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If you've ever seen him on television, you're not expecting this man. Quietly spoken, articulate and thoughtful, the in-the-flesh Emeril seems like his TV counterpart's business-minded twin. Not a hint of the "Bam!" or the "Kick it up a notch!" dedicated screaming that has endeared him to millions -- millions -- of fans on his television shows, Emeril Live! and The Essence of Emeril. "You know, the shows are at a different level and there's sometimes a different guy in there, but there's not a different guy as far as the passion for people or food or wine."
It's probably safe to say that there has never been a chef with the impact and following of Emeril Lagasse. Two successful television shows have merely made the man who coined the phrase, "Pork fat rules," into a household name. But the Southern foodie empire that Lagasse has been building over the last couple of decades would be strong even without the power of TV. Five books and six restaurants haven't hurt either. An empire, says Lagasse, that now employs 975 people and has thrust Louisiana-style cuisine into the limelight like never before.
His most recent book, Every Day's A Party: Louisiana Recipes for Celebrating With Family and Friends reads almost like a culinary love letter to his adopted state, Louisiana. With recipes that range from the Southern holiday favorite Fried Turkey to the perfect simplicity of Mint Julep Ice Cream, Every Day's A Party follows a year of Louisiana-style holidays through bright tourism board-style photographs by Philip Gould, Lagasse's cheerful running commentary. ("To the south, in the swamps, Spanish moss hangs thickly from the bare limbs and trunks of swamp trees.") Every Day's A Party is Lagasse's personal invitation to his home. And, just in case you doubted it, the only text on the back of the book states it plainly: "Here is my personal invitation to all of you to come to Louisiana where the fun never stops!"
You can't help but wonder how the well-known chef finds much time for fun that doesn't somehow involve food. There are those 975 mouths to feed, after all. About his success, Lagasse speaks a great deal about the people that both inspire and drive him. "It all revolves around people. And it all revolves around food, which is really my passion and my love of why I even began doing this."
Born in small-town Massachusetts to a French Canadian father and a Portuguese mom, Lagasse credits the early passion he felt for the preparation of wonderful food to his roots. "We always had the value of the family table and these cultural influences of growing up and what we did."
When he became the chef of New Orleans' famous Commander's Table in the 1980s, Lagasse brought his practical and classical training with him, but also his values around inspired food made with fresh ingredients and "building a foundation of what cuisine should be. Which is, from scratch."
In 1990, Lagasse found that it was, "seven and a half years later, I'd fallen in love with the city and I really wanted to do my own shingle." The shingle that eventually emerged was the first Emeril's, a white-tablecloth restaurant in the then-new Warehouse District in New Orleans. Within a year, reports Lagasse, that restaurant was neck-deep in accolades and the master chef himself has never looked back.
Now 41, Lagasse lives in New Orleans with his new bride, Alden. "I still wake up every day and I'm still trying to do better than the day before," reports Lagasse. "and I'm still having a lot of fun doing it, so that's what really kind of gets me up and makes me want to do better than I did yesterday.
Linda Richards: To what do you attribute your unprecedented success?
Emeril Lagasse: It's probably because I'm a good listener. And you have to have people to be a good listener. I take that very seriously. And that helps me to do better television. I don't really watch myself, so it's not like I'm critiquing. I just don't do that. What I really get inspired from is the people.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I grew up in a little town in Massachusetts called Fall River. My dad is French Canadian and my mom is Portuguese, so food from those cultures was always a very important part of growing up. At that time, that said something, because it really was kind of Moon food back there. Everybody was in a rush and the birth of TV dinners and all this nonsense. And my family never really went there. We always had the value of the family table and these cultural influences of growing up and what we did.
When I was very young I got interested. I had a natural talent for music. So I played music and I ended up turning down a full scholarship of music at the conservatory to pay to go to cooking school.
