Emeril Lagasse: Chef, Showman, Humanitarian
a conversation with Emeril Lagasse and a tour of his New Orleans restaurants and Test Kitchen
by Marla Norman, Publisher
There are plenty of celebrity chefs these days – but only one goes by a single, smile-inducing first name – Emeril. Since charming millions of viewers during the early days of the Food Network – where he ultimately hosted over 2,000 shows – Chef Lagasse has gone on to open 12 restaurants in 5 different cities and to write 18 cookbooks.
Additionally, he is the food correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America. He’s also the host of Fresh Food Fast and The Originals with Emeril both airing on the Cooking Channel. His latest TV show, Emeril’s Florida premiered January 2013 on the Cooking Channel. Most recently, Lagasse joined the judges’ table on Top Chef: New Orleans, Bravo’s hit food series.
This past fall, Chef Lagasse joined Ty Pennington in a new series entitled On the Menu. Lagasse is the show’s Menu Master, serving as the seasoned chef and industry insider to help guide and mentor contestants through the competition. The winning dish is featured at a national restaurant chain or concession, thus allowing home viewers to sample and judge the dishes for themselves – finally!
But beyond the TV shows, celebrity circuit, new products and cookbooks, Emeril Lagasse is dedicated to his philanthropic projects. In 2001, he established the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to support children’s educational and life skills programs through the culinary arts. His dedication earned him the James Beard Award for Humanitarian of the Year in 2013.
Emeril Lagasse’s engaging, telegenic style brought him millions of viewers. And he’ll always be associated with a particular, three-letter word – BAM! Video courtesy of Emeril Lagasse.
EMERIL IN HIS OWN WORDS
Recently, the non-stop chef took time to chat about his career and pass on a few words of advice to up-and-coming young chefs.
As one of the first celebrity chefs, what runs through your mind when you choose, or eliminate, competitors on shows such as Top Chef? What do you advise the young chefs who win and are immediately catapulted into the spotlight? And, alternatively, what do you offer as consolation to the chefs who lose?
To be a chef, you have to have passion and drive. There are long hours in the kitchen, and you’re also expected to constantly be creative and experimenting with new dishes. I look for those hard workers who can handle critique and use it as a learning experience to become even better at their craft.
My advice to any chef is this: Stay true to your vision. Whatever style and cuisine is your passion, go for it. Don’t be swayed to be a part of something that you don’t believe in. That goes for both the winners of the show and the contestants who go home.
Speaking of celebrities working with young, talented chefs – what was it like for you to work with Julia Child early in your career?
Working with Julia is still one of the highlights of my career. She was such a force in American cuisine and empowering the home cook — taking restaurant-worthy recipes and breaking them down for the average person. She was my mentor, and later my friend.
The philanthropic projects you’ve established in New Orleans are extraordinary, as are the incredibly talented and creative staff who support all the activities. Are your projects being used as models in other cities?
I’m really proud of what we have accomplished in New Orleans, and so much of it is attributed to the leaders of the non-profits we support who are working each day to really change young people’s lives. Outside of New Orleans, we’ve worked with children’s initiatives along the Gulf Coast, Vegas and Orlando and it would be great to expand the foundation’s support across the country even further.
Your staff mentioned that much of your time these days is spent promoting philanthropic projects. What is the percentage of time you allocate to fund-raising? And, aside from ELF, what are some of the other projects you’re most involved with.
I spend as much time as I can with my foundation. It’s something I have always been deeply committed to. Beyond my time there, it really depends on the day — I could be doing anything from being on the line at one of my restaurants or working on recipes for my next cookbook, or testing new products for my brand or shooting for shows like Top Chef, Emeril’s Florida and Good Morning America.
Members of your staff who have been with you for many, many years all say that you’re easy to work with, that you have a very calm demeanor and you never lose your temper. In an industry known for its heat, in every sense of the word, how to you keep so cool?
Aw, thanks so much. I’ve just always thought it’s better to leave the heat in the oven!
Note: Since its inception in 2002, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation has granted more than $6 million to children’s charities to support culinary, nutrition and arts programs. In 2015, the Foundation granted $300,000 to three New Orleans non-profits – Second Harvest Food Bank, Bayou District Foundation and the Contemporary Arts Center. More information about the grants and beneficiaries is available here: http://emeril.org/v2/grant-announcement.
EMERIL’S NEW ORLEANS RESTAURANTS
Emeril Lagasse’s “New New Orleans” cooking-style launched him into culinary stardom in the late 1990s. Now, some 25 years later, Lagasse and his chefs work hard to keep the “New” in their “New Orleans” cuisine. I visited the three local restaurants and Test Kitchen to see how Lagasse’s signature cuisine has evolved.
1300 St. Charles Avenue
A New Orleans icon, the 118 year-old Delmonico was opened by Anthony Commander, the younger brother of Emile Commander and owner of the famed Commander’s Palace. Originally, Delmonico’s was a gymnasium, with gentlemen’s boxing on the second floor. After working out, guests retired to the first floor for dinner. Photographs of the boxers can be seen in the bar at Delmonico’s today.
Lagasse reopened the property in 1998, after an extensive renovation. Chandeliers and upholstered banquettes compliment the elegant floor-to-ceiling windows draped in rich fabrics. A pianist entertains regularly at a grand piano in the bar area. The second story offers additional seating, where diners can view a glass walk-in closet displaying all the delectable house-cured charcuterie.
The Delmonico menu under Chef de Cuisine, Anthony Scanio, perfectly compliments the opulent surroundings. Scanio, a New Orleans native, worked with James Beard award-winning chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski at Herbsaint. Today he manages the Delmonico kitchen where he also initiated the restaurant’s in-house dry-aging program for beef, duck and charcuterie. As Scanio says, “After all these years, the building adopted me. And I adopted it.”
