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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 2)

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."

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