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Recipe for Success

With a hit TV cooking show and a growing restaurant empire, chef Emeril Lagasse's career is simmering.
John Grossman
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

TV cooking shows have a term for the finished dish--be it a chocolate soufflé or rack of lamb en croute--that the chef magically pulls from the oven in reciprocal legerdemain to the freshly prepared version going in. Created less hurriedly and fussed over in a second kitchen backstage, this culinary stand-in emerges magazine-cover perfect and is called "the hero." On most cooking programs, it's clearly the star of the show.

But not on "Emeril Live," a recent addition and runaway ratings star on cable television's TV Food Network. The hero of this hour-long show is not the food, which is nonetheless spectacular--bold, spicy, wonderfully creative and varied--but the chef, 39-year-old Emeril Lagasse, who is amassing a rock-star-like following while whipping up some real magic in the kitchen. Arguably more so than any chef who has ever graced the small screen, Lagasse is bringing haute cuisine to the masses. Cops and firemen love him. Grandmothers dote on him. Children sit mesmerized by his performance, awaiting each opportunity to join him in shouting "Bam!" when he seasons a dish with a theatrically jettisoned shower of spices. In its year-end issue, Time magazine named "The Essence of Emeril" (his previous show, still broadcast in re-runs) Best Television of 1996.

There is something about this down-to-earth chef with the dark, caterpillar eyebrows, the hand-in-the-cookie-jar glint in his eyes, an accent thick as New England clam chowda,

who talks about working in a bakery as a boy growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts, and pays frequent homage to his Mom (Hilda) and Dad (Mr. John). He cooks brassy, assertive food, guy food, mischievously flaunting some of cooking's "sacred" rules. Dishes are invariably "kicked up a notch" and occasionally "to notches unknown to mankind." He seems an instinctive teacher, skilled at setting the stage and the proper mood and delivering his lesson on a gust of fun. His recipes are on public display on the TV Food Network Web site (www.foodtv.com). Above all, he comes across as a regular guy: Everyman in a chef's jacket and apron.

The second of three audiences of the day awaits their hero's entrance at the New York City taping of his program. Most of the 140 Emeril lovers in attendance are seated on bleachers. Others have been steered to the dozen café tables closer to the set. The luckiest occupy the four stools, two at either end of the cooking counter. They're virtually assured of sampling whatever Chef Emeril has planned or improvises for this, the 53rd taping in the series.

The sound of his energetic theme music fills the studio. The audience explodes Pavlovianly in cheers and claps. A monitor shows Lagasse bounding down the hall. Damned if he doesn't actually leap into the studio, surprisingly agile in a pair of black leather clogs, before heading into the bleachers, politician-like, to press the flesh. He shakes a few hands, accepts a present and a kiss from a blonde in the second row, and then introduces the theme for the show:

"In an area called the Lombardy region of Italy, people rarely eat pasta. Not until the 1950s did they eat pasta there. They mostly eat polenta, risotto. The region is responsible for giving the world the most mispronounced dessert on the planet: tiramisu."

Lagasse leans to within inches of the camera, presenting himself comically, almost in peep-hole close-up, and switches to a back-alley rasp: "Hey, have you had your tiramisu yet?"

Lagasse generally reads some of his opening remarks from the prompter--and basically ignores it thereafter, creating the show as he goes, ad libbing off audience comments and veering off into whatever mischief crosses his mind. Part of the appeal of the show is its unpredictability. You never know when he'll invite someone from the audience up to cook with him or when he'll step out from behind the stove and head into the crowd, as he did on a so-called "Manly Man" show, when he shouldered a case of beer into the audience, passing out cold cans, before cooking such hunting lodge fare as bacon-wrapped stuffed pork chops and venison stew.

Like any show that strikes a chord with an audience, "Emeril Live" has its routine moments as well: running bits, catch phrases, recurring props, an ongoing taunting of "a certain late-night show up the street," even the ritual on-camera dressing of Lagasse just after his opening remarks. This off-with-the-black-sports-jacket, on-with-the-white-chef's-jacket-and-apron operation is a high-energy echo of Fred Rogers' classic shedding of his suit coat in favor of his zip-up sweater and works here just as brilliantly: The chef is in the house! Dish towel in hand like a baton, he's ready to lead.


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