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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 4)

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.

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