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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.

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."

Lagasse is the first to acknowledge what television has meant. The restaurants may be the center of the empire, but the face time makes all the rest possible. "He's a beloved guy because of it," Trotter says. "And he gets people interested who would never, ever have gotten into cooking. Firefighters love the guy. Everyone does. You can't help but like him and want to be around him."

"When I started with the TV, I got criticized by a lot of people," Lagasse says. "And I said, 'If I can touch one person a day, to help that person evolve about food or wine or shopping or cooking or whatever, it has to be good for our industry. '"

He didn't have to add that it would be good for Emeril. Before long, he had a restaurant in Las Vegas, then another. He bought Delmonico's, the shuttered New Orleans standard, and opened it as Emeril's Delmonico. He published cookbooks. He opened Emeril's in Orlando and Atlanta. He embarked on a partnership with All-Clad Metalcrafters to create Emerilware gourmet pots and pans. He taped his 500th show at the Food Network, then his 1,000th. He became the food correspondent on "Good Morning, America." By 1999, Fortune magazine was estimating his income at more than $2 million a year.

Along the way, by necessity, he sacrificed the dream of every chef, which is to craft dinner five nights a week for selected friends and family. "That's the decision I made that some people still don't quite understand," he says. "Like, 'Why didn't he just stay in his restaurant?' or 'Why did he have to open another one?'"

Instead, he's a classical composer doing pop tunes, a brilliant poet writing potboilers. Trotter remembers a book signing in Los Angeles to which Lagasse drew more than 1,000 people. "He was like a rock star," says Trotter, who still sounds awed. "They were chanting 'Emeril! Emeril! '" Yet for all the status and celebrity that Lagasse has brought to television chefs, he's still touchy about being considered only that. He has hosted the James Beard Awards, but he's quick to remind you that he's never won national honors. "Where are the Beard Awards?" he asks. "Where are all those things?"

It doesn't help that he has no restaurant in New York, which is not only the food capital of America but the center of food criticism, too. There's a sense that if he could have made it there, well, he would have by now. Lagasse scoffs. "We could have been here 300 times," he says. "But it's a piranha tank. I don't need that."

"But I opened the New York paper today," he continues. "Just so happened that's how the page fell. And it's 'Sunday's Best on Television.' I look down and there's a picture of Mario Batali. And it's about Mario coming on my show. And here they are picking, among four or five programs for the night, "Emeril Live!" As the pick of Sunday television in New York City."

He offers up a look that is too innocent to be believed. "Go figure," he says.

The business of Emeril has come to mean business for a lot of other people. Some 1,500 work at his restaurants alone, plus thousands more who make his sausages, build the sets for his television shows and market his cookbooks.

It occurred to Lagasse to wonder what would happen if all his ancillary businesses coordinated their efforts. "I said, 'Can you imagine if it all got put in one engine? What that could do? '" he says. "'Because, hey, maybe ABC's got something they want to do with the Food Network. Maybe the Food Network's got something they want to do with HarperCollins.' How did I know to do that? I don't know. But I did."

Thus was born the first annual Emeril Summit, held in agent Jim Griffin's New York office in 2002. "One big conference room, with the spice people and the pasta sauce people and the knives people and his PR people and his cookbook people and everyone else," says Tom Meyer, former vice president of the Brown-Forman wine group, who was partnering with Lagasse on a wine project. "The meeting was to say, 'We've got all these wonderful things going on. How do we make sure we're not missing opportunities?' It showed me that he's every bit the marketer that he is the chef. In fact, I'd say he's a better marketer than he is a chef."

Astonishingly enough for an untrained businessman, Lagasse ran the meeting himself. "Here's a guy who has such a great palate, such a great insight into what people want to eat and drink, such a great insight into popular culture," Meyer says. "And he's also the kind of guy who wants to know what you -- the 'expert' -- think about the product you're making or representing. His mind is working to understand the insight and figure out if there's any synergy. It was amazing to see."

These days, Lagasse convenes a summit annually. And every year, he invites all of his restaurant managers and their spouses to New Orleans. He treats his employees like an extended family, but with the highest possible standards. He's one of the few chefs to employ an outside firm to eat at all nine of his properties at least once a month and grade every aspect of their operations, from how the telephone caller making the reservations is received to the valet's speed at car retrieval. Fully half of each general manager's bonus is contingent on the score.

"He knows what he wants," says Mauricio Andrade, Lagasse's director of operations, who has worked with him since even before the original Emeril's opened in 1990. "He knows what standards he's looking for. He's all about building relationships with people and seeing them pay off."

