While the televised Academy Awards were causing a Sunday night snooze in homes everywhere, honors were being handed out in Pine Bluff at an event that could not have been more exciting, or more filling.
The American Culinary Federation/Central Arkansas Chapter named Jamie McAfee the group’s Chef of the Year at the culmination of a night of eating that featured one of the gods of chefdom, Paul Prudhomme, cooking in the kitchen. The charismatic Prudhomme has been a personal hero of mine, introducing me to his style of southern Louisiana and Creole cooking through his “Louisiana Kitchen” cookbook, the bible for any aspiring Cajun cook. Just as there are a lot of ways to make chili, you can whip up an etouffee any number of ways, from Justin Wilson’s style to Emeril’s, but Prudhomme’s spicy, roux-based etouffee is the one most people I know swear by.
Just try it sometime at his restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the French Quarter. If you use his cookbook, consider that it was written before cayenne pepper was being manufactured in varying heats, and be careful in how much you use.
Prudhomme’s role Sunday night was to prepare the appetizer for 300 folks in attendance. He chose to offer his Portobello Lafayette for only the second time to the public — a full mushroom dipped in Louisiana cane syrup and seared, then topped with a “slaw” and Mardi Gras sauce, served chilled with mango vinaigrette and more of the cane syrup drizzled on the side.
His part at Pine Bluff Country Club was bigger on Monday when Prudhomme and his staff put on “A Tasteful Evening with Chef Paul Prudhomme,” a benefit for Pine Bluff’s Seabrook YMCA. Such notables as University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles and head coach Houston Nutt were in attendance.
Bo Busby, a former Razorback football player from the 1970s, is now a cardiovascular surgeon in Pine Bluff. While he was a resident surgeon in New Orleans about 20 years ago, Busby met Prudhomme — while the chef was about to go on the operating table. Prudhomme needed an emergency gall bladder removal and credits Busby with saving his life. They’ve remained friends, and Busby is credited with arranging for Prudhomme to spend Sunday and Monday in Pine Bluff.
It would be like bringing in Jack Nicklaus for two rounds of golf.
On Sunday, during the ACF banquet, Prudhomme explained his love of cooking in a way that written words can’t do justice. Just know that the passion with which he described the care a chef must take as he prepares his food, whether it’s live game just butchered or carrots from the garden, stirred the entire room.
Monday’s dinner featured five stations of food serving andouille sausage gumbo, leek soup, salad (a wow for the wasabi dressing), beef, K-Paul’s mashed potatoes, browned fish, seafood dressing, Prudhomme’s famed tasso sauce over pasta, banana bliss (sort of a bananas Foster) and bread pudding.
My father, a dentist in Pine Bluff by trade and a gourmet in his spare time (when he wasn’t hunting or fishing), would have loved every bite. He enjoyed cooking for his family and friends. We enjoyed the aroma of tarragon vinegar and vermouth reducing with the shallots, chervil and tarragon for bearnaise sauce perhaps too regularly; everyone would enjoy his barbecued ribs.
He’s been gone now for 21 years, but if he were still around he’d really be ecstatic about what Jamie McAfee has been able to do with the food at Pine Bluff Country Club (alas, it’s a private club, but find someone who is a member to take you there). I’ve been hearing for some time now that the food at PBCC is in a class with the best restaurants in the state, if not the region.
McAfee grew up in McGehee, where his father relocated to work as a chef. After going through the top-level culinary training in Memphis, McAfee worked in McGehee before moving to Pine Bluff when his kids were out of school. McAfee’s son, I was told, works for Prudhomme.
So, it was fitting on Sunday that the ACF honored its top sous chef, top apprentice and McAfee, its best chef, in McAfee’s own back yard.
The crowd enjoyed a sit-down dinner with Prudhomme’s appetizer and hors d’oeuvres by Rob Best; a salad concocted by Robert Wolf; McAfee’s entree of beef tenderloin and a roasted tomato sauce, a stuffed tomato with rice au gratin and oyster, and chocoholics’ dream desserts, including a cream-filled tort prepared by Don Bingham and his top assistant from the Governor’s Mansion. A California chocolatier donated $700 worth of chocolate “cast-iron” skillets for the dessert plates. Those were filled with cherries.
I weigh 10 pounds more than I did on Saturday.