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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the October 8, 2003
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Essence of Emeril Live
Like Madonna and Cher, he goes by one name: Emeril.
And when this superstar television chef comes to Barnes & Noble at
MarketFair on Route 1 to sign copies of his latest cookbook,
October 15, Emeril LaGasse will undoubtedly draw crowds just like
a pop star, his cherubic appearance notwithstanding.
By my count Emeril appears on television at least 26 times each week,
seven days a week, between his Food Network shows, "Essence of
Emeril" and "Emeril Live," and his weekly stints on
Morning America." That’s not counting the commercials he has begun
to crop up in, hawking everything from his own pasta sauces and
to a new line of Crest toothpaste. For anyone but Emeril, this kind
of exposure might spell doom, but the American public — especially
the 85 million households that tune in to the Food Network — can’t
seem to get enough. His website draws more than 300,000 visitors a
month, and tickets to tapings of "Emeril Live" are in such
demand that the Food Network distributes them by lottery, just once
There are also his eight successful restaurants in New Orleans, Las
Vegas, Orlando, and Atlanta, with a ninth that will open in Miami
Beach later this year. And his best-selling cookbooks, which will
also number eight with the October 14 publication of "From
Kitchens" (HarperCollins). Not to mention Emerilware pots and
pans, the Emeril’s Classics wines he produces with Fetzer — well,
you get the idea.
True enough, people either love him and his boisterous style of
or they can’t stand him. But no other television chef has added as
many catch phrases to the vernacular, most notably his trademark
and "Kick it up a notch," and to a lesser extent, "Pork
fat rules." Bon Appetit magazine recently dubbed him a bona fide
pop icon, crediting him with instilling a sense of adventure in
In a recent telephone interview I ask Emeril, whose demeanor is toned
down and more serious than his television persona, but is still warm
and plain talking, how he feels about being an icon.
"I’m kind of honored and glad they felt that way," he says,
"but for me, like, you know, you’ve got to keep moving, keep
and growing. I’m really out to better the family table."
He mentions Julia Child as paving the way, but I share with him my
opinion that he is more comparable to another high-energy television
chef from my own impressionable years: Graham Kerr, "The Galloping
Gourmet." Emeril agrees, saying he was also a big fan.
Like Kerr before him, Emeril has been pooh-poohed by serious foodies
for the very qualities viewers embrace. They both make cooking seem
fun and exciting, with results that are exotic but not scary (except,
perhaps, to those with high cholesterol). Above all, their joint
is that food is to be enjoyed wholeheartedly, as an indulgent, sensual
pleasure. With Emeril, this latter often involves bold seasoning,
pork fat, and garlic — or "gaahlic," as the Fall River,
Massachusetts, native famously pronounces it.
It was in New Orleans at the renowned Commander’s Palace
Restaurant that LaGasse made his mark, but he grew up in New England.
His father, whom he refers to as "Mr. John," has
roots. After having to quit school at the age of 12 to work on a farm
to support his family, he worked for 35 years as a garment dyer in
a textile mill. In the introduction to "From Emeril’s
LaGasse writes that his mother, Miss Hilda, is "a terrific cook
— particularly when she makes the traditional Portuguese dishes
of her heritage." She stayed home to raise Emeril, his brother
Mark (who still lives in Falls River and works in the recreation
and his sister Delores (who works in the business office of Emeril’s
Orlando operations). His parents’ legacy to him, Emeril tells me,
is that "both are really into food. It’s a really important thing
to them, not just a way to get through the day. They have a passion
for food, and they passed that on to me."
Although he had worked in a local Portuguese bakery during high
LaGasse was equally drawn to music, and was offered a scholarship
to the New England Conservatory of Music. He opted instead to go to
culinary school, at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode
Island. From there he spent three months in Europe, working in
in Paris and Lyon, then returned to the U.S. and cooked at several
hotels, including a Sheraton in Philadelphia and Boston’s Parker
In 1983, he was hired by the Brennans, the prominent New Orleans
family, to be executive chef at Commander’s Palace. He took the
hidebound haute Creole cooking there to new heights, creating a new
style he codified in his first cookbook as "New New Orleans
In 1991 he was named "Best Chef in the Southeast" by the James
Beard Foundation, and in 1993 was asked to host a pilot show for a
new cable station, Television Food Network. That show, "How to
Boil Water," bombed, but the next year "Essence of Emeril"
became one of the network’s highest rated shows; it went on to win
two Daytime Emmys. Likewise, in the fall of 2001, he starred in
a doomed sitcom that was pulled from the NBC lineup after just a few
episodes. Yet even that failed to stop the Emeril popularity train.
He could very well be dubbed the Teflon Chef.
"I’m working on improving all the time," says Emeril when
I ask him what makes him such a good businessman. "In my
— and the backbone is the restaurants — I’m constantly trying
to get better. You need to learn something each day. If you’re not
learning something new, you’re not improving."
The corporate umbrella organization for his restaurant empire is
Homebase, in New Orleans, and he takes his role as CEO seriously.
"I have 1,200 people working directly for me — that’s not
counting the television people, they aren’t part of my organization
— I mean those that I’m 100 percent responsible for. If you
that the average family probably has four people, then I’m affecting
5,000 people day to day. One of the things that makes us good
is that we’re good listeners. Since day one, my ear has been to the
ground. You know, not everything I’m doing is 100-percent right. You
have to listen to your customers first and foremost."
