salmon and pushes up that sweet salmon taste inside the fish. It turned out to be the fastest-growing blend we've ever done. We developed a salt-free seasoning about six years ago, but John said we needed a spicier version. So we've developed a new salt-free, sugar-free seasoning, and expect to bring it to market in the next six months." Other new products include a line of rotisserie seasonings.
"Giving people new flavors is like giving them a new experience," says Prudhomme enthusiastically. "It's exciting to take the basics — our Meat Magic Blends for example — and add Mexican, Asian or African flavors. All of a sudden, you have a new experience. That's exciting."
|HUMBLE BEGINNINGS, NOBLE LEGACY
Chef Paul Prudhomme, the first American-born chef to receive the coveted Merité Agricole of the French Republic, has eight cookbooks under his belt, including the now-classic "Chef Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen." He's hosted television shows, cooked for heads of state and at President Ronald Reagan's inauguration and has even been featured on A&E's "Biography."
Born in a small rural community between Opelousas and Port Barre in Louisiana's Acadiana country, Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children born to sharecroppers. The family had no electricity or refrigeration, so Prudhomme learned to appreciate a bounty of fresh and seasonal vegetables, fresh-caught crawfish from nearby streams and bayous, and freshly slaughtered chickens. Even more important, he learned to appreciate his family's love of cooking and eating together.
"My food is simple in the sense it's what I grew up with, yet it has complexity," says Prudhomme of his cooking style. "I was very fortunate to grow up the way I did; I know what a chicken will taste like when it's in the yard, and whether it's been there six months or a year."
Mother of invention
Prudhomme first learned to cook helping his mother. "What my mother taught me is a reference point to what I'm doing today," he says. "I'd help her cook by stirring the pot and watch what was happening at each stage. She'd say, ‘We're making gumbo; I'm stirring flour in pork lard.' Then she'd show me how to do it.
"How you stir the flour is very important, because as it changes color, the flavor changes. I can get 18 different colors out of flour," he continues. "That's how we make the different flavors. For gumbo, that roux is at the last stage. Just before it gets bitter, it gets real sweet. That's a mistake people have made with my recipes for years. They think I put sugar in it, but I don't. You can take just a little bit of flour that's almost over the edge, drop it in to get just a little bit of color and give it sweetness. It will give tomato sauce a great taste."
"I remember distinctly the day I decided to salvage our cultural food," Prudhomme recalls. "I was visiting my parents, and my niece asked me to move my car so she could go to the store. Instead, I took her. She bought a base for dirty rice, one of our basic dishes. When I tasted it, I knew it had no relationship to what she could have made from scratch. It was on that trip, in 1970, I made the decision to (come back) and help make our food a ‘presence'."
Prudhomme's mantra is "good cooking, good eating and good loving," and he truly believes it. "If you have young kids, they will never know who they are, they will never know who you are, and they'll never know where they came from unless you eat dinner with them two or three times a week," he says emphatically.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen started with and still serves cultural foods, including blackened fish, jambalaya and gumbo. He offers 15 kinds of gumbo in the restaurant.
Although K-Paul's showcases Louisiana cultural foods, they use other cultural influences, for example sesame oil, to be creative. "You have to move on in some ways, but you have to stay true to the things that are important to you — like an okra gumbo," he explains.
Prudhomme describes the real trend in food as constant evolution. "As food evolves, it becomes a mixture; then a part of the whole," he says. "Restaurant dishes might contain six to eight different cultures the original dish came from. It may not be exactly like the original ethnic dishes, but that's OK. American culinary is growing up; it still has a long way to go, but the majority of cooks are on board," he says.
Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends Inc. will be moving into a new 130,000-square-foot plant in September that will house offices, blending operations and R&D facilities. Also, look for Prudhomme's new TV show, "Louisiana Taste," coming to public television this fall.