A few of the lusciously savory dishes Scanio serves include these starters: Crispy Pork Cheek, Louisiana Crawfish Gnocchi, and Creole Mirliton Pirogue (with shrimp, crab, chisesi ham and roasted red pepper butter). Entrees are Shrimp Clemenceau (with sugar snap peas, royal trumpet mushrooms, mirliton brabants and vermouth), Louisiana Drum Meuniere with Blue Crabmeat, Oyster-Crusted Filet Mignon.
Scanio is particularly interested in the Italian side of the city’s Creole heritage. His research of ingredients and techniques have inspired his many reinterpretations of traditional dishes. “Here at Delmonico, we have a kind of ‘New Old New Orleans’ cooking style,” he laughs. But all joking aside, Scanio uses old-fashioned labor-intensive methods to produce many of his plates. He cans vegetables and fruits. He also makes jellies – the Pepper Jelly, in particular, is a beauty. In addition to the many meats he ages for charcuterie, Scanio prepares an extremely elaborate Andouille Sausage, made with 3 different pork selections.
If that’s not impressive enough, Scanio also brews up housemade liqueurs. “Homemade liqueurs were extremely popular in old New Orleans,” he explains, “and a wonderful way to welcome guests.”
534 St. Louis Street
Lagasse opened his second New Orleans-based restaurant in 1990. NOLA is the most casual of the three restaurants. Located in a three-story, renovated warehouse, the property features an open kitchen, with a wood-fired brick oven, and metallic sculptures by Luis Colmenares.
Brian Mottola is the Chef de Cuisine at NOLA and works closely with Chef Emeril to create an innovative menu showcasing rustic Louisiana cooking with local ingredients and some ethnic twists: Black Mussels, Pork Cheek Boudin Balls, Shrimp & Grits and Hickory-Roasted Duck. Mottola also makes use of the wood-fired brick oven to create daily pizzas.
EMERIL’S NEW ORLEANS
800 Tchoupitoulas Street
Lagasse’s first restaurant in New Orleans, Emeril’s, is in a renovated pharmacy. Exposed brick and dark wood give the space a warm and intimate feel. Superbly trained staff welcome guests and provide courteous attention.
Chef de Cuisine, David Slater is originally from Toronto. His interpretation of Lagasse’s signature New Orleans cuisine blends his Russian and Romanian heritage to produce hearty courses such as Lamb Shoulder with Fregola & Spring Ramp. Slater also incorporates local Vietnamese and Mexican influences. Yellowfin Tuna in Butter Lettuce Cups is a popular appetizer currently on the menu, while Char-Grilled Salmon, accompanied by Smoked Gulf Shrimp Enchiladas in Poblano-Tortilla Broth, is a favorite entrée. Other items on the menu are Creole classics: Barbecued Shrimp, Grilled Double-Cut Pork Chops, Andouille Crusted Drum and Banana Cream Pie.
The restaurant wine cellar was the first in New Orleans to receive the coveted “Grand Award” from Wine Spectator magazine in 2000. Even more impressive is that the cellar has won every year since. Currently the cellar has an inventory of 13,000 bottles with over 1,800 selections. Wines are primarily from California, France (Burgundy, Rhône, Bordeaux appellations), Austria and Germany. The house wine is bottled by Kosta Browne.
EMERIL’S TEST KITCHEN
Behind every great chef is a comparably great Test Kitchen – or staff of chefs who verify that the recipes really work. The tasty recipes on Emeril’s web site, the procedures in his cookbooks and the cooking advice and tips he provides on his TV shows have all been tested throughly in the kitchen at his HomeBase in New Orleans.
Charlotte Martory, Stacey Meyer, Kamili Hemphill are the superb chefs staffing Lagasse’s Test Kitchen. When I first meet them, they’re busy working up 8 new recipes Lagasse needs for an upcoming appearance on Good Morning, America. Later in the day, they’ll check Emeril’s Web Site to see if there are any questions or requests from fans.
What are the most requested dishes? “Emeril’s Barbecue Shrimp is very popular,” says Stacey Meyer. “Shrimp & Grits, Banana Creme Pie and Bread Pudding are also frequent requests. And we get LOTS of email during holidays – especially Thanksgiving.”
“We also receive requests for assistance in adapting recipes,” Charlotte Martory notes. “Home cooks want to make gluten-free or vegan versions of their favorite recipes. Or maybe they just want to serve more people than the original recipe allowed for. We provide help with all those kinds of adaptations.”
The chefs are also slowly working through the hundreds and hundreds of recipes Lagasse went through during his stint on the Food Network. “Back in the early days of the Food Network,” Stacey Meyer explains, “a clerk, or anyone who was handy, would write out the procedure the chef used to prepare the dish. Sometimes the measurements weren’t very accurate and often something was left out in the procedure. It was all very quick and rushed back then. So, we’re going back through all those recipes to make certain that they work. Then, we gradually add them to the data base on the web site.”
Are there any attempts to make the recipes healthier? “To some extent,” answers Charlotte Martory. “We try to reduce the butter, or the size of the portions, for example. Garnish with a salad instead of bacon.”
When you’re developing recipes for the cookbooks, does Emeril ever say he really dislikes something? “Never!” both cooks shake their heads. “When he doesn’t like something, he’ll pause for a few seconds, with a finger on his chin, then say, ‘I think we should do it this way….’ And of course we love when he jumps in and starts cooking himself. That’s the best!”