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Recipe for Success

With a hit TV cooking show and a growing restaurant empire, chef Emeril Lagasse's career is simmering.
John Grossman
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 1)

Lagasse loved working for the Brennans. But he knew he'd have to leave. At first he was going to open a new restaurant with them, but he and Miss Ella disagreed on the location. She insisted on the French Quarter; Lagasse wanted to open up in the warehouse district where he lived. She and virtually everyone else, including the many bankers who turned him down for loans, thought maybe he'd been around a hot stove too long.

"There wasn't even a streetlight back then," Lagasse says. "Bums sleeping out. One art gallery. You could shoot a cannon down Tchoupitoulas Street and not hit anybody. [People would ask,] 'Why is he trading in his Porsche and giving up one of the top-five paying chefs jobs in America? Is he out of his fucking mind?' "

Seven years later, the district has rebounded considerably, with numerous loft renovations, more galleries, a children's museum. You still wouldn't want to stroll the neighborhood around Emeril's late in the evening, but the jury's in: he built it and they came. The concept was a white-tablecloth neighborhood restaurant for locals. Included was a 10-stool, semicircular food bar offering front-row seats on part of the kitchen. Says Lagasse: "I wanted the single diner not to be intimidated coming to a white-tablecloth restaurant and I wanted the kitchen to be part of the dining room and the dining room to be part of the kitchen."

The morning of March 24, 1990, Lagasse led what was to be his last preopening training session. Afterwards, he informed the staff to go home and come back dressed to open the restaurant for dinner. All of New Orleans had been eagerly awaiting opening night at Emeril's. Lagasse threw open his doors with no press release, no announcement whatsoever. Word leaked out fast as if Bruce Springsteen were playing a set at a local bar. Soon a line stretched down the sidewalk and the wait swelled to 90 minutes.

"We opened, cooked, cleaned, closed. Seven-thirty in the morning to 4 a.m.," says Lagasse, recalling how he was so intent on getting the food right and the service right that two weeks went by before he realized: How are we going to get paid? He'd forgotten all about the credit card slips that were piling up. That's when he hired Tony Cruz as business manager. With the new venture stabilized, the kitchen soared. Esquire magazine named Emeril's Best New Restaurant of 1990.

Lagasse soon addressed another untended detail by bringing his personal love of cigars into the restaurant. "Shortly after we opened, I realized that cigars would help complete a fine dining experience," he says, adding that in the early 1990s cigars were still taboo in most restaurants, unfairly so, he felt. "Because some people don't drink, does that make a bar taboo? What started for local, special customers, long before it was cool to smoke cigars, has evolved into a great part of our dining experience. People know when to come if they want to smoke--which means they don't make reservations for 6 o'clock, they come at 10 o'clock, or there's always the bar option.

"Our January cigar dinner is sold out by the time we announce it. We do food and wine pairings around the cigars," says Lagasse. He was amazed at how similar the pairings were. "As you do with wine, as you'd begin with lighter-styled, lighter-bodied whites, then into more full-bodied whites, then into lighter, crisp reds, then building to the crescendo of deep reds, Cabernets, Bordeaux, then finishing with sweet, the sample principles apply to the characteristics of cigars, going from a lighter smoke to a mild smoke to a more medium then a more full-bodied smoke, crescendoing into like a blowout, with brandy and Cognac and a cigar that you know might really blow your brain out."

Only rarely does he slow down long enough to himself indulge. "I smoke maybe one a week, but as many as 25 in the right week. When I'm fishing, or relaxing in the hammock, I'll smoke five cigars a day."

His favorites include El Rey del Mundo, Cohiba Siglo V ("light chocolate, rich with accents of berry, which I really like") and the Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story and Fuente Fuente OpusX. "I love the Fuentes," he says. "I think they stand for quality; what they make is wonderful. The wrapper, the blend, they've just got a great touch."

