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Emeril Lagasse's Secrets to Career Longevity

An hour-long chat with the guy who cooked for astronauts and made it rain white truffle flakes at Sammy Hagar's wedding.

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Emeril Lagasse is the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner behind 12 restaurants across the country, including the 25-year-old Emeril’s in New Orleans and Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in Las Vegas. Lagasse has authored 18 cookbooks during his career, and he has starred in numerous TV shows, including The Essence of Emeril, which premiered in 1997. Lagasse is currently the host of Emeril’s Florida on the Cooking Channel.  His new book, Essential Emeril, hits stands on October 6.

In the eleventh episode of The Eater Upsell, Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito talk with Emeril about growing an empire, listening to your staff, and how food TV evolved into what it is today.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 11: Emeril Lagasse, edited to the main interview. Want to listen to Helen and Greg talk about the feeling you get when you realize you're at a bad restaurant? Hit play on the track above.

Emeril: I’m delighted to be here. Thanks so much for having us.

Greg: What do we have right here? This is —

Helen: In front of me I have a copy of Emeril’s upcoming cookbook.

Emeril: Yes, Essential Emeril.

Helen: Which comes out October 6, right?

Emeril: That’s right.

Helen: And this is your, what, 18th cookbook?

Emeril: I lost count.

Helen: I started counting.

Emeril: Somewhere around that neighborhood.

Helen: I had to do, like, the third hand, and then I was in the fourth hand. And I

was like, oh —

Emeril: Right.

Helen: How do you keep the juices flowing?

Emeril: Well, I haven’t written a book in quite a few years now, so this one here is very special. It’s not really a memoir, but it’s probably as close to one as you will get for me, particularly. Every recipe in the book is extremely special. They all have a meaning, so they either have a story, or an influence, or they're technique-driven, and I think that the book Essential Emeril is just that. It’s a journey for probably 30 years of where I’ve been and who has influenced me along the way. So there’s quite a bit inside of that book — you know, from peeling to how to make a roux to lots of lots of technique. It was very important for me to share that with, hopefully, a lot of readers that are going to come on to this. Every recipe in there is very special. So it could be a childhood memory, or it could be a New Orleans memory, or it could be the journey, you know, being influenced by Mr. Vergé, or by Julia Child, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s...there’s a lot in there.

Helen: Your journey has been somewhat geographically peripatetic. You were born in Massachusetts, right?

Emeril: Correct.

Helen: And you’re this titan of New Orleans cooking, but Massachusetts has its own very distinct culinary style, and that whole area of New England.

Emeril: Yes, yeah. There’s one of the dishes inside of the book is what I call "Fall River Chow Mein." Fall River is not necessarily known for Chinese cuisine — more for Portuguese cuisine, and its people and culture. But there’s a place that influenced me growing up. And, you know, in my travels, I’d never had chow mein anywhere like it before. It has its own very distinction, this particular Chinese food in Fall River.

Helen: What’s it like?

Emeril: It’s very different than Boston. This particular one has pork and celery, et cetera, et cetera, and the noodles are from scratch. And it was a place that I would go to as a child and it was a big influence. And so that’s exactly what Essential Emeril really is — all those stories and people and places that have really influenced me along the way.

Greg: So as a kid, were you someone who wanted to be a chef? Did you want to grow up and do that, or did that come later in life?

Emeril: I was about 10 years old when I really started getting into cooking. I also had a music background, so it turned out to be in high school that I turned down a scholarship to music school to pay to go to cooking school. So —

Greg: What was your instrument?

Emeril: Percussion. Percussion major.

Helen: Is there where "Bam!" came from?

Emeril: No, no. "Bam!" was after that.

Helen: I mean, it’s a very percussive noise.

Emeril: Yeah, "Bam!" was after that. "Bam!" was, probably, certainly driven by percussion, for sure, exactly.

Helen: There’s something in your head that, like, stuck that in there.

Greg: You play drums?

Emeril: Yes.

Greg: Like rock drumming?

Emeril: I played a lot of instruments, but percussion was my major. I played classic music. I played rock and roll. I played jazz. I played, really, just a bit of everything.

Helen: Were you in any bands?

Emeril: I was. I was.

Helen: What did you guys make? Like, were you good?

Emeril: Well, I don't know.

Helen: I guess so.

Emeril: I thought we were pretty good.

Helen: Is any band full of high-schoolers ever really good?

Emeril: I played it quite seriously. So I toured a little bit, mostly in the northern part of the United States and Canada. It’s another life.

Greg: So you turned down — 

We had a vegetable garden, and my first dish that I learned how to make was vegetable soup, with my mom, on a stool

Emeril: Well, my mom was a big influence. So I think my first dish was probably when I was seven. We had a vegetable garden, and my first dish that I learned how to make was vegetable soup, with my mom, on a stool. And, you know, god willing, she’ know, she’s still alive, and we still talk food as often as we can. That was probably the first influence of cooking, was with her.

Helen: So how did you get from Massachusetts and — you went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales, right, in Rhode Island?

Emeril: Yes, in Providence. Right.

Helen: So how did you get from, like, core New England down to New Orleans? What’s that path?

