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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

(continued from page 1)

But those who criticize his sloppy technique miss the point. "He's easily capable of running a restaurant that's one of the top restaurants in the world," says Trotter, who does exactly that at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. "I'd say that without hesitation. Watch him eat at a serious restaurant. He hunches over. His face is four inches from the food. He's staring at it, concentrating. He's one of the most intense eaters that you'll ever see."

Lagasse loved food so much that he turned down a free ride to the New England Conservatory of Music to become a chef. Doing so, he broke his mother's heart. To Hilda Lagasse, cooking was something that Portuguese women in the mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts, did every night, not a valid career path for an ambitious son. "I mean, let's face it, nobody in the early '70s -- especially a guy -- ever cooked," he says. "Especially where I came from. It was never really thought about like that in this country. As a matter of fact, once I made that decision and moved to New York, I couldn't get a job because I was American. Chefs were French, German, Swiss. Americans washed dishes."

He persevered. With his degree from Providence's Johnson & Wales University, internships in Paris and Lyon, and some brief experience in kitchens in Boston and New York, Lagasse moved to New Orleans in 1983 to become chef at Commander's Palace, where Paul Prudhomme had made his name only a few years before.

At the time, Commander's Palace was more venerable than consistent. Lagasse arrived, threw out the canned goods in the larder, canceled contracts, and began making everything from scratch. He forged alliances with growers and seafood providers, gave farmers seed money to raise quails. He stripped the restaurant down and built it up again. By the end of his run, he was not only the head chef but also the general manager. "I was ready to dance," he says. "And I danced."

By then, he'd read the 1959 self-help classic The Magic of Thinking Big, by David J. Schwartz. "It made me realize that people have big things in them," says Lagasse. "Sometimes they just need to be brought out. In order to be big, you have to think big. If you think small, you're going to be small."

Big meant having his own restaurant, so he started Emeril's in 1990 in New Orleans' warehouse district, far from the free-spending tourists of the French Quarter. Big meant a more casual joint, Nola, opened in 1992, which gave McCelvey a kitchen to call his own. "I realized if I didn't want to put a revolving door at the front door, I had to make opportunity for these people," says Lagasse.

But when the fledgling Food Network came calling in 1993, asking Lagasse to star in a new show about basic cooking called "How to Boil Water," he wasn't necessarily thinking big. He just wanted to see something other than the back wall of a kitchen. "I grew up in the kitchen, where there was no window, you got yelled and screamed at, you didn't see daylight, you worked until the work was done," he says. "For the previous four years, I'd been doing 12 shifts a week on the line. Closing the restaurant at three o'clock, four o'clock in the morning, waiting for the cleanup crew, living one block down the street so when the alarm goes off, I'm there. I thought about the TV thing and it seemed like almost going back to school. That excited me."

The show didn't work. Neither did the next. But Food Network CEO Reese Schonfeld saw something in Emeril and summoned him to New York in 1994 for an all-day brainstorming session that ended in the edict, "Let Emeril be Emeril." So Lagasse started flying in from New Orleans every Monday to tape a week's worth of "Essence of Emeril" shows in a day. "I was doing something," he says. "It was new. It wasn't even planned. I was just going to do it and see what happened. It certainly wasn't for the money -- they were paying me $50 a show. And they'd put me up in these dog hotels at the beginning. I'd have to bring my own coffee, it was so bad."

Lagasse was the making of the Food Network, the star that pulled this unfamiliar concept -- all cooking, all the time -- into the public consciousness. "Everyone here recognizes that Emeril is a big part of our success," says Brooke Johnson, who has served as the network's president for the past year and a half. And television was the making of Lagasse. "I remember walking down Park Avenue maybe seven years ago," he says. "A taxi driver is shouting to me out the window. And it's the first time that I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute. Something is going on here. '"

By now, Lagasse has taped more than 1,500 shows on the Food Network. He's on seven days a week with the hour-long "Emeril Live!," which is also repeated later in the evening. He's on seven days a week with the 30-minute "Essence of Emeril." That's 17 hours a week of national exposure, much of it prime time -- which is more than Katie Couric or David Letterman or anyone else gets. "There is kind of a synergistic relationship between the rise of interest in food in this country and the success of this network," Johnson says. "Emeril is the face of that."

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