New relationships, usually initiated in over-the-transom proposals that arrive at the rate of several hundred a month, continue to pay off in new product lines and spin-off businesses. It is now possible in some areas of the country to buy Emeril salad greens (from a California supplier called Pride of San Juan) and salad dressing (from B&G Foods), nine varieties of Emeril frozen shrimp (from the New Orleans Fish House) and even more of Emeril gourmet sausage (from Sara Lee), and then prepare a sumptuous meal using an Emeril salad bowl (made in conjunction with Waterford Wedgwood) and other glassware, Emeril knives (from Wüsthof), Emeril pots and pans and cooking utensils (from All-Clad), Emeril pasta sauce and seasoning and mustards (from B&G Foods) -- all while reading a recipe from one of his cookbooks (published by HarperCollins) and wearing Emeril-endorsed clogs (from Sanita).

If it's a business he knows, like wine or sausages, he's there at the source, helping choose the vineyard land or visiting the farm to look at the pigs. If it's outside an area of expertise, he studies up. "Whatever it is, I'm going to be totally involved," Lagasse says. "It's never about, 'OK, here's the name.' Even if it comes down to doing a Crest commercial, I'm going to dictate who's going to be involved. I'm going to have final creative say, or I'm not going to do it."

And he isn't afraid to fail. It wasn't his first television show, or even his second, that made him a Food Network mainstay, but his third. In 2001, he starred in a short-lived NBC sitcom titled "Emeril." The show debuted two weeks after the attacks of September 11th and never gained traction. "Seinfeld couldn't have done it," he says now. "The Three Stooges couldn't have done it." Yet "Emeril," which lasted only 13 weeks, lifted Lagasse out of the ranks of celebrity chefs and defined him as a crossover entertainer. Millions of Americans who had never seen a cooking show, may not have even had access to cable television, now knew Emeril. "It put him in a different light," says Tony Cruz, his business manager.

The ill-fated wine project, a collaboration with California's Fetzer Vineyards that produced a line of "Emeril's Classics," came from Lagasse's desire to spread his love of wine as he had successfully spread his love of food. "He's as into wine as any non-winemaker I've ever met," says Meyer. "And when he found out that only one in three adults had ever tried wine, and only 10 percent of those consume it on a regular basis, he was shocked. He said, 'We have to convert the masses.'"

He did, for a while. Emeril-branded $10 Merlots and Chardonnays were some of California's best values from the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages, and generated millions of dollars in sales. That ended when the economy of scale desired by Brown-Forman, which had purchased Fetzer, conflicted with Lagasse's desire to make wine from a single plot of land. "I have no desire to make 250,000 cases of wine," he says. Lately he has confided to friends the idea of making an Emeril-branded Portuguese wine -- which, if it ever happened, would likely do more for that category than anything since Mateus Rosé.

He has even managed to make a thriving business out of selling cigars. "We have serious programs at all of our restaurants, and we've been doing it for years," he says. "I believe it's totally part of the dining experience."

At his venue in Miami Beach, where smoking isn't allowed in restaurants, consumers step inside to buy cigars, then smoke them by the pool. That means Lagasse is making money for his restaurant without renting out a piece of white-tableclothed real estate, or even using kitchen labor to make and plate a takeout order. The cigars aren't a huge profit center -- as with his wine lists, he resists the urge to mark up prices any higher than he has to -- but they help get potential customers in the door. They might not eat there this time, but they'll see a menu, soak up the ambience, catch the friendly vibe.

Lagasse quit smoking cigarettes last year. "Old restaurant-habit bullshit," he says. "I'm proud that I quit." Now he can guiltlessly enjoy the three to five cigars he usually smokes each week, most often an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story. He also relishes other strong cigars such as the Fuente Fuente OpusX and Ashton VSG brands. He'll pour himself a glass of wine -- his home cellar has a 5,000-bottle capacity -- and take a moment to slow down and live the good life, just as he tells everyone else to do.

hey asked me to do a restaurant here, said I was at the top of the list," Lagasse is saying. "I said, 'Maybe.' Then I started to look at the numbers."

He's standing in front of the Time Warner Center in New York's Columbus Circle on a Sunday afternoon. Thomas Keller has a restaurant upstairs. Trotter has one coming soon. Lagasse walks in, but instead of up he heads down, away from haute cuisine, toward the fresh produce of the Whole Foods supermarket that fills the upscale mall's basement level. Call it a metaphor for his whole career.