I started cooking when I was about 10. I have memories like when I was six or seven with my mom and when I was 12 I started getting real serious about cooking. And doing both: I played music and cooked and baked. I started in a bakery, actually.
What instrument did you play?
I was a percussion major, but I wrote music and played a lot of instruments besides percussion. I taught myself how to play a lot of wind instruments. And so when I had to make the decision about cooking or music, when I chose cooking my mom and dad were so upset. [Laughs] At the time. Now...
They've learned to live with it. [Laughs]
Yeah, well... then I went to a cooking school, then I went to a university and then I went to Europe and then I came back and got very, very serious about it. I learned a lot, about myself too, besides cooking. Because I had a really good background and education because of being schooled and then classically trained. I had a lot of knowledge. Then when I came back to the States and to New York, I learned more about just being a person. That we all put our pants on the same way. That it doesn't matter if you're American, Canadian, Swiss, French, German... I mean, if you love what you do -- whether you're an auto mechanic or you sew clothes or you cook -- it's all about personal passion and love that really makes the thrust to the level that you want to get it to.
So, after that there was kind of no looking back. It was serious. And then in 1982 I sort of got lured to New Orleans, which I still think is one of those magical cities in North America.
It had the music as well as the food.
Exactly. And I moved there and then when I kind of woke up, I never felt like I was away from home because the people, the architecture, the music was like -- wow -- it was like being at home. For me, it was really like being home. And, food-wise, those ingredients and techniques were truly my heritage.
Was it a place that was more open to different types of food and styling?
No. Actually, when I moved there, it was just starting to open up a little bit and nobody had quite figured out how to do that because, you know, for 300 years it's been kind of the same. There are restaurants in New Orleans that the menu hasn't changed in 125 years, so how is one going to change or evolve the food?
You were really fighting against tradition?
Well, what I did was I never disrespected it. What I did is that I respected it. I submerged myself into it. So on a lot of days off I would go and fish with the fishermen and the families that ran the boats. I would go work the fields with farmers. I would go and talk with farmers about growing particular products for me. What that really did was -- and now that years have gone by and I look back at it and I can put one and one and two together -- it was my childhood memories and cultural feelings and beliefs in the whole tie-in of the French Canadian/Portuguese thing.
I spent a lot of time on farms when I was young. My uncle and my dad owned a big farm. My other uncle owned another type farm. So I never really thought about that. I just grew up with that. I never thought about what it was to have fresh milk, or to take milk and make it into cheese and that sort of thing. Even though that really wasn't happening in America, except maybe a little bit with Alice Waters at the time.
And when I was doing this, I was doing it because I wanted to understand tradition. But at the same time, growing up in New England, being schooled and classically trained, it needed to shake, it needed to evolve. What better palate for me is that I went to one of the famous restaurants in America -- Commander's Palace with the Brennan family. Paul Prudhomme was the chef before me for five or six years and he moved on to open his own restaurant and was becoming a phenomena. So I went into this environment that I really didn't know, but began to start putting the foundation in -- which I think is very, very important -- building a foundation of what cuisine should be. Which is, from scratch. Using people that I was beginning to meet and work with and growing rabbits and quail. Then I started raising hogs... because I wanted to make my own andouille [sausage] and ham and my own sausage. So, what I was doing at the same time I was flipping the standards of the foundation of this successful 35-year-old restaurant, I was also implementing my own style in a very discreet manner.
What was exciting with these young culinarians who would never have respected someone as young as I was coming in, is that I did have this knowledge and in doing this they were learning about: Wait a minute, I can make sausage? You're going to teach me how to cure? You mean I'm not just going to be at a grill for 10 hours a day flipping steaks? What we began doing was building this incredible new foundation in this restaurant and that's what began giving me the left-hand side of tradition and the right-hand side, my new palate. To turn them on about lamb, because there was no lamb when I got there. Quail, they scratched their heads. I was there for seven and a half years, the last two and a half years of that stint I ran the entire restaurant for the family. 185 employees: big place. And all the ratings you can possibly imagine.