Emeril: Well, I am fortunate — I was American-schooled, but I was classically trained. So had a lot of influences, and I was working mostly in the New England area. Anywhere from New York to Maine while I was going to school and after school. I then joined a very interesting hotel company called Dunphy Hotels, which is now Omni. But I wasn’t really so much a hotel guy as I was a restaurant guy, right? So they really brought me in to sort of do the restaurant part of things. I had some great mentors along the way there, and lived in New York City for a bit, and that’s where I met Wolfgang Puck, who was probably my first influence on a serious basis.

Greg: Where did you live in New York when you lived here?

Emeril: I lived in Queens, actually. I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan. I took the train. You know, it was one of those journeys. Great experience.

Helen: Did you work with Puck at a restaurant here?

Emeril: I did.

Helen: Which restaurant was that?

Emeril: Well, he was at Ma Maison, and Dunphy Hotels, at Hyatt, the folks Patrick Terrail and Wolfgang from Ma Maison — to open a hotel project here called, um, it was on 50th Street. It’s now the Omni. But it wasn’t Omni then, it was Dunphy Hotel. So they had a restaurant, sort of like a seasons concept, that they hired me and brought me in for, and Wolfgang sort of oversaw the restaurant project and then slowly moved up to sous-chef. It was very hard getting a job then, you know, in the ’70s in New York, because there weren’t really any American cooks. They were all, you know, either German or French, et cetera. So —

Helen: Continental was still the thing, right?

Emeril: Right. It was very difficult. So, anyhow, Wolfgang, we worked together. And to answer your question, I had met a person that was very, very close to the Brennan family. And in 1982, they were actually looking to bring on a new chef in New Orleans to take over Paul Prudhomme’s slot. Paul had just opened K-Paul’s with his wife, Kay, and was still on, but he was also still at Commander’s. I interviewed for the job, which was quite an experience, just the interview itself.

Helen: What was that like?

Emeril: It was long. It was months. You know, they were very thorough, and very particular about what they wanted and who they wanted to have.

Greg: This restaurant has a legacy that goes back, like, a century, right?

Emeril: Yeah, yeah, it's amazing. So in 1982, I took over the chef’s job there. I moved to New Orleans and took over Commander's Palace. Later, besides being the chef, I was also the general manager of the restaurant. So I ran the restaurant from the kitchen, which is very, very unusual.

Helen: It’s like directing your own music video.

Emeril: Yep. And then I really had such an experience with the Brennan family. As Greg knows, it’s legendary in the city of New Orleans — the restaurant and the family. And I fell in love with New Orleans, and Ella and I were going to open a restaurant together. She wanted to be in the French Quarter — demographics, right? And I wanted to pioneer the Warehouse District, which is where I was living. They thought I was absolutely crazy because there was no streetlights. Very few people lived in the Warehouse District at the time, and I just kind of fell in love with this particular space, which is where Emeril’s is. And so Emeril’s is now 25 years old — soon to be 26, God willing — and that was the beginning of the journey. I opened Emeril’s and wanted it to be a white-tablecloth restaurant for New Orleanians. I figured that if I could make a restaurant that New Orleanians loved, then I would have a shot at, you know, being successful. And so here we are in your studio.

Helen: Yeah. All led right here. Do you remember the moment that the flavors of Cajun and Creole in New Orleans–style cooking sort of presented themselves to you?

Emeril: Well, I was sort of labeled when I was at Commander’s — doing new New Orleans cooking. So part of my journey, which is also a part of Essential Emeril, was I never disrespected tradition; I embraced it. I learned a long time ago that to understand cuisine is very...first of all, you have to understand the people. You have to understand the culture. And if you can understand the people and the culture, then you can understand the food. And so on my time off, I would travel into the country and learn from farmers, fishermen, et cetera, and I embraced it. And so my style became a little bit of Acadian, which is what my dad’s background is. My dad is French-Canadian, and my mom is Portuguese. So I’ll never forget my very first time when I interviewed at Commander’s, I was walking through the kitchen with Ella. She met me outside, and we were walking through the kitchen — you have to walk through the kitchen to go to the bar at Commander’s Palace. And she said, "What do you think about all these great smells, and what do you think about all this?" And I said, "It smells just like my mom’s kitchen," and so the journey began.

Helen: Yeah. Everything is memory.

Emeril: Yeah.

Helen: That’s really amazing.

Emeril: So, you know, in Louisiana there are basically two styles. So there’s Creole, and there’s Cajun, which is a slang word for Acadian. So one is the country, and one is the city — influenced by the French and the Spanish and African-American cultures and ingredients. And so I totally embraced that, and then began building on that. So, you know, I began by working on a farm cooperative. Basically, my philosophy was strictly to go from scratch, so everything that we did at Commander’s Palace was, basically, when I took over, from scratch.