The proof seems to be in the expansion of his restaurants during a
time of downturn in the industry and the economy at large.
"We’re definitely going against the grain, but you know, we can’t
be idle. We can’t just sit back and ask, What’s the next bad thing
that’s gonna happen? Instead we have a great team that wants to
to grow and contribute. We have to just go for it, figure it out.
I look at it this way: we’re trying to win the Super Bowl and we have
a great team. I am just the quarterback."
Since his restaurants are popular in tourist towns and resort areas
such as Las Vegas and Orlando, I ask if he has ever thought of opening
one in Atlantic City.
"I’ve had a few opportunities in the past, but the timing wasn’t
right. It’s not about quantity — just opening restaurants —
it’s about the right timing and the whole fit and our formula. Like
our Atlanta restaurant. We started planning it three years ago, and
it just opened. But anything is possible."
LaGasse will turn 44 on October 15, the same day he
is coming to Barnes & Noble in Marketfair for the book-signing (and
to appear beforehand as a guest on a special edition of this writer’s
radio show, to be broadcast live from the MarketFair). Although he
says he is familiar with Cherry Hill and the Philadelphia suburbs,
this will be his first visit to Princeton. Over the years his books
have apparently sold disproportionately well here in the Garden State.
"New Jersey is always big for us," he says. "New Jersey
`gets’ it. They travel, they have the restaurants, they’re into food.
I’m excited about coming."
The new book is something of a departure. "`From Emeril’s
is by no means a ‘basic’ cookbook," he notes. The book features
150 of the most popular dishes and most frequently requested recipes
from all his restaurants, which have concepts varying from New Orleans
Creole and Cajun to old-fashioned steakhouse and fishhouse, and even
to Polynesian. (That last is via his newest Orlando restaurant, Tchoup
Chop). Representative of the book’s elaborate recipes are Fried Green
Tomatoes with Lump Crabmeat and Two Remoulade Sauces, Tasso and
Stuffed Quail with Fig Glaze, Seared Beef Tournedos with Herb-Roasted
Potatoes and Sauce au Poivre, Kick-Butt Gumbo, and a traditionally
sweet Bananas Foster.
These are delicious but often complex, chef-driven recipes created
by him and his stable of executive chefs.
"It’s really a restaurant book," he acknowledges in our
adding, in quintessential Emeril style, "but it is not for chefs
only! All the recipes were tested in home kitchens! This is real
And, he points out, home cooks can choose to make just one or two
components of a dish if an entire recipe seems too complicated.
His prior book reflects the special connection Emeril has with
who are among his biggest fans. "Emeril’s There’s a Chef in My
Soup!" became a New York Times bestseller within two weeks of
its release in March, 2002. He explains his popularity by saying,
"What has happened there is that I have never looked down on kids.
I respect them; they are the future. So I ask myself what I can do
to sort of make them evolve, and maybe not have to wait as long to
learn as I did." A second book aimed at children is coming out
next spring, to be titled "Emeril’s There’s a Chef in My
"I’m concerned about their parents not knowing how to cook,"
he says emphatically. "I’m not just worried about the next
I’m worried about them as families, today. Somebody’s got to pave
He recently launched the Emeril LaGasse Foundation, a non-profit with
a mission to support programs that offer developmental and educational
opportunities for children, especially disadvantaged children within
the communities where Emeril’s restaurants operate.
"We aim to inspire them — mentoring, helping, giving
they might not have otherwise. When I have some time, which isn’t
a lot, I’m spending time building the foundation and making
We just now are in the process of working on a two-year campaign to
build a performing arts center on the Gulf Coast. And we bought a
school bus and fixed the plumbing at St. Michael’s Special School
for Exceptional Children," which is based in New Orleans.
Lagasse is enjoying fatherhood himself these days. His voice is at
its most animated and warm as he describes his baby son,
Emeril John IV, as "the new light of our eye for me and my
and adds, "I just got done playing with him, as a matter of
In May, 2000, LaGasse married Alden Lovelace, a former real estate
manager who travels with her husband, a confirmed workaholic. He has
two daughters from the first of his two previous marriages, Jessica
and Jillian, both in their 20s now.
Asked if his experience of fatherhood is different at
this stage of his life — he’s not only older, but at a remarkably
different point in his career — he answers, "With my
I was working at least two jobs just to stay afloat. I was a young
whippersnapper. I’m probably working more now, but it’s totally
and I’m totally different."
He claims he cooks for his family almost every day. "But simple
things, like roast chicken and smothered pork chops. Just last night
I made a simple fish and veggies. I cook almost every day," he
says. I ask him what he would choose to do if he ever decided to cut
back on his activities or even retire, how he would spend his time
and where he would live.
"You know, I have no regrets. I have a pretty nice set up in New
Orleans, so I’d stay there. I’d be working on my next career: my golf
game. I’d be working to play in the Senior PGA." This conjures
in my mind’s eye visions of an elderly Emeril hitting a golf ball
and bellowing "Bam!"
— Pat Tanner
Book signing by culinary star for his newest cookbook, "From
Kitchens." Free. Wednesday, October 15, 4 p.m.
Emeril LaGasse, Center Court, Marketfair, and broadcast over WHWH
1350 AM. Wednesday, October 15, 3 p.m.
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