Interview with Chef Emeril Lagasse, Part I

Chef Emeril Lagasse is a household name. With his larger than life personality and his trademarked phrases like Bam! and Take it up a notch!, Chef Emeril is a living legend. Before Emeril's celebrity status, though, he was a chef who risked it all to open a restaurant in a questionable part of New Orleans. That gamble paid off big time. Emeril now has a television show (with a second one, Emeril's Roadhouse, debuting in late Spring), cookbooks, cookware and eleven restaurants. We had the opportunity to sit down with the legend himself, to ask him about his restaurants and his adopted city of New Orleans

Clean Plate Charlie: I've noticed that many of your employees have been with you for a long time. What's your key to having loyal employees?

Chef Emeril Lagasse: We've been doing this for a while. I don't want to be near anybody that's going to cause any drama. We have a great environment. We have a mission that we're trying to do, whether that's the restaurants, publishing or television. Most of the people in my organization have been with me a long time. Not only in New Orleans and here in Miami, but in Las Vegas - it makes life easier when you have people that understand what you're trying to do, what you're trying to accomplish.

A lot of people think Emeril and New Orleans are interchangeable - but you're not actually from New Orleans.

Emeril's is 22 years old and before that I was at Commanders. So I've been in New Orleans for almost 30 years. After a period of time you get the key to the city.

When did you fall in love with New Orleans?

I went there in 1982 to take over Commanders Palace. I began a farm cooperative in Mississippi and began realizing everything from scratch. It took 6-8 months but I totally took that restaurant from scratch and had a really great time.

During that time I fell in love with the city. It's pretty easy to fall in love - the people, the architecture, the music and the food. I think the food is really special, It's hard to describe. I think San Francisco may have some elements of those things, but New Orleans is very special.

A lot of my food colleague friends, whether its Mario Batatli or Charlie Trotter, when they come to New Orleans and really experience the food they realize it doesn't have to be just fine dining. Dollar for dollar it has to be the best food city in America.

What made you open Emerils in the warehouse district?

I lived in the warehouse district. I lived across the street from where the restaurant would eventually be. The two gentlemen that were developing the building were customers of mine at Commanders Palace, actually. They were really good guys and sort of cutting edge and they said you should do a restaurant across the street. It was a blown out space with homeless people. Finally I looked at the space and said if I was going to do something, this would be me with the exposed brick. I was first going to do a restaurant with Ellen Brennan but she wanted to do a restaurant in the French Quarter and I didn't want to do a restaurant in the French Quarter. So I gave up one of the top ten chef jobs in America and totally went on my own with no money.

How did you get funding?

I finally convinced the most conservative bank in the south, The Whitney Bank to give me a loan. I got turned down from everybody because they're either friends of the Brennans and didn't want to do that to them or because at the time the restaurant industry in New Orleans was horrible because of the oil and gas business. If someone opened a restaurant they would fail rather quickly. I finally got a loan and I renovated a lot of the restaurant myself and we opened. It's been a great journey, not an easy journey but a great journey.

And then you opened NOLA and started to build your empire.

Two years after opening Emeril's I realized it was becoming a revolving door, meaning people would come and learn and leave. I had people that really wanted to stay and grow. That was really the drive and inspiration for me to open NOLA in that I had a handful of people that wanted to stay, not only culinary-wise, but front of the house. 

The third restaurant was in Las Vegas and that was basically before anybody was in Vegas. There was Wolfgang, he owned a cafe, and Mark Miller and Charlie Trotter for a very short time. MGM contacted me and then we went out there and it was like, OK, alright. They thought I was crazy because I wanted to do a fish house in Las Vegas in the desert. I moved twelve people to Las Vegas from New Orleans. Out of those twelve people, ten are still with me sixteen years later in Las Vegas.

Then you became a "celebrity chef" and started the celebrity chef movement. How did that come about? 

I was very content on just having one restaurant then when we opened NOLA I was very content with having two restaurants that were nine blocks apart so I could really travel in between the two. The whole thing in Las Vegas was an opportunity.

During that time in Las Vegas, I received a call from some production company in Nashville. They were a husband and wife team and they said there was this channel that was starting and it was going to be nothing but food and they're looking for programming and I has no idea what they meant. I mean, I was a chef. They asked me to do a pilot and I didn't even know what that was . There was a friend of mine Merle Ellis who has a show called The Butcher and he vouched for them. To make a long story short, I went to Nashville and I worked like I never worked in my life - doing a pilot took all day. Then I never really thought much about it.

After a while, I get a call from the President of The Food Network who asked would you consider doing a show for us called How to Boil Water? I asked what it was and he said it was a very basic show - making grilled cheese this and that - teaching people the basics on how to cook and I did that and it was horrible looking back at it now

Then he called back and said he had good news and bad news. He said the good news is that you're really great cook and a pretty good teacher and the bad news is that you're totally overqualified for the show so were firing you. A few weeks went by and he called and said come to New York and let's talk. Basically in two days he and I and a lady in the room figured out there should be a show called The Essence of Emeril., which is my background because I'm American schooled and classically trained.

Stay tuned to see how Emeril turned Bam! into his trademark in part II of our interview, coming soon.  

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times, covering the restaurant and bar scene in South Florida. She has been featured on Cooking Channel’s Eat Street and Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race. Doss won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature on what it’s like to wait tables. In a previous life, she appeared off-Broadway and shook many a cocktail as a bartender at venues in South Florida and New York City. When she’s not writing, you can find Doss running some marathon then celebrating at the nearest watering hole.
Contact: Laine Doss