And then, one day the lightbulb went off, and I said to myself, "Why are you doing this, Emeril? Besides trying to make your reputation for yourself, why?" And then it became apparent to me that it was the memories from my childhood. It was memories of that vegetable garden that we talked about earlier. It was influenced from a farm that my dad and uncle had, where they raised hogs and they had chickens. And so all of these little memories started, you know. Why was I making goat cheese from scratch? In 1983 and ’84, nobody made goat cheese from scratch. Laura Chenel wasn’t even in the marketplace yet. If she was, it was very, very small. And so that was what my philosophy was — to do a from-scratch production at Commander’s to get a better reputation than what the restaurant already had, but a reputation also for myself as a chef.

Helen: Was there ever a moment where you felt like you did it? Like, where you sort of looked around and you were like, "Okay. I’m here. The success happened"? Or, "I did it for myself"?

All these years later, I’m still doing the same thing. I’m still trying to perfect. I’m still trying to learn. I’m still trying to grow.

Emeril: It’s kind of one of those things that, you know, all these years later, I’m still doing the same thing. I’m still trying to perfect. I’m still trying to learn. I’m still trying to grow. And I’m still, you know, mentoring — either have a mentor or mentoring. I like to think that that’s happening. And so, you know, it’s kind of always like, "Let’s get up, and let’s try a little bit harder than we did the day before."

Greg: 25 years of Emeril’s. That’s a definite landmark there. Emeril’s is not like a retro act. It’s not like you’re necessarily playing all your old hits there. I mean, the restaurant has evolved. I’m just curious: As your group has evolved, how do you stay contemporary? What do you do? How do you make changes?

Emeril: Well, I think a lot of that is being worldly. I think reading is important. I think being connected is important, to the environment. You know, I certainly still feel very much attached to the soil. So that’s a big part of my, you know, what works for me. Most of my chefs and managers and general managers, et cetera, have been with me pretty much from day one, for the most part. But, you know, not being stagnant is the challenge. So you have to be current, and we constantly just talk about food. We talk about ingredients. For me, if you have great ingredients, you have great cuisine. It doesn’t mean that you have to do crazy things to it and, you know, dry it, and freeze-dry it, and un-dry it. And it’s just a matter of having delicious food. And so we’re constantly looking for that all the time, whether it’s in Las Vegas or in New Orleans. I mean, the Fish House in Las Vegas, as an example, has been there 21 years. There are not a lot of people that can say that, first of all, they’ve been in Vegas for 21 years. But who has a restaurant 21 years, you know, in the middle of the desert? And when I told them that I was going to do a seafood restaurant in the middle of the desert 22 years ago, they thought I was absolutely crazy. Like: How are you going to do a seafood restaurant in the middle of the desert?

Helen: That’s totally stacking the odds against you.

Emeril: Right.

Helen: But then, 21 years later, you’re beating everything.

Greg: I would imagine you paved the way for a lot of other restaurateurs to open out there, I mean, to have a concept like that.

Emeril: When I went there 22 years ago, it was certainly the land of good luck and a good buffet, if that existed. First of all, there were very few fine-dining restaurants — never mind restaurants in general — that weren’t a buffet or weren’t run by the hotel with that attitude, of like, "good luck." Like, "We’re playing cards again today." So there was Wolfgang. There was Mark Miller — he had a branch of Coyote Café in the MGM. There was Charlie Trotter, who, by the way, I dedicated the book to — to Charlie Trotter, the late Charlie Trotter, my dear friend. So there were very few dining experiences out there other than, you know, the buffet.

And so Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, it sounded perfectly fine with me. The challenge was certainly there, but we were bringing fish in from Louisiana. We were bringing fish in from the West Coast. We were bringing in fish a little bit from Hawaii, and then, all of a sudden, things started really changing. Because now, Las Vegas is New York City. You can get anything that you want, basically, any time of the day. There’s produce trucks that come four or five times a day from Los Angeles. The fish, it’s amazing.

Helen: It switched — I mean, I think the money hasn’t switched, but, like, the perception of Vegas has switched from a gambling town to a dining town. I mean, people go there to eat.

Emeril: Yes, it’s unbelievable. Yes.

Helen: It’s a remarkable transformation.

Emeril: People would go there for the weekend to gamble, and now people go for the weekend to dine. There are just amazing restaurants everywhere, not just, like, in one particular hotel — and from all over the world. You can get Emeril. You can get Joël Robuchon. I mean, it goes on and on and on and on. It just really has turned into an amazing dining town.

Helen: Yeah. In terms of the concentration of quality, I can’t — I mean, I love Las Vegas. I think it’s terrific.

Emeril: Well, my opinion is that it really kind of started at the MGM, and it was started by a guy by the name of Danny Wade, who was the general manager at the time. And what he figured out and convinced the ownership, Mr. Kerkorian, at the MGM was that they really are special. They really know how to do a bullfight for 5,000 people and a rock concert for 8,000 people. But what they really didn’t know is how to run fine-dining restaurants. And so they really weren’t good at it. And so he’s the guy that really saw, "You know what? What we’re going to do is we’re going to find people like Emeril, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter, Wolfgang Puck, et cetera. We’re going to find people that know how to run restaurants, and let them run the restaurant, and we’ll run the 5,000-room hotel and put on the convention business, et cetera, et cetera. But we don’t really know how to operate a fine-dining restaurant."

