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Emeril's Empire

Chef, actor, businessman, entrepreneur. Emeril Lagasse has done it all.
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

You think you know Emeril Lagasse. You've seen him on the Food Network, flinging salt at a pot of simmering soup, reminding the studio audience that cooking "ain't rocket science" and that the particular bit of sleight of hand he is about to perform is actually "real simple." You've seen him poke fun at his own propensity for full-flavored, full-calorie dishes. "Nice and light," he says as he ladles in the heavy cream.

You've read his cookbooks. Maybe you've made the pilgrimage to one of the nine restaurants he owns and operates in five cities across the American Sun Belt -- Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas and New Orleans, where they cater to the same housewives, middle managers, firemen and young professionals that have made him the most recognizable chef in history.

You've seen him on "Good Morning, America," you've bought his salad dressing. You might have even been a portion of the 2 percent or so of U.S. television owners who tuned in, on average, for each of the 13 episodes of his 2001 sitcom on NBC. You think you have a handle on this charismatic, 45-year-old Everyman, who has inspired millions of ordinary people to not only take pains to watch a cooking show, but actually attempt some of the recipes. Who has his face plastered on product lines from knives to clogs, and a Crest toothpaste ad campaign, to boot. You think you know Emeril.

And you're right. That regular guy who occasionally mangles the English language but always talks nice to the ladies in the audience, who wears a sport coat over his Emeril's T-shirt and tells you to shove a spoon in the pot and taste everything you're cooking, that's Emeril. The enthusiasm is genuine and the eagerness to be liked is, too. There he is, stepping into the bar at New York's Loews Regency Hotel like "a force of nature," as his friend Charlie Trotter calls him. He's shaking hands as if he's running for governor, ordering a glass of Chardonnay, raising a toast before his guest can say a word. "I used to think when I started, 'I'm a chef, so I have to act like Alain Ducasse on TV,'" he says. "Doesn't work. Bores people."

Sure, he's more sedate than the character on television, and more considered. He doesn't stand up in the middle of the bar and gesticulate, or move in tight for a fishbowl close-up. When he isn't selling himself, he's actually a listener more than a talker. Still, none of what you see is contrived. "There's no smoke and mirrors," says Dave McCelvey, the culinary director of Lagasse's restaurants and other food properties, who has worked with him since 1991. "He doesn't put on an act. He really is gregarious and charismatic and caring. And people just flip over him."

The sincerity sells. These days, Lagasse values his Emeril Empire at "at least $150 million" of annual business. As much as $90 million of that comes from the restaurants, which happen to be the most profitable part, too. They're the centerpiece, the hearth around which everything else is built. Not for Lagasse is Jacques Pepin's status as Television Chef Without Portfolio, or Julia Child's longtime career cooking for friends and at gala events but with no kitchen -- other than the one in her Public Broadcasting studio -- to call home. "Inside all of this whatever-this-is, there's a serious chef in my body," Lagasse says. "That's what I am, that's what I know, that's where I came from, and everything revolves around that. And without that, I'm nothing."

But if it's nothing more than that, he knows, "Then it's about being chained to the stove, as I was for many, many years. Twelve shifts a week. Period." If it's nothing more than that, cab drivers don't shout, "Yo, Emeril" as he walks down Park Avenue, and grandmothers don't ask for an autograph and a kiss on the cheek. If it's nothing more than that, Emeril is still a household name only in select New Orleans households, and the vast majority of Americans still believe that cooking is something that only cooks do -- and cooks have French accents and wear big white hats.

Lagasse taught us it wasn't necessarily so. Now he's trying to do something even bigger and change our relationship to the food around us. "Twenty years ago, when we were talking about American cuisine, it was just a few of us, a specialty thing," he says. "Ten years ago, the idea of a television network about food seemed insane. So maybe 10 years from now -- with the help of a lot of different people, and maybe just a tiny bit from me -- everyone will be eating better, and looking at food in a different way. Why not?"

He gives that wouldn't-it-be-something look you've seen on the TV shows, but you know better. With what he has accomplished so far, it would be foolish to bet against him.

On television, Lagasse is a purposefully imprecise cook. He throws in a dash of this and a dash of that because he knows that most home cooks are far more likely to do the same than portion out salt in a measuring cup and weigh garlic cloves on a kitchen scale.

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