Chef & Mentor Vol. 25 No. 06

Passing the Skillet: Frank Brigtsen on Paul Prudhomme

Award-winning New Orleans Restaurateur Frank Brigtsen says Paul Prudhomme made him the man he is today,

Frank Brigtsen and his wife Marna opened Brigtsen’s in 1986 in a Victorian cottage in the Uptown Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans. The restaurant quickly became a favorite for serving soul-satisfying Creole-Acadian dishes utilizing regional foods from local farmers and fishermen. A meal at Brigtsen’s is like dining in someone’s home. Many customers are loyal regulars whom Brigtsen graciously acknowledges for supporting the restaurant by ordering takeout during the pandemic. When we dined at Brigtsen’s in late April, it had just reopened.

A New Orleans native, Brigtsen is committed to giving back and to preserving Lousiana’s culinary heritage. He teaches Acadian-Creole cooking at The John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University and serves as Chef-in-Residence at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).

Before opening his namesake restaurant, Brigtsen worked closely with the late Chef Paul Prudhomme and for seven years served as chef at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen when it opened in the French Quarter on July 3, 1979. The restaurant’s name, K-Paul, was a portmanteau for Paul and his wife, Kay. Influential in popularizing Creole and Cajun cuisine to a broader audience, Chef Prudhomme passed away on October 8, 2015. The restaurant continued operating until the summer of 2020, when it closed permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chef Paul Prudhomme in front of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in 1979.
(Photo courtesy of Magic Seasonings L.L.C.)

Frank Brigtsen credits Prudhomme as his mentor, sharing, “I am grateful to Paul for giving me a chance. He taught me life lessons, not just cooking. Paul made me the man I am today.”

I asked him to share some reflections.

Santé Magazine: How did you and Paul Prudhomme meet?

Frank Brigtsen (FB): I answered a classified ad in the local New Orleans newspaper looking for chefs who knew creole cooking or who were willing to learn. The job was at Commander’s Palace, where Paul Prudhomme was the Executive Chef. I had three one-hour interviews with Chef Paul. On the third, he asked me, “Frank, where do you see yourself in ten years? What do you want out of life?” I responded that I’d like to have my own restaurant someday. I spent six months working at Commander’s Palace. Then Paul brought me with him to help open K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Santé Magazine: You say Paul taught you many life lessons while working at K-Paul’s. Would you share an example?

FB: In the early months of K-Paul’s, it was just me and a dishwasher at night. We started out with 30 or 40 customers, but in a matter of months, it got really busy. The restaurant did not take reservations, and there were long lines to get in. Back then, our kitchen was pretty bare bones. There was no dishwasher, just a sink and one person to hand wash everything. One busy night we were struggling. Johnny, the new dishwasher, was in the weeds and just couldn’t keep up. I was red in the face with frustration when I went back to talk to Paul, telling him, “Johnny’s got to go. He’s not cutting it!”

Paul had never seen me this angry and encouraged me to sit down and catch my breath. He looked at me and said, “Frank, answer me this question: Is Johnny doing his best? Is he working at 100%?”

I thought about it and said, “Yes he is.” Paul responded, “Then we can’t fire him. He’s doing his best.” So, we spoke with Johnny, encouraged him and worked out another solution. This taught me a lot about having patience. It taught me about the importance of building people up and not tearing them down.

Santé Magazine: You credit the Prudhommes for helping you open your own restaurant.

FB: After seven years working at K-Paul’s, Paul called me to his chef’s table at the back of the restaurant. He sat me down and said, “Frank, we think you are ready to go out on your own. He said things like “Kay and I remember when you burned your hand and kept on going. We remember when we went out of town and you broke records at the restaurant. Now it’s time for you to have your own restaurant.”

 I answered him like I always did and said, “Yes, Chef.” Looking back, I understand now that Paul had been grooming me to go out on my own for some time, like when he pulled me out of the kitchen and assigned me to purchasing. He gave me the experience I needed to run a restaurant.

After looking at locations for several weeks, we found a place at 723 Dante Street and said, “This is it!” Paul and Kay lent me $125,000 out of their own pocket and set me up with a C.P.A. and a lawyer. Paul negotiated the lease for me and then handed me my final paycheck and said to me, “You better get open quick because this is it!” Paul even allowed me to bring some key staff with me from K-Paul’s, including my two sisters-in-law, Rhonda and Sandy. We opened five days after signing the lease on March 6, 1986. To commemorated the occasion, Paul officially “passed me a skillet;” it was one of his traditions.

On opening day at Brigtsen’s (March 6, 1986) Chef Paul Prudhomme “passes the skillet” to Chef Frank Brigtsen

When Brigtsen’s opened in 1986, the positive reviews came quickly. Gene Bourg, the Times-Picayune restaurant critic at the time, wrote Brigtsen’s was “reaffirmation that Louisiana cooking is America’s most durable and satisfying. Brigtsen’s is now the place against which all other restaurants serving South Louisiana cuisine have to be measured.”

Now celebrating 35 years in business, Brigtsen’s continues to be recognized as a standard-bearer for outstanding Louisiana cooking and hospitality.

Photo of Paul Prudhomme in front of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen circa 1979 is courtesy of Magic Seasonings L.L.C.

Melanie Young writes and hosts the weekly national radio shows, The Connected Table Live, featuring conversations with global thought leaders in wine, food, spirits, and hospitality (one of Feedspot’s Top Food & Drink Podcasts to listen to in 2021) and Fearless Fabulous You!, a lifestyle show for and about women (both on iHeart and more than 30 other podcast platforms). She has contributed articles on wine, spirits, food, and culinary travel to Wine Enthusiast, Seven Fifty Daily Wine4Food, The Epoch Times, and Jewish Week. Melanie is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, Wine of the Vine & Spirits, and Wine Media Guild and a frequent event speaker and moderator on wine, entrepreneurship, and career reinvention. She formerly ran an eponymous marketing and culinary-events agency. She consulted for numerous global wine trade organizations and served as director of the James Beard Foundation Awards, which she helped create. She is the author of two award-winning books on health: “Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide To Staying Fearless & Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer” and “Fearless Fabulous You! Lessons on Living Life on Your Terms.”

1 comment on “Passing the Skillet: Frank Brigtsen on Paul Prudhomme

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