In 1979, as America recovered from double-digit unemployment, diners craved something real and uplifting, and at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Paul Prudhomme snagged national headlines for filling that void with big Creole and Cajun flavors. When diners left the restaurant — and, for many New Orleans visitors, the city — they wanted to bring that taste into their home kitchen, so Prudhomme sent them away with foil packets full of his seasoning.
Today, restaurants all over the country have turned to selling their products directly to consumers, but Prudhomme led the way as one of the first chefs with both the national platform and entrepreneurial chops to do so. By 1983, he had launched a separate company, Magic Seasoning Blends, to keep up with the demand. “There was this notion of, ‘Well, gosh, I’m an American civilian, I’ve been eating standardized food my whole life,’” explains Andrew Friedman, the host of Andrew Talks to Chefs and author of Chefs, Drugs and Rock and Roll. “With these spices, I can bring a little bit of what makes Prudhomme’s food unique to my kitchen, just by sprinkling it on a protein.”
More recently, the category of chef-made pantry products has exploded as the pandemic pushed restaurateurs to look for any potential revenue stream while consumers craved restaurant tastes at home. Portland’s most famous food cart bottles its Nong’s Khao Man Gai Sauce; New York City restaurant Serendipity started shipping its frozen hot chocolate, and fellow New York restaurants Hart’s and Cervo’s sell tinned fish. Carbone Fine Foods offers the restaurant group’s tomato sauces, the marketing language pinpointing the motivation for consumers: that they “will transport you to the iconic New York City restaurant without having to worry about getting a reservation — or even leaving your home.”
That home cooks would want to take inspiration and ingredients from restaurants is taken for granted now, but it wasn’t always a goal for American consumers. To get there, first they would need to gain an appreciation for just how many flavors they were missing out on — and how much work goes into building them.
In 1956, the combination of canned foods and electric appliances had streamlined the post-World War II home kitchen in the name of efficiency. But Chuck Williams theorized that other Americans might have the same desire for high-quality French cookware that he did, and opened up a shop in Sonoma, California, pioneering the store as a destination for aspirational purchases. Driven by Williams’s personal friendship with chefs and, by the 1970s when the Williams-Sonoma catalog launched, heavy data integration, Williams-Sonoma painted the fantasy of the American kitchen.
Over the years chefs advised and guided, and even occasionally designed products for the company — like Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s infused grapeseed oils from 2001 — but it wasn’t until 2011 that they really stepped forward with Williams-Sonoma products of their own. That year, Williams-Sonoma started selling Cup4Cup, the gluten-free flour that Lena Kwak developed for Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant,