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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 2)

Recalling the bakery job he started when he was 13, Lagasse's face lights up. Sometimes he'd work after school, sometimes at night. "I remember sitting on stainless steel flour bins. Mom would have sent over my dinner with my dad, and when the Portuguese men would take their dinner break, I'd heat my supper in a brick oven," he says. "They took a liking to me and they'd teach me about the bread and the Portuguese specialties. If you understand people and understand their culture, then you can easily understand their food."

As much as Lagasse enjoyed music and entertained rock star fantasies, the call of the kitchen proved louder. He lasted only a few weeks at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he'd been awarded a scholarship, before transferring to the vocational-technical high school to study cooking. He worked evenings at a huge banquet-style restaurant called Venus de Milo in nearby Swansee, Massachusetts. Lagasse started as a prep cook, peeling onions and potatoes, and worked his way to a chef de cuisine post. By then he was working 60 hours a week while attending Johnson & Wales, the noted cooking school in Providence, Rhode Island.

After graduating, in 1978, Lagasse began working in the kitchen of the Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia, realized how little he knew about fine dining, and bolted to France for a three-month nestage, an unpaid apprenticeship. Upon his return he joined a team headed by Wolfgang Puck that brought nouvelle cuisine to The Berkshire Place hotel in Manhattan and learned, among other things, "how to work on a high-pressure [cooking] line." Next stop: the legendary Parker House in Boston, where, intent upon learning everything he could about all aspects of fine restaurants, he began keeping a wine book.

"Every week on Friday, or whenever my 'Friday' was, I would go buy a bottle of wine for $10 or less. Smell it, taste it, make notes, read about it," he says, crediting this self-education process with helping to stimulate his great love for wine. He also took note--literally--of what the top American chefs were doing at the time. He ate at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and Larry Forgione's An American Place, studying each restaurant down to the flatware and cleanliness of the bathrooms, where he'd write down his observations. Someday, he knew, he'd cook at a restaurant with his name over the door.

Lagasse's climb up the culinary ladder continued with the head chef job at Seasons, a then-troubled restaurant in Portland, Maine, owned by the Dunfey Hotel chain. His cooking and tight management of the kitchen soon stemmed the flow of red ink. He was successfully turning around another Dunfey property on Cape Cod when the phone rang, and he first spoke with the woman who would become his employer, mentor and friend.

A new chef was needed at the legendary Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and a headhunter had suggested that owners Ella and Dick Brennan consider a 25-year-old unknown chef whose food he'd happened to taste while vacationing on the Cape. Forget his résumé, the headhunter said, this guy can cook. In her inimitable, eminently Southern way, Ella Brennan interviewed Lagasse for four months by telephone. He recalls:

"Every week we would talk. She would say, 'Today, I want to talk about what inspires you. Is bread inspiring you? Is a book inspiring you?' Ella is a genius with people. We would talk for a half hour, 40 minutes. The next Wednesday, the phone would ring: 'Today, I want to talk about your philosophies about people. How do you motivate people?

"The last week she called three times. 'OK, I guess now I'm convinced you deserve a trip down here, but I want you to know, you have to give me a long weekend, not just Saturday and Sunday. I have to have Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, because my family is so big.'

"I'll never forget," he continues. "I had a plane ride from hell. They lost my luggage. I stepped out of a taxicab in front of Commander's Palace about 9:30 at night. The whole place was glowing. I see this lady walking some people out the door, saying goodnight to them. I knew it must be Ella Brennan. She looks at me and says, 'You must be Emeril Lagasse. Come on in.' We go in the front door and she asks if I'm OK. I tell her about the lost luggage and she tells George the maître d': 'Get him a toothbrush.' And to me: 'Come this way, we're going to have a drink.' And we have to go through the kitchen to the bar. I'm a nervous wreck. On the way, she asks, 'So what do you think of all this?' I went: 'Smells just like my mom's kitchen.' "

Though Lagasse pretty much sealed the deal with those words, the "weekend" interview--a grand tour of the city and meetings with the extended Brennan family--continued as planned.

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