How one Massachusetts-born chef changed Creole food for a nation.
"The Food Network is not why I have 12 restaurants," says chef Emeril Lagasse. He's reflecting on the dozen-restaurant empire that sparked 25 years ago this month, with the opening of his eponymous New Orleans classic, Emeril's. While television watchers everywhere have witnessed the majority of Lagasse's career unfold on screen, it's the years Lagasse spent honing his craft in New Orleans that provided the foundation for his success.
It would be hard to argue that Lagasse's finest achievement to date is anything but donating upwards of six million dollars to New Orleans and Gulf Coast schoolchildren in the past decade, despite the fact that Sammy Hagar keeps showing up to his charity events in silk pajamas. But how did Lagasse even get to the point of earning the James Beard Foundation's 2013 Humanitarian of the Year Award, having more than 800 employees, and bringing New Orleans cuisine (and cooking in general) to the mass public? Lagasse is emphatic: "It all started at Emeril's on Tchoup."
For Lagasse, the journey to Emeril's began in 1982. At just 23 years old, he took over one of the most prominent restaurants in the country at Commander's Palace, where celebrity chef and godfather of modern Creole cuisine Paul Prudhomme previously reigned. Despite never having spent much time in New Orleans — and having only a rudimentary understanding of the importance of Louisiana's culinary heritage to American culture — the Massachusetts-born Lagasse quickly excelled under the tutelage of Dick and Ella Brennan, two of the city's most respected restaurateurs from one of the city's most notorious families.
"Ella and Dick were very tough," Lagasse notes. The Brennans pushed him to cook better, to work harder, and his love affair with the Crescent City began. Lagasse visited Ella Brennan in her home every Saturday to read and talk food, wine, and what the most cutting-edge restaurants and chefs of the day were doing. "Ella gave me a lot of advice," Lagasse says. So much so that by his last two years on the job, Lagasse was functioning as both chef and general manager, a feat that seems almost unfathomable considering the scale of operation.
"New Orleans in the 1980s was a time of strong tradition. I never disrespected tradition." — Emeril Lagasse
"New Orleans in the 1980s was a time of strong tradition," Lagasse says. "I never disrespected tradition. I always enhanced it," which is a nicer way of saying Lagasse — a self-proclaimed "aggressive" kid who some considered a "hothead" — found himself wanting to push the envelope. But to get there, he had to do his research.
"Not until you understand the culture do you understand the food," Lagasse says. He obsessed over local food, talked to people about what Louisiana and the Gulf had to offer in terms of bounty. Suddenly he found himself on fishing trips, going to the country, accompanying oyster luggers, and learning about Louisiana's various foodways. He started a farm cooperative in Mississippi with local chefs Gerard Maras and Frank Brigtsen, raising hogs, quail, rabbits, and produce. The restaurant sourced directly from the land in the days when "farm-to-table" wasn't an industry catchphrase so much as a cult interest, Lagasse turned his forage into everything from goat cheese to housemade Worcestershire sauce. Commander's clientele were eating it up, and the Brennans allowed Lagasse to experiment, giving him the opportunity to express himself — within bounds.
"We were in the middle of service on a very, very busy night and Ella handed me a piece of paper," Lagasse recalls. "She said, 'Just put it in your pocket and read it later when you come up for air.' She was just a little bit sarcastic. Later, I read the paper. It said, 'When you wake up tomorrow, leave your ego at home.'"
Reinventing Creole Cuisine
After seven-and-a-half years at Commander's Palace, Lagasse packed up his knives and checked his ego to open his own spot in the Warehouse District. "It was very scary," he notes, thinking back to the pre-opening days. "Just a really scary time." Today, New Orleans's Warehouse District brims with pristine galleries, new condos, and even newer yoga studios. Destination restaurants dot every corner — Peche, Root, La Boca to name a few — as do museums and hotels. But when Lagasse opened Emeril's in March 1990, the neighborhood had few residents and fewer streetlights. He would often arrive at the construction site and find homeless people squatting in the space.
Lagasse locked himself in an office a block from the restaurant, spending 15-hour days writing and testing his menu — resulting in dishes like now-famous riffs on barbecue shrimp, banana cream pie, and andouille-crusted redfish. "Today those dishes kind of seem... ugh, okay," he admits. "But if you think [back to] 25 years ago, those dishes were so cutting-edge for New Orleans." And that's not because New Orleans had never seen barbecue shrimp before: It was a classic, albeit a messy one, but Lagasse had made it his own, adding extractions that came from the shells of the shrimp. "The shells were something that I didn't want people to fuss with in a restaurant," Lagasse says. "A lot of thought went into that."
In Emeril's pre-opening days, Lagasse hand-selected his entire staff, including a GM from Commander's Palace, Eric Linquest, who still oversees the restaurant empire today. Lagasse had very little money, and when it was time to open, the team did so on a whim, with no announcement and no reservations in the books. "We got slammed," Lagasse says now. "Maybe 80 covers unannounced." Emeril's closed the next day just so the staff could get their heads above water.