Helen: That takes a lot of bigness, I think, to be able to admit that.

Emeril: Yes, and then from there, it moved. And there was a guy by the name of Lou Silvestri, who was sort of the arms and legs of making that work. And then when they announced that they were going to open the Venetian Hotel on the Strip, they hired Lou Silvestri. And so Lou Silvestri became the arms for another gentleman by the name of Rob Goldstein, who had the vision of what the hotel restaurant should be. And so they immediately went outside, and had Emeril, and then they went and got Joachim [Splichal], and they went and got Wolfgang, and then they went and got Mario Batali, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so now it’s like, if you look at just the dining between the Venetian and Palazzo, of what’s happening just in that property right there, it’s mind-blowing.

Helen: It’s murderer’s row. It’s — 
Emeril: Yeah.

Helen: I mean, yeah, that’s where Bouchon is, in the Venetian. It’s where Batali's steakhouse is. It’s remarkable. It’s crazy. Have you been to Vegas, Greg?

Greg: Not — not in the last 15 years.

Emeril: I think we lost him for a minute.

Helen: I know. You and I were having such a moment.

Greg: No, no. This is fascinating. I went when I was a college student and like, ate a Fatburger and, you know, had like $40 to gamble.

Helen: I think, going as a college student, you’re looking for different things.
Greg: Yeah. It wasn’t — it wasn’t Emeril 's Fish House when I was there.

Emeril: Right.

Greg: This sounds amazing. I must go.

Emeril: Oh, it is. It is.

Helen: It is. I think there are ways that people will sort of flippantly say, "Oh, yeah. Vegas is great." And there are ways that people will very ironically be like, "Oh, yeah. Vegas is great." But genuinely, with absolute sincerity, I think that the food in Las Vegas, both on the Strip and the casinos, and also in the city as a whole, is underrated and under-appreciated. It’s such a fantastically interesting food city.

Emeril: Yep, and wine and spirits and mixology and you name it. It’s the top. I mean, it really is. It’s going on there. There’s no place like Las Vegas.

Helen: The one thing it isn’t is environmentally sustainable. But, you know, you got to make some accommodations.

Emeril: Right. You know, who doesn’t like being in 115 degrees, where you can fry an egg on a bumper of a car?

Helen: Totally. You can’t really be a locavore in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Emeril: Right, so you stay inside.

Greg: So what I’m curious about is you have, what is it now, 13 restaurants in the United States?

Emeril: I’m building the 13th.

Greg: You’re building the 13th.

Emeril: I hope.

Greg: What is your process? Say you’re in Las Vegas, or say you’re in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or wherever you have a city that’s not your home port, and you’re visiting a restaurant. What’s your process there when you’re checking up? Are you eating? Are you cooking?

Emeril: Both. I think what makes a successful restaurateur is being a good listener. So I think I’m a really good listener. You know, my ear is down to the concrete all the time. I’m really doing things that the customer wants. It’s not so much what I want, it’s so much what the customer wants. I think that being a great restaurateur is really being able to listen and to understand that, beside having talent. Obviously, you have to cook. You have to know how to run a restaurant. But being a listener is very important.

Helen: Right. It’s the line between good and great, I think, in almost every industry, but especially if you have establishments as far-flung as you do.

Greg: So this has always been something, sounds like, it’s been a part of your interest, like, even back at the Commander’s days. You were the general manager. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do? You’ve always wanted to understand how restaurants operate?

Emeril: No. I didn’t take the job thinking that I was gonna be the general manager. It just sort of happened that it was the next challenge.

Helen: Did it change how you cooked?

Emeril: No. I ran the restaurant from the kitchen. Always in whites, you know, but extremely involved in — I had a very good mentor there. You know, I mean, I worked for Ella Brennan, I worked for Dick Brennan. I mean, that doesn’t get any better than that, as restaurateurs.

Helen: Yeah. The legacy of that restaurant is extraordinary. Speaking of legacies, and Wolfgang Puck, and, like, everything, I feel like we’ve been centering, whirling around the next thing I’m going to ask you, which is, like, you basically created television food celebrity, or you were one of several people who laid the foundation for what is now this, like, behemothic, multiple-tentacled octopus of celebrity-chef culture. And what do you think? Like, what is it like looking at the world today versus the world that you helped create?

Emeril: Well, I mean, I grew up watching Julia Child. So she was like the person that I watched, and became one of my mentors. Right. And then I had an opportunity to start the Food Network 21 years ago. You know, I did it because I — when they called me and approached me to be on the Food Network, first of all, was sort of like a dream, because it’s like, okay, you’re talking about there’s going to be a network that’s going to be about cooking and shopping and wine, and 24 hours a day? Come on, that’s, like, impossible.

Helen: And it’s weird to think that, like, there was a time when that was impossible, because now it feels like everything is food all the time.

Greg: Before that, you were on Great Chefs, right?

