Emeril Lagasse Interview

The recipient of a Doctorate degree from the respected Johnson and Wales University, Emeril Lagasse practiced his art in several fine restaurants in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, before heading south to the Big Easy.

Lured to New Orleans by Dick and Ella Brennan, Emeril established his star at their legendary restaurant, Commander's Palace, where he was executive chef for seven and a half years.

Emeril is now the chef-proprietor of Emeril's Restaurant in the chic warehouse district of New Orleans and Nola Restaurant located in the historic French Quarter. His newest creation is Emeril's New Orleans Fish House located in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the monumental MGM Grand Hotel. His fourth restaurant is slated to open in January 1998 in Orlando, Florida within Universal Studios E-Zone.

The recognition and awards he's garnered have made him known to food-loving Americans everywhere. His restaurants consistently win critical praise and top ratings. Emeril's Restaurant won a "five bean" rave from critic Gregory Roberts, and in 1990 was dubbed "Restaurant of the Year" by John Mariani in Esquire magazine. In 1991, Emeril was named "Best Southeast Regional Chef by the James Beard Foundation and most recently Emeril's Restaurant earned the prestigious Ivy Award. Nola has achieved the status of "Best New Restaurant" by Esquire magazine in 1993 and has been recognized nationally by Travel and Leisure, Traveler, and Southern Living magazines.

Chef Emeril Lagasse has also become a national T.V. personality with the T.V. Food Network's production of "The Essence of Emeril" as well as an established cookbook author with his first book "Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking." His second book "Louisiana Real and Rustic" is due out during the summer of 1996.

We're extremely proud to present an interview with the multi-talented Chef and Restaurant owner - Mr. Emeril Lagasse.

Q. Mr. Lagasse, how is it, that there are enough hours in the day for you to do everything you have to do? Do you have a lot of people helping you out?
A. Well, I have great people and I have great people that have been with me for a long time. I think that's one of the most important elements for this whole thing to work. I'm also still cooking everyday in the restaurant even though I'm running the business. So, I have people that are structure, but I have people that have been with me for a long time, so we're all on the same page and we all know the same direction we're going to, and going for.

Q. How do you cook in the restaurant when you've got this T.V. show going on? Isn't this T.V. Food Network in New York City?
A. I go up once a month to New York and shoot a bunch of shows at a time, a block of shows at a time. We produce here in New Orleans, all of the shows. It's all of my material, all of my stuff. It's what I do, basically everyday. It's a hectic schedule I have to tell you. It's very demanding, and it's very busy, but I'm having a blast doing it.

Q. You're cooking in your restaurant every night?
A. I'm mostly at Emeril's, which is the original restaurant. Emeril's is just six blocks away from Nola. Nola is structured so I have a chef there, a. general manager, and a management team. In Las Vegas, I have a chef there as well as a general manager. You can only have so many chiefs. You can only have so many sous chefs, so many chefs, so many general managers and managers, unless you want to have a revolving door. The situation with Nola is it provided opportunity after Emeril's was open for awhile. We have very little turnover. It provided opportunity for people to grow, and move to Nola. With Las Vegas it proved that we had a lot of people again, internally that wanted to grow, and that wanted to be a part of the whole organization. Again, not a lot of turnover, and that provided opportunity from both of those restaurants to the Las Vegas location.

Q. In your bio it says that you “tirelessly explore the Gulf Waters and the Louisiana countryside to discovered untapped sources for delicious and interesting food experiences”. What is that all about? What are you looking for?
A. Well basically, a little over 12 years ago I started understanding the fact that in order to have great cuisine, no matter where you are, and I don't care if it's home, or France, or New Orleans or Syracuse; you have to have great ingredients. So I went and concentrated a lot on the ingredients side of things. Putting farmers in business making them understand that being a great vegetable farmer of raising hogs or raising rabbits was a very, very great thing in society, and that you also could make a great living doing that. So, that's evolved into me having about 15 different growers that grow particular products specifically for me, specifically my standards for the restaurants, because it's all about quality. We mostly make everything from scratch. We raise our own hogs that we bring in weekly to make our own sausages and our own ham and bacon. We have goat's milk that we buy from another producer to make our own cheese. We work with another cheese producer in Louisiana. We have a lot of vegetable, and lettuce, and produce growers for us, and I have a long relationship with several fishermen so that basically I'm buying from the boats. And again, that from scratch philosophy and that philosophy in order to have great food you have to have great products.

Q. You must have something in place to monitor quality don't you?
A. Absolutely. It's not just standards but it's also teaching people and having people that care about the profession and about what we're doing. I don't have people that are just here, kind of with jobs. I have people that really want to be craftsmen and that really want to be professionals in this business. My chef at Emeril's has been with me for 13 years. My pastry chef has been with me for 12 years. I've got sous chefs and other chefs that have been with me for 5 years, 8 years, 10 years. So, I have people that I work with, that want to work with me, and I want to work with them, and understand what we're trying to do, and that is just trying to be a great restaurant everyday. And, to get up everyday and try a little bit harder than the day before to just kick it up.

