America's favorite "Bam!" man, Chef Emeril Lagasse has taken Louisiana–style cuisine and "kicked it up another notch." Chef Emeril commands a $65 million dollar Creole culinary empire that includes six restaurants, two hot cooking shows on cable's Food Network, cooking correspondent for ABC's Good Morning America, and cookbook sales that tally in the millions. In fall 2001 this Cajun crossover served up his own, self–titled sitcom on NBC.
In the early 1980s he was divorced from his first wife, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher with whom he had two daughters, Jillian and Jessica. He married fashion designer Tari Hohn in 1989, who helped him in design and development, but they divorced in 1996. In a small private ceremony in New Orleans, on May 13, 2000, Lagasse married Alden Lovelace, a real estate broker. The next day, they celebrated with guests at a fais–do–do, a Louisiana–style dance party, held at one of Lagasse's eateries.
The critical raves for Emeril's establishments were immediate and overwhelming. Emeril's Restaurant won a "five bean" rating from critic Gregory Roberts and in 1990 was named "Restaurant of the Year" by John Mariani of Esquire magazine. Emeril was dubbed "Best Southeastern Regional Chef" by the James Beard Foundation and also received the prized Ivy Award. His restaurant NOLA has garnered top honors from Travel& Leisure, Traveler, and Southern Living magazines. Zagat also named Emeril's New Orleans Fish House "Best Restaurant in Las Vegas."
Before becoming one of the best–known celebrity chefs, Lagasse was born October 15, 1959, and raised in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where his French–Canadian father, Emeril Jr., worked in a textile mill and his Portuguese mother, Hilda, was a homemaker who loved to cook. The family also included an older sister, Delores, now a computer operator, and younger brother Mark, a sewing machine mechanic. At age seven, after assisting his mother with a pot of vegetable soup, Lagasse realized the joy of cooking. "I was kind of viewed as a weird kid because I liked food," he told People Weekly. Active in sports and music, Lagasse played in a Portuguese band with older musicians. He taught himself to play trombone, trumpet, and flute but especially favored the drums. However, he always gravitated toward cooking and baking.
Lagasse's first job at age ten was washing dishes in a Portuguese bakery. He gradually became skilled at baking breads and cakes, enjoying the fact that customers took pleasure in his products. "I would just see how happy people were when they came into the bakery," he recalled to Molly O'Neill in the New York Times Magazine. After graduating from high school, he turned down a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music to pursue his dream, trading in his drums for pots and pans. He worked his way through the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University, graduating with a doctorate degree in 1978. After learning the classic techniques in the kitchens of Paris and Lyons, France, Lagasse returned to the States, perfecting his craft in restaurants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Lagasse's expertise caught the eye of Ella Brennan, the noted queen of the New Orleans restaurant scene. Her family owned the landmark restaurant Commander's Palace and was seeking a new chef to replace the legendary Paul Prudomme. In the early 1980s, Brennan became Lagasse's mentor when he was taking the reins as new executive chef at the Washington Avenue eatery. Lagasse was thrilled with the city and its epicurean attitude toward food. There, he learned the secrets of the spicy cuisine and how best to interpret the flavors through his Portuguese background. "After coming to New Orleans," Lagasse remarked to Mary Beth Romig–Price in New Orleans Magazine, "I instantly fell in love with this place, the heritage, the culture, the food, and the music. The city resembles my own years growing up in Massachusetts, especially the warmth of the people, and I am very lucky to have enjoyed tremendous acceptance in the community."
But times weren't always "happy happy"" for Lagasse. After seven–and–a–half years working with Brennan, Lagasse was critically acclaimed as a leading recipe wrangler, and he decided to set off on his own gastronomic venture. Living in the city's trendy new Warehouse District, he realized the area was dotted with art galleries but only offered one restaurant, and that only open for breakfast and lunch. Seeing the possibility, he obtained an empty space and began drawing evening visitors to the neighborhood. It was an uncertain time for Lagasse. He had established a sedate clientele at Commander's Palace and was moving into unfamiliar territory. No financial institution was willing to take a risk on the budding entrepreneur; however, due to his persistence and self–reliance, one bank finally relented. In a small borrowed office space, the chef–proprietor developed his business concepts. The list included the budgets, the interior design, the kitchen layout, the demographics, and the wine list. In 1990 along with a devoted staff of 34, he opened the doors of what would become his flagship business Emeril's Restaurant. By years end, the critics were dazzled and Lagasse was primed for prominence. In 1992 he branched out to another location with NOLA, a hip bistro in the French Quarter. In 1995 he added a third annex with Emeril's Fish House in the majestic MGM Grand Hotel in South Las Vegas, Nevada. Later he opened Delmonico Restaurant and Bar in New Orleans Garden District, Emeril's Restaurant Orlando at Universal Studios City Walk, and lastly Delmonico Steakhouse in the Venetian/Resort/Hotel/Casino.
Chronology: Emeril Lagasse
1978: Graduated Johnson and Wales University with a doctorate degree in culinary arts.
1993: Published first cookbook, New New OrleansCooking.
1994: Began taping Essence of Emeril.
1997: Started production on Emeril Live.
