In the beginning, there was Chef Paul. And for Frank Brigtsen, as for several other Louisiana chefs who trained with Paul Prudhomme, that association would prove both an asset and a liability through the early years of their careers, when they were inevitably known as Prudhomme‚ proteges. Brigtsen was the first of Prudhomme’s students to succeed on his own.
He succeeded so well, in fact, that he was named‚ Best Chef, Southeast, by the prestigious James Beard Awards. Some of the newest up-and-coming chefs have cooked with Prudhomme and then spent time cooking with Brigtsen, a sure sign that all the best students are called to be teachers someday. Brigtsen met Prudhomme before K-Paul‚ became a mecca in New Orleans‚ French Quarter. Prudhomme was executive chef at the Brennan family‚ Commander‚Palace, where Brigtsen started an apprenticeship in 1971. Brigtsen continued to cook while attending Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and eventually returned to Prudhomme and the bustle of K-Paul. Brigtsen blackened innumerable redfish during that time, while learning a lifetime of culinary skills from the Cajun master. At K-Paul, Brigtsen was named the first-ever night chef, finally rising to the position of executive chef as Prudhomme’s cookbooks and globe-trotting appearances kept him out of town more and more.
With the acceptance and encouragement of Prudhomme, Brigtsen went out on his own in 1986. He found a charming, multi-roomed old house in the Carrollton section of New Orleans, just a few steps from a bend in the Mississippi River, and hung out a shingle that read, simply, Brigtsen’s. At the start, everyone talked about the Prudhomme connection and the Prudhomme influence, even as this established his own style. As sometimes happens, it was the national media that first took Brigtsen seriously: Food & wine magazine, the Zagat Survey, Gault-Millau, Travel/Holiday, Champagne Mumm‚ Order of the Cordon Rouge. The local media listened, finally giving Brigtsen’s the coveted‚ Äúfive beans‚ in the Times-Picayune. The aforementioned James Beard Awards designation is one of many superlatives attached to the Brigtsen name. Following Hurricane Katrina, Brigtsen quickly reopened his restaurant, much to the delight of the city. Today, with his wife and partner Marna, Brigtsen keeps his eyes (and his mind) open for whatever idea, whatever ingredient, whatever ethnic combination earns a voice somewhere in the nation. After that, he applies his judgement and his own hand — just as fine chefs and cooks have always done in Cajun country.