Ella, who is the sister, and I got very close. She's like my second mom. Seven and a half years later, I'd fallen in love with the city and I really wanted to do my own shingle. And I thought I was going to do that with Ella. But we couldn't agree on location because I was living in this new neighborhood in New Orleans called the Warehouse District which is just that: a lot of warehouses that they were converting into condominiums. It was hip and kind of Soho-ish if you will and they needed other anchors. You've got to have restaurants and a post office and police barracks, you know what I'm saying. And Ella was like: You're out of your mind to do that. At the location of Emeril's, my first restaurant, it didn't even have a streetlight. We actually pioneered the neighborhood.
It was a good and bad thing because I had established a huge clientele -- more of an elderly clientele -- at Commander's. I had established this very progressive food because of my philosophies of from-scratch growing and we were on the cutting edge of doing whatever cuisine-wise. But I was moving to this neighborhood that [that clientele] didn't really identify with. It was a very, very scary transition.
I got turned down by every banker. Finally the most conservative financial institution in North America, really, gave me the money because I had done everything myself. The business plan, the budgets, what the interior design was going to be, the kitchen design, the analysis of the demographics, the wine list. I had done everything myself. A block away I had a little tiny office that the landlord gave me for free until I got going. For eight months I structured the entire concept of what the restaurant was going to be. My best friend became the manager and maitre d' and he and I -- with 33 people -- opened this white-tablecloth restaurant in the Warehouse District in 1990. By the end of 90, it blew the charts: we were getting every award, we got the highest review ever done.
Almost three years went by and I began realizing that we were getting the sort of core of people that were extremely professional -- because we didn't hire actors or actresses or students. We wanted people to be waiters or waitresses. You know: professional people. And we were getting this core of people that were very serious. We'd built this rock core and I didn't want to become the revolving door for the industry, so I realized that I had to create some opportunities, because you can only have so many sous chefs, managers, you know? Because you only have so many seats.
The opportunity came in the French Quarter, which was basically eight blocks away. That's when I decided to do Nola, which provided a lot of opportunity for those core people that wanted to stay with Emeril's: they didn't really want to leave. They wanted to share the philosophy that he had started. Because it was more than just food for me. I approached it as the ultimate restaurateur. I mean, I took it very seriously. So, I instituted the systems and the service standards and the food standards and the wine list. I bought the wine, I cooked a station every meal period. It was exhausting. But it's what had to happen.
What now has happened -- because the world has changed and it's almost been 11 years. I have 975 employees. I have six restaurants. We haven't opened any new ones in almost three years. And I still have people -- a lot of people -- that are in the core. They still want to continue to build on the philosophies of Emeril now and apply their experiences, but they also have to learn. Like in Orlando, my chef there, Bernard, has been with me 18 years. My general manager has been with me 12 years there. In Las Vegas, at Delmonico Steakhouse, Rich is general manager and we've worked together 14 years. I can go on and on and on. Tony at the original Emeril's started as a busman 11 years ago when we opened Emeril's. His wife who was a front waiter is now in the marketing department at home base.
What's home base?
Home base is the support system for -- I hate the word "corporate" -- home base is the support system where we have a culinary team, my own writers because of the shows and the books and stuff, we have a culinary team of about six people. Marketing, public relations, accounting and all that sort of stuff.
It's become an empire, really. What's your favorite part?
I love it all, because it's all real. It all revolves around people. And it all revolves around food, which is really my passion and my love of why I even began doing this. You know the shows are at a different level and there's sometimes a different guy in there, but there's not a different guy as far as the passion for people or food or wine.
In the restaurant it's much more serious. I think the whole thing is that I still wake up every day and I'm still trying to do better than the day before. And I'm still having a lot of fun doing it, so that's what really kind of gets me up and makes me want to do better than I did yesterday. | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.