Tonight the new show The Originals With Emeril premieres on the Cooking Channel at 10:30PM ET/7:30PM PT. Hosted by the omnipresent television host, restaurateur, and chef Emeril Lagasse, the series has him travel to a different city each week to get a behind-the-scenes look at historic eateries. In tonight's episode, Emeril heads to San Francisco and visits the Buena Vista Café, the Swan Oyster Depot, and the Tadich Grill, home of The Hangtown Fry.
Over the phone, we spoke about the inspiration for the show, the secrets to a restaurant's longevity, and what lessons he learned along the way. Also below, a couple of exclusive clips from the show in which Emeril visits the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston (airing 5/12), where he worked as a sous chef way back in the day.
So how did The Originals come about?
As you know, I've kind of been with the Food Network since the beginning, so I've done a lot of shows with them. Basically, I got contacted by a group out of Los Angeles called Authentic Entertainment... Once I got into it and got the idea of the show, it kind of excited me because of a few things: It seems like everybody is trying to do everything new, and this was something to do that was something old — you know, restaurants that have been around maybe 50, 60, 75, 100 years old. So that kind of excited me from a food perspective.
It isn't so much a cooking show — although there is a segment on every show where I work with the chef or restaurateur about this specialty or their specialty that maybe they've been doing for 50 years and still doing it right.
They put you to work?
Yeah, there's a little bit of that. You know, the cool thing for me is understanding the history of the restaurant and the city where the restaurant is — and the owner, because in some cases it could be the third, fourth, even fifth generations that are passing on the torch.
And then, of course, beside talking and working with the owner/restaurateur, really getting into it from a customer perspective and from a staff perspective. At a lot of these places, I've talked to staff members who have been around 40 years. I want to show people that there are a lot of these places that are still doing it right. There's a reason they are around and have been around for so long.
In your opinion, what are the secrets to longevity?
Well, I think that, first and foremost, it's certainly the passion of wanting to do it from that particular family. Secondly, there's a sense of pride — in not only ownership, but pride in having a clientele where they're seeing second or third generations of families. Then, I would say, certainly, in most cases, it is really centered around quality. Whether it's the beef — say, how they do the beef at a place like Peter Luger's — or how they cook and deliver the hamburgers, say, at a place like Apple Pan in Los Angeles — or discovering where the original French Dip came from in the case of Phillipe's.
For me, not only is this educational arena going to happen for the viewer, but I think there's going to be some younger generations that are going to say, "Hey, I never knew about the 21 Club in New York. I want to check this out and see what this is all about." And then experience a sense of really, as the show is called, it being "an original".
So, in a way, it's a historical record?
Yeah. It's kinda cool. We're always looking for the newest, hottest place that opened, but what about the place that's been open for 67 years? You know, for example: the Tadich Grill in San Francisco, or the Parker House in Boston that not only created the Parker House rolls but created the Boston cream pie. So, there's that sense of history and realism, but there's also a little modernism because, obviously, the original person that opened the place is no longer there, so maybe it's the grandson or the granddaughter.
Did you learn anything as a restaurateur? I mean, Emeril's in New Orleans opened in—
I didn't make the cut. Raphael, my man, I didn't make the cut. I've only been there 22 years.
But was there anything you learned and that you can apply to your own business?
You know, I learned a long time ago that, in this business, if you don't learn something every day, you're basically cheating yourself. Because there's so much to learn in this industry — whether it's something about service or, importantly for me, about cuisine — that you could do it for a hundred years and still have only tapped the surface of what the world of cuisine is.
Any particular examples?
Well, the Swan Oyster Bar in San Francisco... I got up at the crack of dawn with these guys — three generations — we went down to the wharf, graded and picked the crab, practically right off the boat. What they were going to serve that day. Went to another fish house and graded and picked the fish of what they were going to sell and serve. That's always very, very interesting and educational for me, no matter what.
Another example being at Antoine's in New Orleans, the old way of really putting together and making baked Alaska — which sounds silly, but there's an art form to it... And the thing is so popular that the chef has to take it off the menu right now and you have to order it by request — so you have to kind of be in the know. Because it's become so popular.
One can only be so lucky.
You know, I had a mind-opening experience with the daughter — third generation — at Peter Luger's... We started very early in the morning down in the Meatpacking District, and she was taught by her grandmother and her mother how to grade and look for the proper prime grade of meat. So she taught me that. And she had her own stamp, her mom has her own stamp, the grandmother had her own stamp—and there's a reason for that, obviously, so that the meat doesn't get caught in the mix of someone else and that you're getting what you actually graded and inspected.
And the whole process of, from there, to being delivered to being dry-aged in the dry-aged room, etc. It was fascinating to me. And I own a great steakhouse in Las Vegas and New Orleans and think that I knew a lot about steak. But that's the point of The Originals — it's that they've been in business for so long and they're packed every night because they are doing it, still, the way they did it fifty or sixty years ago.
Finally, are you going to be at the Beard Awards?
I am. I'm somehow — I'm kind of like the Susan Lucci of the Beard Awards. I think for the 14th year I'm up for a service award for Emeril's in New Orleans. And I'm also up for a TV award for a show that I did — Emeril Green — that was on a farm in Vermont. And I'm presenting — but I'm not sure yet what I'm presenting. But I will be there, God willing, and my wife will be there, hopefully.
Exclusive Video: The Originals With Emeril at Omni Parker House Hotel, Part 1
Exclusive Video: The Originals With Emeril at Omni Parker House Hotel, Part 2