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Emeril's Empire

Chef, actor, businessman, entrepreneur. Emeril Lagasse has done it all.

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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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