Emeril: I did, I participated in Great Chefs New Orleans. But that — I really didn’t understand television. You know, when I started the Food Network, I really didn’t understand it — actually, I got fired a few times first, just because I didn’t, you know, I was a cook. You know, I had my head down, and I wasn’t really looking at anything, and then, basically, after I got fired a couple of times, then it became obvious to me that, you know what, Emeril, maybe you should just treat this like you’re doing a cooking demonstration and that you’re teaching people something, you know, about cooking. So when I applied that to what I was doing, then it just started connecting, because then I started connecting with the people. So it was a great — it’s been a great ride. I’m still doing television. I’m doing a show right now for the Cooking Channel called Emeril’s Florida, which is in its fourth season. I’ve been involved with Top Chef, and getting ready to shoot the finale of that in a couple of weeks. I got a new show that I’m getting ready, haven’t started production yet, but I’ve got another show called Eat the World.

Helen: Oh, that’s a good name.

Emeril: So, yeah. I enjoy writing. I don’t do it because I’m trying to have a collection of books, you know, or, oh, this is number 17, or whatever. I enjoy — there’s a reason why I did that, right. And so there’s a reason why I do television, because I like connecting.

Helen: Yeah. You know, there’s been a spate of new stories recently about a shortage of cooks. There was a piece in the Washington Post a month or so ago, and there have been a number of chefs, I think, like, sort of weighing on this on Twitter, saying that they’re having a really hard time finding entry-level and mid-level folks to come work in their kitchens, and the consensus seems to be settling on the idea that people are getting into cooking now not because they love cooking, but because they want to be famous.

Emeril: Yeah. They want to be on TV.

Helen: So — what’s the solution to this?

Emeril: Well, you know, I’m involved in a lot of different-level — a lot of aspects of culinary education, from college to high school. My foundation, actually, has built a high-school program at NOCCA in New Orleans. So I look at it from a very different perspective. I want to be with people that want to be in the business, not so much that want to be on TV, or want to be famous, or, you know, their face on a box. So, you know, I’m constantly looking for people that want to cook, you know.

Helen: Can you tell right away if someone’s in it for the wrong reasons?

This is a crazy business. I mean, you got to really love what you’re doing.

Emeril: Pretty much. Um, you got to have passion. This is a crazy business. I mean, you got to really love what you’re doing. And so that’s the first thing that I tell people, is that you really got to understand and know what you’re getting into, because this is not your typical, like, 9-to-5 job, and you have to love it.

Helen: You have to be able to find the beauty in peeling 40 pounds of onions.

Emeril: Exactly.

Greg: On a somewhat different but slightly related note, do you think that just, people outside of professional kitchens, America, do you think that they’re cooking and eating at home in a different way than we used —

Emeril: Yes. Yes. No question about it.

Greg: What’s the big difference?

Emeril: I think America has evolved in all different aspects of the food business, but particularly at home. I mean, look at how grocery stores are today, wine, spirits. It is really incredible to see where it was and where it is, and encouraging to see, possibly, where it could go, because people are excited about cooking, about eating. You know, there’s some people that eat to live, and then there’s some people that live to eat, right? So, you know, who are you? I kind of think that there’s a bit of both, but basically, I’m really living to eat, right?

Helen: Yeah. I think people are starting to realize that you can take pleasure in something that you have to do multiple times a day, so why not, like, dig in on that pleasure.

Emeril: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. And that doesn’t mean you have to be, like, crazy, you know, like, drive yourself insane to have to cook every day, but, you know, keep it real, keep it simple. That’s what I tell people. You know, it’s like building a house. You have to have a solid foundation in order for it to continue to grow. So that’s like cooking, you know. Have a solid foundation, and then grow on that. You know, that way you can have more than just one level. You can have a second level, or third level. You can go up 90 stories.

Helen: And one of those levels is the TV show, and one of them is the other TV show, and then there’s the 13th restaurant, and the 18 books, and the building Vegas from the ground up. You, too, can be Emeril. Just build a solid foundation.

Emeril: That’s right.

Greg: With the TV stuff, do you ever find younger chefs that are maybe dipping their toes into it? Do they ever ask you, like, for advice?

Emeril: Well, that’s what’s great about Emeril’s Florida, because we’re discovering — not only are we discovering the state of Florida, which, by the way, is amazing, from the Keys all the way to the panhandle. You know, I got a little bit involved with the show because people think that, you know, Florida — or people did think Florida was basically a bunch of golf courses and people that are retiring. And that’s not the case. It’s an incredible state with great agriculture, with fishing. Sort of blessed between having the golf on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. Both are very different, by the way. You know, like I said, the agriculture, it’s more than citrus, it’s amazing, amazing, amazing, the things that I found. So to answer your question, yes, there are lot of — not only in Florida, but there are a lot of lot of great food happening because of these young people who are into cooking that really want to cook. He or she. And so it’s wonderful to see. I think now we have more great restaurants in America than ever. So getting back to what you were saying about supply and demand, right, you know, we have to keep mentoring, and we have to keep turning out good students, whether they go to culinary school or whether they just come and do an apprenticeship or an internship at the restaurant. You have to really take the time to say, "Okay. Look. You know, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way."

