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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

(continued from page 1)

Lagasse points to his left, introducing tonight's live musical component: "The Jammin' Queen and Marko." The duo has a violin and guitar in hand and other instruments at the ready. Live music is to the show as salt and pepper are to the food. "And we've got Hilda in the house."

The audience roars its approval. Beside her at one of the café tables is Mr. John, who'll be seated at the counter and treated to a special Father's Day feast during the subsequent taping. Once a month Lagasse flies to New York from New Orleans and tapes three shows a day, roughly from 2 o'clock till 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That demanding pace is actually far less frenetic than the past rigors of taping the half-hour "Essence" programs, when a typical day in the studio began at 8 a.m. and ended, eight shows later, around 3:30 p.m. "In those days," he explains, "I'd be in the restaurant Saturday night till 4 a.m., on an airplane at seven, get off the airplane at 11:30, be in the studio at one, shooting four shows on Sunday afternoon--my day off. I mean, fried to a crisp."

This day, a Wednesday in May, Lagasse awakes at 7:30 in his room at the Upper East Side New York hotel where he is staying and soon unclasps the humongous, doctor's bag-style briefcase he lugs around as a traveling desk. "I work every day on the restaurants through the various channels I've set up," he says over a cappuccino in the hotel's dining room. Besides his flagship restaurant Emeril's, in the warehouse district in New Orleans, and NOLA in the French Quarter, his growing empire includes Emeril's New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, named the number one restaurant in the city by Zagat's. Emeril's Home Base, his corporate office, which is located near Emeril's, functions as command central for this culinary empire, which includes the cooking show and cookbooks, and which is on track to open two restaurants in as many years.

Lagasse recently acquired the venerable, though dowdy, Delmonico on St. Charles Street, and the plan was to reopen this century-old New Orleans restaurant in mid-December with a back-to-the-future concept. "We're going to bring back a bit of the grander New Orleans traditional family dining that's being lost in the city," he says. "Club service, some tableside cooking, great sommelier, great wine program and a lot of those classic New Orleans dishes: en Papillote, caramel cup custard, ice cream bombs."

The second restaurant, set to open late in 1998, will be straight-to-the-future. Emeril's Orlando at Universal Studios is targeted as the upscale dining spot in the twenty-first century entertainment complex that will link the massive theme park addition that is slated to double Universal's Florida footprint. Universal, clearly, is banking not only on Lagasse's cuisine and TV stardom but also his professionalism.

On camera, Lagasse may play the lovable goofball, proclaiming "Pork fat rules," and cavalierly adding ingredients such as wine-- "Aw, what the hell, let's dump in the whole bottle." Off camera, far different emotions generally rule. "When it comes to his food and restaurants, he's extremely serious," says Tony Cruz, Lagasse's business manager. "From day one, he'd say, 'Tony, you have to analyze this. These costs may be too high.' Invariably he'd be right. I give him reports every morning on all the restaurants, what's selling, what's not, how many meals served, check averages. He's absolutely on top of profit and loss. He is a very smart businessman."

Lagasse's earliest culinary memory finds him at age seven or so at Hilda's elbow, helping her add vegetables to a big soup pot. He credits his mother's side of the family and its Portuguese roots for his innate love of food.

He credits his father with guiding his nose to the grindstone. When he was 12, Mr. John had to quit school to work on a farm to help support his family. Now 68, he recently retired after 35 years dyeing suit linings at Duro Finishing, a Fall River textile company. A third of those years he worked the second shift. Generally, he moonlighted--driving cabs, maybe, or working as a security guard--to help ensure that his three children (Emeril has an older sister, Delores, and younger brother, Mark) would have it better than he had.

Mr. John, whose heritage is French-Canadian, doesn't say much until spoken to. "He's not a talker. He's a very shy, quiet guy, but he has tremendous respect for people and tremendous respect for the work ethic," Lagasse says, explaining what he took to be his father's credo. "You can cry all you want that life is hard. The only way you're going to get ahead is to push and work hard. If you do it from your heart and don't screw anybody over along the way, eventually you're going to get ahead, because it all comes back to you."

Lagasse has always worked hard, squeezing hours out of the day like every last drop of juice from a lemon. As young as 12 he'd work through the night in a donut shop, go to school, and grab some sleep in the afternoon. His answer to the obvious question: "B-plus student." He was an even more talented musician, as young as eight playing drums in a local 45-member Portuguese band that toured on summer weekends as far away as Canada. He also drummed in a trio that played at weddings.

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