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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 5)

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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