Helen: Well, I think culinary school has also wound up becoming part of this argument about supply and demand, too, because I think there’s this subtext — or sometimes the supertext, they just come right out and say it — for chefs who are saying that that folks are coming in just wanting to be TV celebrities. Those are usually the kids who are coming in out of culinary school, where they’ve never had the hands-on restaurant experience, and they’ve never actually been on the line except for, like, the one week of culinary school where they’re working in the model restaurant.

Emeril: Yeah, bad.

Helen: And there’s a big backlash, I think, right now against culinary school. They’re saying, just, like, "Go be a dishwasher," be, like, you know, the —

Emeril: Well, that’s why they’re trying to have more internships, and longer internships. It’s like, you know, I’m not going to say what culinary institution, okay, but, so, you ask me to take an intern, and you’re going to give me six weeks. What can you do in six weeks? You know, that’s like running the country in six weeks. It’s impossible. You know, so what I say is, "Give me more time, you know, six months, maybe, instead of six weeks," but then, as a result, if you can give me the time. So when people really come to work with us in restaurants, it’s basically — that’s really the philosophy. It’s just like, look, if you want to be famous, then you’re in the wrong place. If you want to learn how to cook, if you want to learn how to be a restaurateur, then you’re in the right place. I can teach really anybody how to cook. They got to have the passion. They got to have the desire to want to learn how to cook, and if they have that, then it’s much easier for me to teach them than pulling them up the mountain.

Greg: Wow.

Helen: Who were some of the teachers that you feel like you learned from?

Emeril: Well, a lot of them are in Essential Emeril. So there’s anybody from Roger Vergé to Julia Child to Freddie Garrity to Mario Batali to Charlie Trotter to Roy Choi.

Helen: You know, I gotta ask. Greg and I were looking in the office the other day, um, Sammy Hagar has got a new cookbook out, and you appear very prominently in this cookbook.

Emeril: Yeah, I’m going to be with him later.

Helen: Really, today?

Emeril: Tomorrow.

Helen: Oh my God. Are you guys hanging out in New York? Can I come?

Emeril: No. He and I are going to do the Rachael Ray show tomorrow.

Helen: Oh, that’s going to be so cool.

Emeril: Yeah.

Helen: Well, you’re, like, threaded throughout this, it’s a surprisingly great — I don't know why I said "surprisingly." It’s a great cookbook.

Emeril: Sammy is a good cook.

Helen:Yeah. And the recipes are very real. And he talks about hanging out with you, and taking inspiration from you, and you bringing, was it white truffles? To his wedding.

Emeril: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Helen: Which is an extraordinary story. Did he know? So, you just showed up at his wedding with, like, ten pounds of white truffles?

Emeril: So he asked me if I would do his wedding, for Kari and him, in Mill Valley. And so we have a bunch of wine people, too, that were part of that celebration. And it wasn’t any fancy, fancy-schmancy place. It was very family-driven. And on several occasions, I had the pleasure, of course, for cooking for them, and truffles was one of the things that they absolutely loved and cherished. And it happened to be the time of the year that the wedding was, it was truffle season, and so I brought a paper bag, maybe, of about, I don't know, maybe ten pounds, you might be right, of truffles to the wedding.

Helen: It was a kingly gift.

Emeril: Yeah. And we had a lot of dishes with truffle, and in celebration, it was really a wonderful celebration.

Greg: You made it rain, huh?

Emeril: Yeah.

Helen: No confetti at this wedding, no rice, just white-truffle shavings everywhere.

Emeril: That’s right. Exactly.

Helen: That must have smelled so good.

Emeril: So — it did. It did. And I remember setting off the alarm, the fire alarm.

Helen: With the truffles?

Emeril: One of the courses. No, not the truffle course. Um, I’m not quite sure I remember what course it was, but I do remember setting off the alarm. It was a very sensitive little thing.

Helen: That feels very on-brand for a Sammy Hagar wedding. You know, like, I feel like —
Emeril: To set the alarm off?

Helen: Yeah. I feel like, you know, like, a little bit of controlled chaos feels like what I would expect from him.

Emeril: There was a lot of controlled chaos, actually, there.

Greg: So on this subject of famous chefs, I guess I never realized that you and Wolfgang Puck ever worked together, especially in New York in the ’70s, and that kinda blows my mind because I think that you two really created a lot of the, you know, kind of big, famous chef culture that’s out there.

Helen: The whole sea we’re swimming in.

Emeril: Wolf is — he’s an extraordinary human being.

Greg: You guys still keep in touch?

Emeril: Extremely talented. He’s still a mentor. He’s very gifted, but he’s gifted in more than just cooking, because he has a true gift when it comes to people. And I think that that’s another quality of being a successful restaurateur, is having that touch with people. See, I understand people, because I don’t ask people to do anything that I wouldn’t do. So if, like, it’s a matter of picking up a piece of paper on the floor, and I asked you to pick up the piece of paper on the floor, it doesn’t mean that I’m asking you because I wouldn’t do it. So I use that approach, and it seems to have worked. And the other thing is, is that I think, really, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t learn something every day in our business. If you’re not learning something today, you’re really cheating yourself, because there’s too much to know. There’s so much depth of knowledge that is there in cuisine, because just when you think you’ve mastered something, it’s impossible. You’ll never — I’ve never learned, I’ve never seen and met a person, ever, that — and I’ve met a lot of people around the world — who has mastered cooking, who has mastered cuisine.

