11.18.2020

How a Gulf Coast Chef Invented the Blackened Seafood Technique

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s influence is one of the most important legacies from the last century of Southern food. If you enjoy Cajun ingredients like andouille sausage, tasso ham, and the “holy trinity” (green onions, bell peppers, and celery), you largely have Chef Prudhomme to thank.

Truth is, before the 80s, Cajun cuisine hadn’t really taken off outside of Louisiana. Then when a young Prudhomme earned a spot in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, he began to assert his Cajun influence on the restaurant’s traditional Creole menu, adding in regional seasonings and swapping in local ingredients whenever it made sense.

His biggest culinary contribution, though, is one that took the world by storm and put Southern cuisine on the map: Blackened Redfish.

Chef Prudhomme quickly rose in the ranks at Commander’s Palace, becoming the restaurant’s first American-born executive chef by 1975. He ventured out on his own years later, opening K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans in 1979. (The “K” is in honor of his wife, Kay, who served as the restaurant manager.)

In the spring of 1980, Chef Prudhomme decided to unveil something new. He’d been experimenting for years with a method of coating seafood with a variety of Cajun herbs and spices, cooking the fish in a cast-iron pan until charred (thus “blackened”). Then one evening in March, he served his new Blackened Redfish creation to a few dozen people.

It wasn’t just a hit—it became a phenomenon. Within days, the restaurant was full of hungry diners eager to try this new preparation style. Within weeks, there were lines around the block.

How popular did Chef Prudhomme’s soon-to-be signature dish become? So popular that it became an actual problem. In order to meet increasing demand, Redfish was overfished in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast—so much so that it became scarce for nearly a decade afterward. In fact, Louisiana had to rewrite their commercial harvesting regulations in order to replenish their Redfish population.

Thankfully, the blackening technique evolved to incorporate many other dishes, including steak and chicken. But if you ask us, seafood is always the way to go. Plenty of Gulf fish like Red Snapper, Mahi-Mahi, Grouper, and Seatrout will do nicely, as long as it’s a firm filet that won’t flake too easily. Gulf Shrimp are also a terrific vessel for blackening.

As for the preparation, the mixture of seasonings will vary. But all you have to do is coat your filets in butter, sprinkle on the herbs and spices, and cook the filets in a hot skillet until charred on the outside. (It’s not blackened until those spices turn black!)

Need a recipe or two to start with? This list of Cajun and Creole recipes has a few, including the signature Redfish (with a fresh, healthy spin on it). And while you enjoy your fresh Gulf seafood dinner, tip your hats to the west and thank our coastal neighbors for this delicious modern preparation technique.