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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 3)

"The enthusiasm, the integrity, the energy, it was all evident," says Miss Ella today, adding: "I'm not surprised one bit by his cooking show success. Emeril can do anything he wants to. He has great talent and great energy."

If anything, Lagasse is even more effusive in his praise of this sage, gentle woman who brought him to New Orleans and provided him with a fitting stage for his blossoming culinary artistry and helped refine his still raw talent. "She's the best. She's still my mentor and she doesn't know how to boil water," he says. "But she's got an incredible palate for food and wine. She'd hand me a new cookbook, and she'd have dishes flagged that sounded good or looked good, but she'd say, 'Oh, that's too foo foo. Emeril, you could take this general idea of ingredients and Creolize this into a great New Orleans dish.' "

Perhaps a handful of times in Lagasse's seven-and-a-half-year stint at Commander's, Miss Ella sent him carbons of handwritten notes that invariably began, "You're smarter than that..." At issue: his low boiling point. Schooled in kitchens run by European-trained chefs as noted for their tempers as for their low opinion of Americans in toques, Lagasse had adopted their explosive style of management. His mentor helped dial him down a couple notches, smooth some of his rough edges, help polish his people skills.

"Miss Ella really influenced me to change my style. I had everything going for me, but I was harsh," Lagasse admits late on a Monday afternoon as he sips Evian water at a table in Emeril's, during the brief lull between lunch and dinner. "I didn't know any better because that's how I was trained. She really sort of turned the world around for me: you know, you don't need to be an asshole to people. If you respect people and treat them the way you want to be treated and do it with intelligence and finesse, you could walk into the room wearing a T-shirt and they'll know you're the chef. I have my sessions where I have to get my point across, but I never do it in public anymore. It's always closed-door. I'll take them for a ride in my car, buy them a cup of coffee, or have them over to my house. I've calmed way, way down."

Though essentially dormant, the Lagasse volcano occasionally still blows. Enraged at a fish monger who persisted in trying to pawn off subpar seafood, he shotputted an entire bale of fish out the door onto the sidewalk. And when a know-it-all customer insulted one of his waiters, insisting that the restaurant was misidentifying that night's salmon, Lagasse soon appeared tableside, brandishing a 15-pound whole salmon, none-too-subtly asking the customer to please enlighten everyone.

Lagasse loved working for the Brennans. But he knew he'd have to leave. At first he was going to open a new restaurant with them, but he and Miss Ella disagreed on the location. She insisted on the French Quarter; Lagasse wanted to open up in the warehouse district where he lived. She and virtually everyone else, including the many bankers who turned him down for loans, thought maybe he'd been around a hot stove too long.

"There wasn't even a streetlight back then," Lagasse says. "Bums sleeping out. One art gallery. You could shoot a cannon down Tchoupitoulas Street and not hit anybody. [People would ask,] 'Why is he trading in his Porsche and giving up one of the top-five paying chefs jobs in America? Is he out of his fucking mind?' "

Seven years later, the district has rebounded considerably, with numerous loft renovations, more galleries, a children's museum. You still wouldn't want to stroll the neighborhood around Emeril's late in the evening, but the jury's in: he built it and they came. The concept was a white-tablecloth neighborhood restaurant for locals. Included was a 10-stool, semicircular food bar offering front-row seats on part of the kitchen. Says Lagasse: "I wanted the single diner not to be intimidated coming to a white-tablecloth restaurant and I wanted the kitchen to be part of the dining room and the dining room to be part of the kitchen."

The morning of March 24, 1990, Lagasse led what was to be his last preopening training session. Afterwards, he informed the staff to go home and come back dressed to open the restaurant for dinner. All of New Orleans had been eagerly awaiting opening night at Emeril's. Lagasse threw open his doors with no press release, no announcement whatsoever. Word leaked out fast as if Bruce Springsteen were playing a set at a local bar. Soon a line stretched down the sidewalk and the wait swelled to 90 minutes.

"We opened, cooked, cleaned, closed. Seven-thirty in the morning to 4 a.m.," says Lagasse, recalling how he was so intent on getting the food right and the service right that two weeks went by before he realized: How are we going to get paid? He'd forgotten all about the credit card slips that were piling up. That's when he hired Tony Cruz as business manager. With the new venture stabilized, the kitchen soared. Esquire magazine named Emeril's Best New Restaurant of 1990.

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