Helen: Who’s just like, "I’m done. I did it."

Emeril: It’s just too much. It’s too much. ’Cause just when you think that you are a good Greek cook, then how about learning about Portuguese cuisine, or Asian, or what part of Asia? Korean or Chinese. And then what of the five Chinese cultures do you want to try to master? Is it Szechuan? Or —there’s too much.

Helen: You can drill down forever. There’s so much. It would never stop.

Greg: So Emeril, it’s time for the show that we like to call the Lightning Round.

Emeril: Okay.

Greg: This is nothing to — well, it’s something to be a little bit afraid of.

Helen: Don’t be too afraid. You’re in good hands.

Greg: Yeah. We’re just going to ask you some questions. We ask all the chefs these questions, and just say the first thing that comes to your head.

Helen: You're at a bar that you’ve never been to before, what is the drink that you order?

Emeril: Well, my curiosity would be what kind of beer, especially in today’s time, is on tap. So I’m very — I’m kind of a regional guy, I want to tap into what’s happening locally.

Helen: No pun intended.

Emeril: Right. Whether it’s beer or wine. So, you know, vodka is vodka, right? So, I mean, you can get that pretty much anywhere you want, so I’m kind of curious about the wine program, if there’s any, and certainly the beer program.

Greg: What are some of your favorite, like, regional beers?

Emeril: Um, they change, no matter where you are. You know, San Diego is much different than San Francisco, and Brooklyn is much different than New Orleans, so it’s — it’s really, you know, there’s certainly styles that are, you know, an IPA versus a lager, something dark versus something lighter. I’m a big Abita fan in New Orleans. I think those guys are doing some amazing things. But when I’m here in New York, I go local.

Helen: It’s very admirable. I like that style.

Emeril: But so I feel the same way about cuisine. So I’m inspired more about the weather and the soil than I am about — and seasonality — than I am about — I don’t want to eat tomatoes in January.

Helen: Right. You want to be where you are when you are.

Emeril: Yes.

Greg: So say you’re in an airport and you have, you know, money in your back pocket, you got some time to kill, what’s your vice? What do you do? What do you spend your money on?

Emeril: Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because airport life now is changing a lot, so these guys, like, companies like HMS, and these guys that are running these food-service organizations, they have changed. I recently have been in some meetings with them, just philosophy meetings, about, you know, where the future of cuisine is in an airport, because it’s — if you notice, let’s just start here: JFK, right, or La Guardia. It’s amazing what has happened in airports now. So I have had some amazing meals, just recently, in airports, more domestically than internationally. Internationally, I think that they’re still — well, you know, not, like, in London, or, you know, not in places like that, but Paris, but domestically — I don't know the last time — if you’ve been in the Dallas airport is an example, ’cause that’s a hub for, you know — in Louisiana, that’s a good place that you’re going to land to get somewhere. It’s amazing what has happened. Los Angeles. I just had a — recently just had a meal in Los Angeles at one of the airport restaurants. And you know, the service now, they’re concentrating on that, and certainly the quality. So, you know, I look around. I look around. Maybe Cat Cora has a restaurant. Maybe Tyler Florence, Wolfgang, obviously, has been doing it for a long time. He’s redoing it —

Helen: He’s the king of restaurants in airports.

Emeril: Right. But it really is truly amazing what’s going on domestically in airports.

Helen: You know, that reminds me of — I committed this, like, journalistic sin that I shouldn’t even admit to, but I was reading your Wikipedia page, and it contains one of the best category subheaders I’ve ever seen on a chef’s page ever, which is, "Contribution to space exploration."

Emeril: Yes.

Helen: So, like, you have not only worked with airlines and airports, you’ve also worked with NASA.

Emeril: Yes.

Helen: Which is amazing. You’ve contributed to the space exploration.

Emeril: My food has been to the moon.

Helen: That’s incredible.

Emeril: And I’ve actually had the pleasure of talking to them while they were eating my food via satellite.

Greg: What?

Helen: What was that like?

Emeril: Amazing.

Helen: How does it feel to know that they ate your food?

Greg: That is like the pinnacle. That’s the top of chef mountain right there.

Helen: That’s it, like, we’re done, nobody else can accomplish anything. I mean, it’s the coolest thing.

Emeril: It was really cool.

Greg: What did you prepare for them?

I had to work with Houston, NASA, and had to be sort of trained about what works, because not everything works in space, you know, gravity, and all that stuff.

Emeril: Several things. Uh, jambalaya, rice pudding, several things, actually, and there it was. So the process was that, you know, I had to work with Houston, NASA, and had to be sort of trained about what works, because not everything works in space, you know, gravity, and all that stuff. There’s certain things that you have to take into consideration that works and does not work. And then what they do with it, because it has to apply with water, so, right, very fascinating. I was fascinated with the challenge, and I’m thrilled to have done it.