This is what Lagasse does when he travels. He strolls supermarket aisles, taking note of who's selling what, how products are displayed, what looks good, what doesn't. "Chayotes [a type of squash]," he says, holding one in his hand. "Most people don't even know what these are. We have them in our backyard in New Orleans." His head swivels. "Corn. Now, why is that woman buying corn?" he asks as a woman nearby looks through the selection. "Not because it's 50 cents an ear, but because it's summer. It's what's fresh. That's what it's all about. "

Lagasse is looking to expand into supermarket categories that hardly exist today. Flavored pork loins, in conjunction with Sara Lee. "And hams. The ham category now is completely boring." He's discussing with one chain the idea of Emeril marinades in the meat department, provided to customers as a complementary service. "You buy a piece of meat, they squirt in some marinade in the plastic bag, and by the time you get home, it's marinated," he says. "Look, you can either go in the direction of fast food, which I hate, or you can do this stuff."

Then something startling happens. A middle-aged woman approaches. "I've just left Roosevelt Hospital," she confides. "I've been diagnosed with cancer. They just confirmed it. But I'm taking it as a sign from God that he's going to cure me because I've seen you here today. I watch you on TV every night."

"He will cure you," Lagasse tells her. "I believe it."

Not long before, Lagasse was attempting to explain why he recently signed another contract to continue the television shows through 2008, why he still works as hard as he does. He doesn't have to say another word.

"Someone wanted to write me a check a few weeks ago for the whole shebang," he says, after the woman has blessed him and moved on. "Big money. I hang around a couple of years, you know the drill." Lagasse turned him down without a thought. His ultimate plan is to retire to a warm beach and open a small restaurant with his son, E. J., but E. J. is not yet three years old. Lagasse is far from finished with what he wants to accomplish.

He has revamped the format of "Essence of Emeril," incorporating more complex dishes. ("I didn't have to do that," he says. "I could have just gone, 'Bang! Boom! Bing! Done.' ") He has recently started a new television venture as the food peddler on the Shop at Home channel. "This was the vision from the beginning," says Shop at Home president Judy Girard, who ran the Food Network for seven years. "No one has a more loyal following than Emeril." He's expanding his lines of`salsas, sauces, sausages.

It sounds like nothing but business, but there's a larger aim. "He doesn't see it in terms of an empire," says Meyer, the former Brown-Forman VP. "What he'd like to do is increase his influence in pushing forward the idea of family around the table, of food being the way family interacts with each other. Being a catalyst for that in American society."

It's a true family-values message that resonates across Lagasse's core constituency and beyond. And with the Food Network, "Good Morning, America" and Shop at Home giving him an unprecedented mass-media platform, he'll have the chance to get it across. No less a television authority than Brooke Johnson, who previously ran both the A&E Network and the History Channel, believes he just might pull it off. "He's a guy who has deep beliefs and he can put them across to people very persuasively," she says.

His platform is global -- "90 million homes and nine countries later," he likes to say -- but he never stops thinking as locally as his own kitchen. "E. J. doesn't know what chicken nuggets are," Lagasse says. "He eats fresh chicken soup. He eats lamb steak, broccoli, corn. Where we live, he knows Mikey at the fish market. He knows Leonard at the butcher across the street. He's two and a half years old, he goes in the back, he sees the guys cutting fish." He takes a breath. "To me, that's what it's all about."

Lagasse's two daughters from his first marriage know that Sunday night is family dinner night. If they're in town, they come by to cook, talk, eat, renew bonds. If everyone in America did that, Lagasse insists, "They'd be happier. They might be healthier, too, but I know for sure they'd be happier. Let's start with one night a week. Sunday night. Then we can work on Saturday and Tuesday."

It is six o'clock on this Sunday evening at the Loews Regency, but Lagasse's weekend workday isn't over. Next comes a dinner with representatives from B&G Foods, part of a whirlwind week of meetings with buyers, sellers, purveyors and partners. He stands up to leave, turns to shake a hand -- and sees New York Yankees majority owner George Steinbrenner alone in a corner banquette, eating chocolate ice cream.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Lagasse is a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. Moments before, he'd been reciting the lineup of the 1967 World Series team. He can't resist. He walks over to Steinbrenner and flashes an impish smile, the most famous chef in America introducing himself to the most famous sports owner in America.

In a sense, they aren't so different. Driven to succeed, they each understand what their customers want -- and won't rest until they provide it. "I've seen you on television," says Steinbrenner, who isn't exactly known as a gourmand. "Quite recently, in fact."

They shake hands, this millionaire icon of one branch of the entertainment business bonding with a millionaire icon of another: a mill worker's son from a Portuguese neighborhood who is changing the way Americans think about food, one American at a time.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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