1998: Made the "Most Intriguing People of the Year" list by People magazine.
2000: Publisher Harper Collins announced Chef Emeril's books top the 2 million mark.
2001: Chef Emeril reached the 1000th show milestone for the Food Network.
2001: : NBS premiered Tuesday night sitcom starring Emeril Lagasse.
Lagasse's menus feature "new New Orleans" cuisine, which is based on traditional Cajun and Creole dishes, but with his own twists inspired by Asian, Italian, and regional American cuisines. Some of his concoctions include stir fry of crawfish over fried noodles with sesame and ginger sauce, corn cakes with caviar, smoked duck with wild mushroom gumbo, crawfish–stuffed filet mignon, foie gras bread pudding, and pork chops with tamarind glazed roasted sweet potatoes and green chile mole sauce. Desserts are equally rich, as exemplified by the goat cheese cheesecake with Creole cream cheese coulis. All of the items are made from scratch. He makes his own cheese and ice cream, and he raises hogs so that he can produce farm–fresh andouille sausage, ham, and bacon. Lagasse believes in using only organically grown produce and the finest of all ingredients, keeping a base of ranchers, farmers, and fisherman on hand to supply him with top quality goods. Lagasse commented to Rick Marin in Newsweek, "America got so wrapped up in healthy, healthy, healthy, they forgot what eating was like." Although he seems to be the arch enemy of heart–smart promoters, he asserted to Carolyn Walkup in Nation's Restaurant News, "Moderation is everything. I take health into consideration in my cooking." Lagasse convinced his parents to move south from Massachusetts to join him in making the business a family operation. His father, nicknamed Mr. John, regularly helps out in all aspects of the day–to–day operations.
Chef Lagasse has emerged as a top national TV chef. In 1993 the cable channel The Food Network tapped the congenial chef to host his own televised cooking show, Essence of Emeril. Until then, Lagasse's recipes were a regional treat, accessible only to those who visited him on location. The show propelled the chef into the nation's living rooms and became the highest rated program on the network. Never using a script, the ragin' Cajun bustles around the onstage kitchen with gesticulations and proclamations, slam–dunking ingredients with a "Bam!" or "Hey Now!" and encouraging viewers to "kick it up a notch," which means to be generous when adding spices. He flies to New York to tape the show, where he always invites members of the audience to taste his creations. Each day, Chef Emeril turns up the heat in 50 million homes nationwide. Essence received two Emmy nods for 2001 and was voted by Time magazine as one of the "Top 10 TV Shows" in 1996. Live has won a Cable Ace Award for "Best Informational Series." In 1998 he created his own website, Emerils.com, which gets more than 300,000 hits a month.
Chef Emeril has penned six books including Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking, Louisiana Real and Rustic, Emeril's Creole Christmas, Emeril's TV Dinners, Every Day's A Party, and his latest Primetime Emeril. He also plans to begin reaching the public at a young age with a children's book, There's a Chef in My Soup, reportedly in the works.
In 2001, NBC announced that Lagasse would star in a sitcom loosely based on the chef's real life. The half hour comedy was developed by top TV talent Linda Bloodworth and directed by her husband Harry Tomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade). "We have a show featuring great food and the wonderfully charismatic Emeril who is surrounded by self–assured, terminally opinionated women," reported Bloodworth to NBC. "What's not to like?" Lagasse sees the jump to primetime as just another challenge. "It shouldn't be too difficult," he exclaims to NBC. "I play myself—passionate about food, cooking and making it all fun. Life should be fun. This type of show hasn't been done before and I'm excited to see the outcome."
Social and Economic Impact
Chef Lagasse oversees a Southern–style food empire that employs 975 people and has taken his Cajun creations across the nation. With his everyday approach, he's made haute cuisine feel more homestyle. No longer the domain of snooty gourmets, food programs have been transformed into a world of fast–paced, down–to–earth fun and entertainment. Lagasse has helped, spark new interest in the art of food, adding zip to the usually sedate world of the how–to cooking show. Throughout his career, he's served up his success with a zesty concoction of comedy and cooking.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Emeril Lagasse
638 Camp St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
"About Emeril." The Food Network, 11 July 2000. Available at http://www.emerils.com.
"Chef Emeril Lagasse Biography." The Food Network, 3 April 1998. Available at http://www.foodtv.com.
The Cincinnati Post. 23 June 2001.
"Emeril Biography." NBC, October 2001. Available at http://www.nbc.com.
"Emeril Lagasse." January Magazine, November 2000.
"Emeril Lagasse, NBC Cook UP a Sitcom with Fizzle not Sizzle." The Detroit News, 23 July 2001.
"Emeril Lagasse Ready for Role as Sitcom Chef." New York Daily News, 27 July 2001.
"Emeril Review." Variety, 24 September 2001.
Lagasse, Emeril, Marcelle Bienvenu, and Felicia Willett. Every Day's A Party, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1999.
Nation's Restaurant News, January 1997.
Newsweek, 31 March 1997.
People Weekly, 28 May 2001.
People Weekly, 28 December 1998.
"Recipe for Success." Entertainment Weekly, 13 November 1998.
Restaurant Report, 2001.
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