Back on the New York set, Lagasse holds a prepared tray of pumpkin ravioli. They stand on their ring-like bases looking like tiny Papal hats. "You get bored, you can have a chess game," he jokes, before dumping the ravioli into a pot of boiling water. He asks for some "sizzling sage music" and adds several whole sage leaves to a skillet awash in melted butter.

He drains the pasta and tests it by feeling it with his fingers. "Don't try this at home. You'll get like eighth-degree burns." He pronounces the ravioli done. "Trust me. I got like a degree in this."

Into the awaiting skillet go the ravioli.

His next dish is osso bucco. Lagasse displays a humongous veal shank, seasons it, dredges it in seasoned flour, and then adds it to three others already browning in olive oil.

"Big fancy cooking word coming up. Write it down: mise en place." Lagasse purses his lips like an Old Milwaukee drinker forced to taste Campari and takes a couple mincing steps backwards. Then he translates. "What that means is, basically, 'have your act together.'

"Mirepoix. Another big fancy name. Write it down: Carrots. Onions. Celery. Now if it was bell peppers, it would be...."

Several voices in the audience yell: "The trinity!"

"That's right," says Lagasse with a smile. "Oh, there are some New Orleans girls back there. How you doin', ladies?"

Before adding the vegetables, Lagasse checks the veal shanks. He grabs one with his tongs and holds it for for the camera. "You want a good sear on that," he says. "That will make you happy..."

The audience joins in...

"Happy. Happy."

An hour or so after wrapping up the Lombardy show, after the crew returns from its dinner break, and the third audience of the day has taken their seats, Lagasse bounds back into the studio for show number three of the day, the Father's Day salute later broadcast as Dad's Favorite Dishes. He introduces Mr. John, who's sitting next to Hilda at the counter, and announces he's going to cook some of his dad's favorite food: boiled crabs; andouille and cornbread stuffed pork chops; Southern style greens cooked with bacon, onion, a little molasses, and a bottle of beer ("Trust me!"); and homemade chocolate pudding.

Schmoozing with the audience, he jokes with a gray-haired lady in the front row. The woman, Anne Favazza, came all the way from Darby, Pennsylvania. During one of the commercial breaks, she presents Lagasse with two beautiful ceramic fish platters she made. "We adore him," she explains after the show. "There's nothing phony about him. He's like a son any mother would love."

On the left breast of his chef's jacket, just below the stitched-in green, cursive letters of his logo, Lagasse insisted a pocket be added where usually there is none. In it, he keeps a sheet of paper folded in fourths. Each quadrant captures notes for one of his restaurants. "He's involved in every detail of his restaurants," observes his former banker, David Andignac, senior vice president at Whitney National Bank in New Orleans. "Yet he empowers his people."

Indeed he does. Lagasse stands silently aside, stretching a dish towel throughout all but the last few minutes of the evening pre-meal meeting at Emeril's, which gathers the staff in the restaurant from about 5:30 up to the 6 o'clock first seating. Mauricio Andrade, director of operations at Emeril's, runs the service-oriented meeting, the spirit and particulars of which so impressed Andignac, that he arranged to have a dozen senior managers of the bank sit in on one.

This evening, as always, the meeting starts with applause. Andrade shares the number of "covers," or diners, for today's lunch (100), notes upcoming events in the city that will affect business (Tulane and Loyola graduations later in the month), and then introduces the latest addition to the waitstaff. "Everybody knows Clarence, right? You've seen him in his whites. He's been working in the dish room for a little over a year and has done a tremendous job. I congratulate him on his promotion." Everyone claps loudly, as they have on numerous prior similar occasions. On Emeril Lagasse's payroll, pot scrubbing need not be a dead-end job.