Helen: That’s so cool. Well, I feel like it’s anticlimactic to ask our next Lighting Round question, but if you were not a chef in restaurants, or a cookbook author and television personality, what do you think you’d be doing with your life?

Emeril: I’d be a musician.

Helen: Yeah, percussion?

Emeril: Yeah. I mean, there was a point when I was in junior high school, maybe, where I — because of my background growing up in music, and being in a Portuguese band, actually, in a, like, a real symphony band. I — there was a point that I used to write music. I used to write a lot of music, and not just so much lyrics, but actual music.

Helen: Like symphonic music.

Emeril: Yeah, and so I became the conductor at a very young age of the band. I think the reason why I got recruited into culinary high school was because they needed someone for their band.

Helen: You were a ringer?

Emeril: Yeah. I was a ringer.

Helen: That’s so great.

Emeril:Yeah, so.

Greg: That’s amazing. Um, so you’re by yourself in a car. You’re on a road trip. What’s the music that you’re blasting and singing along to?

Emeril: It depends. You know, it depends where I am, and depends the time of day.

Greg: It’s regional, yeah.

Emeril: Yes. It’s regional. It could be rock, it could be country. It could be pop, it could be jazz.

Helen: What have you been jamming out to lately?

Emeril: Um, I sort of have this, you know, I have a problem, actually. I — the problem is is that I have this constant stuff of Billy Joel that’s always kind of going in my head. You know, I think he’s an incredible artist. He’s a great human being, and I just I love his music. And it doesn’t matter if it’s, like, my 12-year-old son, or somebody that’s 75 years old, there’s across — that people relate to, as a real human being, you know, with Billy Joel.

Greg: Have you ever met Billy Joel?

Emeril: Yes.

Helen: Are you guys pals? Is he hanging out with you and Sammy Hagar tomorrow?

Emeril: Billy’s not going to be there tomorrow. Not that I know of.

Helen: Oh my gosh.

Emeril: I’ve had the pleasure of cooking for him for quite a few times.

Helen: He seems like a pretty cool guy.

Emeril: He’s a very cool guy. And he’s a great cook, by the way.

Greg: Oh, yeah?

Emeril: Yes.

Helen: Really? Well, his ex-wife is now culinarily famous, Katie Lee. Formerly Katie Lee Joel. He has appreciation for food there.

Greg: He seems to have a whole lifestyle thing. He could have a lifestyle magazine.

Helen: Yeah.

Greg: Yeah. He’s got his Hamptons —

Helen: Yeah, he could do a Goop. I would totally subscribe to his email newsletter, yeah, for sure. Well, our last Lightning Round question is: What do you cook for dinner when you’re home on a weeknight and you’ve got nothing going on?

Emeril: I cook most of the times at home, although my wife is a good cook, but she’s like, why. So, again, what’s gonna to inspire me today? Probably the first question, certainly, question, yes. Beside, "Good morning, everyone," one of the first things for sure that we talk about in the morning is what we’re gonna cook for dinner. What we’re gonna have. So we’re a family that has a very well-stocked pantry — just as I say in Essential Emeril, teach people about that. We pretty much have the accoutrements around. We’re bad. We shop every day. We don’t — we don’t do the big shopping thing.

Helen: I don’t think that’s bad. I think that’s good.

Emeril: Oh, I don’t think it’s bad, I just mean that people — when you say that, they look at you kinda strange, like, "You mean you didn’t wait until Saturday and get the food buggy and load it up?" And —

Helen: Spend $600 at Costco.

Emeril: Right. Right. So it’s really, again, seasonal. I’m also inspired by the weather. So the weather changes my style of what we’re gonna cook, and how we’re gonna cook it, based on the weather. Like, I realized last night when I landed back — because it was very hot in Oregon this weekend, but the weather snapped here in New York. And so it reminded me last night, when I landed, that, wow, beside that I gotta find where my jacket is, right, and my socks, it reminded me that, you know, the weather is getting ready to seriously change here now in New York. And so now that you know that braising is going to start, you know, coming back, and that roasting and, you know, not so much grilling but, you know, those kind of words, kind of change because of the weather.

Helen: "Braising" is the sexiest food word, I think. I love braised things.

Emeril: Braising? Yeah.

Greg: They’re amazing. It’s true, though. It’s that time of the year.

Emeril: Yeah. You can braise a lot of things. It doesn’t have to be meat.

Greg: Like, what’s your favorite vegetable?

Emeril: I just recently had some braised fennel, and I had some — a lot of braised vegetables recently. I was in Greece recently, so that was —

Helen: They braise in olive oil in Greece a lot, too. Which is just really fascinating.

Emeril: Sometimes, yeah.

Helen: Cool. Well, Emeril, thanks for coming by the Eater Upsell.

Emeril: Thank you.

Helen: You can check out Essential Emeril, available wherever books are sold. It’s pretty rad. I’m a big fan of it. I think Greg is, too.

Greg: Yeah. I can’t wait to check it out and start cooking.

Emeril: And braise.

Greg: And braise.

Emeril: Right.

Helen: Totally braise. Braise forever.

Greg: Thanks, Emeril.

Helen: Thanks.

Emeril:Thank you.


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