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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 6)

Ask Bernard Carmouche, the chef de cuisine at Emeril's. Carmouche, now 30, started as a pot washer at age 17 at Commander's Palace during Lagasse's stewardship. One day when he mustered the courage, he told the chef that he wanted to be a cook, too. "He told me he'd teach me how to cook, but I had to finish school. The agreement was I had to bring my report card to him," recalls Carmouche, who began making salads, before moving up to the hot line, the back line, first cook and sous chef under Lagasse at Commander's and then executive sous chef at the Palace Cafe, another Brennan restaurant, before leaving to rejoin his mentor after 10 years working for the Brennans. Says Carmouche: "He really cares about people. When he travels, we talk by phone at least twice a week. The first words out of his mouth are: 'How are you doing? How's the brigade?' He worries more about the next person than he worries about himself."

Lagasse, viewers will be reassured, is no star-struck TV chef, ego puffed up like a rich souffle. "We're working on shows 52, 53 and 54 today," says "Emeril Live" producer Emily Schwartz. "The ratings are going through the roof and believe me, he's just the same. He comes in with such a positive attitude." When Lagasse walks through his Las Vegas restaurant every six weeks or so, on his way to the kitchen, he greets waiters by name, even asks after their children: "Hey Darren, how's little DJ?" Scott Farber, general manager of the Las Vegas Emeril's, sees the same, selfless side of his boss late at night after the last dessert has been cleared from the last table, when he and a few other key employees sit down with Chef Lagasse to review the night's performance. "We'll drink some wine, have some fun. He's really charming," says Farber, who notes how much Lagasse listens and how little he generally talks. "He doesn't have to be the focal point."

Lagasse finally speaks at the pre-meal meeting to describe the evening's special dishes and seven-course, $75 degustation and answer any questions the waitstaff might have about the origins or preparation of a dish such as: rosette of citrus-cured Atlantic salmon on a Choupiquette caviar blini, wakame seaweed peeky toe crab salad, soupçon of Osetra caviar, extraction of arugula and a traditional garish sour cream.

If he's out of town taping TV shows, or cooking at the Las Vegas restaurant, Lagasse doesn't need to approve the night's special offerings or tasting menu. "I don't know what they're going to do," he says. "But I know I'll be proud of them."

Lagasse often travels with his chef's jacket in his briefcase, dons it in the restaurant parking lot, and walks in the door raring to go. That May evening at Emeril's, he functions as an expediter, a kind of traffic cop and watchful eye over the two young chefs manning a six-burner stove, a grill and ovens. He plucks an order from its tiny wall-mounted printer and calls out $25 and $32 entrées like some Jersey diner waitress ordering a buck-ninety-five "Adam and Eve on a raft."

"One Barnyard. Two Studies. A floppin'. "

Translation: one order for grilled Brannon Farms organic chicken marinated with Creole spices served with a sweet corn, andouille sausage pudding, Southern cooked greens, reduction of chicken stock and garnished with hot-sauce spiced wings; two studies of duck, consisting of seared and sliced duck breast, seared Hudson Valley foie gras, leg of duck confit, served with a wild mushroom bread pudding, duck reductions and a drizzle of Port wine extraction; and one fish of the day, tonight braised wolffish served on a smoked wild mushroom truffle risotto, truffle-tossed crispy potato skins, black summer truffle shavings and a fresh thyme portobello mushroom reduction sauce.

"Texas" signals an order of andouille crusted Texas redfish. "One rack, medium, SOS" identifies a roasted American rack of lamb, cooked medium with sauce on the side. The shorthand saves words and adds a playfulness, both for the chefs and the bewildered customers at the food bar.

"Two veal chops medium rare. Pick it up for me, babe," Lagasse says as the kitchen heads into an early rush of entrées. Then it happens. A customer at the far end of the concrete food bar knocks over his water glass, which shatters kitchenwards, spilling its contents and showering broken glass down onto a cutting board with four racks of lamb just off the fire.

"Exxon Valdez," says Lagasse, spreading word of the disaster. The glass shards are carefully cleaned up, $132 worth of lamb goes into the trash, the kitchen shifts gears to compensate for the sudden hole in their work orders. The customer, who has had a drink or two too many, does not so much as apologize. Lagasse and his chefs calmly proceed. They've been here before.


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