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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 4)

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.

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.

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.

"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.


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