Ask Bernard Carmouche, the chef de cuisine at Emeril's. Carmouche, now 30, started as a pot washer at age 17 at Commander's Palace during Lagasse's stewardship. One day when he mustered the courage, he told the chef that he wanted to be a cook, too. "He told me he'd teach me how to cook, but I had to finish school. The agreement was I had to bring my report card to him," recalls Carmouche, who began making salads, before moving up to the hot line, the back line, first cook and sous chef under Lagasse at Commander's and then executive sous chef at the Palace Cafe, another Brennan restaurant, before leaving to rejoin his mentor after 10 years working for the Brennans. Says Carmouche: "He really cares about people. When he travels, we talk by phone at least twice a week. The first words out of his mouth are: 'How are you doing? How's the brigade?' He worries more about the next person than he worries about himself."

Lagasse, viewers will be reassured, is no star-struck TV chef, ego puffed up like a rich souffle. "We're working on shows 52, 53 and 54 today," says "Emeril Live" producer Emily Schwartz. "The ratings are going through the roof and believe me, he's just the same. He comes in with such a positive attitude." When Lagasse walks through his Las Vegas restaurant every six weeks or so, on his way to the kitchen, he greets waiters by name, even asks after their children: "Hey Darren, how's little DJ?" Scott Farber, general manager of the Las Vegas Emeril's, sees the same, selfless side of his boss late at night after the last dessert has been cleared from the last table, when he and a few other key employees sit down with Chef Lagasse to review the night's performance. "We'll drink some wine, have some fun. He's really charming," says Farber, who notes how much Lagasse listens and how little he generally talks. "He doesn't have to be the focal point."

Lagasse finally speaks at the pre-meal meeting to describe the evening's special dishes and seven-course, $75 degustation and answer any questions the waitstaff might have about the origins or preparation of a dish such as: rosette of citrus-cured Atlantic salmon on a Choupiquette caviar blini, wakame seaweed peeky toe crab salad, soupçon of Osetra caviar, extraction of arugula and a traditional garish sour cream.

If he's out of town taping TV shows, or cooking at the Las Vegas restaurant, Lagasse doesn't need to approve the night's special offerings or tasting menu. "I don't know what they're going to do," he says. "But I know I'll be proud of them."

Lagasse often travels with his chef's jacket in his briefcase, dons it in the restaurant parking lot, and walks in the door raring to go. That May evening at Emeril's, he functions as an expediter, a kind of traffic cop and watchful eye over the two young chefs manning a six-burner stove, a grill and ovens. He plucks an order from its tiny wall-mounted printer and calls out $25 and $32 entrées like some Jersey diner waitress ordering a buck-ninety-five "Adam and Eve on a raft."

"One Barnyard. Two Studies. A floppin'. "

Translation: one order for grilled Brannon Farms organic chicken marinated with Creole spices served with a sweet corn, andouille sausage pudding, Southern cooked greens, reduction of chicken stock and garnished with hot-sauce spiced wings; two studies of duck, consisting of seared and sliced duck breast, seared Hudson Valley foie gras, leg of duck confit, served with a wild mushroom bread pudding, duck reductions and a drizzle of Port wine extraction; and one fish of the day, tonight braised wolffish served on a smoked wild mushroom truffle risotto, truffle-tossed crispy potato skins, black summer truffle shavings and a fresh thyme portobello mushroom reduction sauce.

"Texas" signals an order of andouille crusted Texas redfish. "One rack, medium, SOS" identifies a roasted American rack of lamb, cooked medium with sauce on the side. The shorthand saves words and adds a playfulness, both for the chefs and the bewildered customers at the food bar.

"Two veal chops medium rare. Pick it up for me, babe," Lagasse says as the kitchen heads into an early rush of entrées. Then it happens. A customer at the far end of the concrete food bar knocks over his water glass, which shatters kitchenwards, spilling its contents and showering broken glass down onto a cutting board with four racks of lamb just off the fire.

"Exxon Valdez," says Lagasse, spreading word of the disaster. The glass shards are carefully cleaned up, $132 worth of lamb goes into the trash, the kitchen shifts gears to compensate for the sudden hole in their work orders. The customer, who has had a drink or two too many, does not so much as apologize. Lagasse and his chefs calmly proceed. They've been here before.


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