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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 3)

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."

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