The first months passed in a whirlwind, with Lagasse waking at 5a.m. to collect his day's haul from purveyors, meeting Linquest at the restaurant around 7a.m to prep, and sleeping only a couple hours a night. In the early days, "there was so much energy there, the place practically bounced," remembers Emeril Homebase's director of operations Tony Lott, who started working in the Emeril's empire as a busboy. Locals reveled in the reinvented Creole dishes, and the critics took notice. The first "major shocker" for Emeril's was a visit from the Times-Pic food reviewer at the time, Gene Bourg. Bourg had never given any restaurant in New Orleans a five "bean" review, as far as Lagasse could tell. Terrified, he sent a server off into the early-morning darkness to find an advance copy of the paper. What they found inside: Emeril's had received the unachievable five beans.
The review was a game changer. Next came John Mariani, naming Emeril's "Restaurant of the Year" in Esquire. A Wine Spectator "Grand Award" followed in 1991, as did Emeril's JBFA for Best Chef South. By that time, people from all over the country wanted reservations, and Lagasse motivated his staff but to exceed expectations. How he did so still drives the way his empire runs today.
The Emeril's Team
"I wouldn't ask anybody on my team to do anything I wouldn't do," Emeril swears. "Every day is a chance to learn something new. Every day we have to do better than the day before." Before Lagasse had an 800-person staff, before Emeril's was even open, the team would meet on the roof of his office building for pre-meal, an informative show-and-tell for somms, servers, and chefs alike to share and soak up information on food and drink. Education, Lagasse believes, fosters better service just as much as passion. In a city known for honoring tradition, Lagasse was quick to shape his own — his training and policies, his signature dishes, a loyal staff — and to maintain them. "Dick Brennan was the one that always reinforced, it's no different than a football team, or a basketball team," Lagasse says of his management philosophy. "It's a team, and that's the way I look at it. I'm the quarterback, and we're all trying to win the Super Bowl."
In the mid-'90s, Lagasse's television career took off, with 'Emeril Live' launching in 1997.
Granted, only one of them became a television star. While Lagasse was launching his career on the boob tube — The Essence of Emeril debuted in 1993, with Emeril Live following in 1997 — he was simultaneously building his restaurant empire. "I'm a businessman," Lagasse says, noting that he "didn't want to be the revolving door of New Orleans," watching good cooks leave after getting trained. Out of a need to give his existing staff more opportunities for growth, NOLA, Lagasse's first expansion, arrived in 1993. Delmonico and the Fish House in Vegas followed.
Today, seeing employees go from a busser to a director of operations — the way Tony Lott did — is still the name of the game in the Lagasse camp. Several employees are members of the 20-to-25 year club — like chefs Chris Wilson and Mike Olsen and manager Kevin Delaune — and it's because Lagasse gave the staff who "wanted more responsibility and to make more money" a chance to do so, and still does.
The Future of Emeril's
When Lagasse slips into his flagship restaurant, he can sense the mode of the kitchen in five minutes. "A lot of people in his position don't have to show up," chef de cuisine David Slater says. "And he continues to. He knows who's working in his restaurants." Slater came to work as a sous at Emeril's eight years ago, two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In the aftermath of the storm, Lagasse set Slater up to stage with Mario Batali in New York. He did the same for others, including transferring employees to his various expansions until Emeril's could reopen.
"People were really hard on him," says chef Chris Wilson, culinary director at Emeril's Homebase. Critics saw Lagasse was on a cookbook press tour, that he wasn't in New Orleans himself — although he was raising awareness in the press, helping take care of his displaced employees, and rebuilding his restaurants. "I think it tore him up a bit," Wilson says of the criticism.
Today, New Orleans boasts more than 1,400 places to eat, almost twice the number of pre-Katrina operations.
Emeril's bounced back after Katrina, but challenges are a natural part of running a restaurant. Today, New Orleans boasts more than 1,400 places to eat, almost twice the number of pre-Katrina operations. The cultural landscape is rapidly changing in New Orleans, especially when it comes to cuisine: Vietnamese, Chinese, Lebanese, Ethiopian and more ethnic options are now widely available across the city, in both authentic and unapologetically inauthentic forms. What does Lagasse think of this boom, which he essentially led 25 years ago? "I've always looked at competition as being healthy," Lagasse says. "It just makes everything grow. So it's very exciting to be a part of New Orleans today, yesterday, where we're going. There's so much variety, so in essence, people have to be that much better. That's good. That's healthy."
As for where the flagship restaurant is going, Slater seems willing to push boundaries with the menu — offering heaping family-style boards of truffled fried chicken, plays on pho and chicken wings, and an "Omagasse" tasting menu at the restaurant's immaculate food bar, where he concocts dishes on the fly. While the wine program, white tablecloths, and captains on the floor speak to a different era, there's an air of fun emanating from the kitchen as Emeril's seeks to redefine Creole once again — this time, with the tiniest glimmer of irreverence. Lagasse seems okay with that.
"He's a little out there," Lagasse says, doting on chef Slater, who is busy arranging a month full of buy-outs, charity events, and throwback menus. "But I'm a little out there, too."