Q. At what point in your life did you know that the life of a chef and the restaurant business was for you?
A. Well, I started after school, when I was 10 years old washing pots and pans in a neighborhood bakery and then I liked that. Then I started getting more into the baking end of it, and I really liked that. Then, I went to a culinary school and I really enjoyed that. Then I went to college and a university and I got a few degrees. Then, I worked in France and New York and basically one day I got up Gary, and it was like hey, I really love this! I just really enjoyed doing what I do. It's not like I'm coming to work. I just really enjoy what I do and how we're doing it. I'm just trying to get better at what I do everyday.

Q. You actually were a musician.
A. And turned down a music scholarship, to pay to go to cooking school.

Q. What instrument did you play?
A. I was percussion major.

Q. Did you play in bands?
A. I played in a lot of bands. I played in orchestras, mostly classical, but I also played all around music. I played in a local Portuguese band when I was very, very young and just had to make that decision. And then, there was food. I just loved food. Eventually, I had to make the decision, because hey, can’t do both, because of the way the businesses are structured. I can enjoy both, but there’s no way you could do both.

Q. Well, you could own the restaurant, cook the food, play some music, and then run back into the kitchen.
A. (Laughs) Exactly.

Q. Did you ever play in a rock band?
A. Sure.

Q. New Orleans being the music city it is there must be a lot of avenues for a musician to take.
A. There is. There are a lot of elements about New Orleans that influenced me to live here. One of 'em obviously was the food. But, secondly, is the music, and the culture here, and the architecture here. There are elements that were important to me, but obviously food and music were at the top, and are at the top of this whole thing. So, that was one of the greatest reasons in my mind to say hey, New Orleans is a great place to live because it has these things and these things are important to me.

Q. I see you have a Doctorate degree from Johnson and Wales University. I always thought that was a two year school.
A. Yeah, I went there and basically after being in the profession, after earning some degrees from them, they awarded me an honorary Doctorate's degree. That year there were only two other participants in that. It was a wonderful accomplishment.

Q. You went to France to polish up on your skills. What skills did you have to polish up on?
A. Well, at the time the Americans were intimidated in this business, 20 years ago. What did we know about cuisine? At least that's what the craftsmen of the world thought. They would look at Americans and say what do they know about cuisine? They eat hamburgers and macaroni and cheese. The combination of that, and after working for awhile with Europeans and being sort of downgraded because I was American and American trained, I decided that I wanted to go there and needed to go there for myself, to feel comfortable. We all put our pants on the same way. It doesn't matter what nationality, color, or race you are. That doesn't have anything to do with understanding culture, and cuisine and being a great craftsman. And so at the time, France was the place that was the best. So, I just wanted to go and see and learn what the best was, so that I could be a part of the continuance of the evolution as an American, for American cuisine.

Q. For seven and a half years, you were the Executive Chef at the Commanders Palace.
A. Yeah. I was the Chef after Paul Prudhomme.

Q. Then you left to start your own restaurant. How did you do that? Did you have a financial backer? Were you able to save money over the years?
A. Well, I basically cashed in everything I had. Obviously, I had a great position in my tenure with Commander's and as an American chef. I made great money, and great benefits. I saved some money and basically didn't want to get into a partnership where I had to give everything away. I had a lot of street smarts. Had some business smarts. Had some education. And had some luck. Across the street from where I was living, an opportunity came. It was a very tough decision to leave the Brennan family. I was more than just a chef there. The last two and a half years, I was also the chef as well as the general manager, so I ran the whole restaurant, for the Brennan family. It just became time for me to hang my own shingle.

Q. You really have to be a business person in order to succeed don't you?
A. Absolutely. This business is more complex than just the ability and knowledge to cook. Obviously, that's one of the most important, but there's also the front of the house, and the service, and the design, and the decor and there's also people skills. It's all people business, ‘cause it all starts at the phone whether it’s people that you work with or the customer. It all revolves around people. So, if you're not great with people and have a passion for people, then this is the wrong business to be in, because it's all people related. Then there's a lot of things that come with it. It's a very demanding schedule, the hours, the holidays. It's very tough on family life and relationships. It's a very demanding and grueling business. But, if you can overcome and put everything in it's right perspective when you're controlling the elements instead of them controlling you, and you can guide them, then you can be very successful.

Q. Are you putting in 12 hour days?
A. My average day is about 15-16 hours a day. It's tough. It's not the regular type of schedule for the regular type of person. But, I'm not a 9 to 5 guy. I couldn't do that. That's just not me.

Q. Do you get a lot of famous people into your restaurant?
A. Oh, all the time.

Q. Are you at liberty to say who they might be?
A. Well, they're just people. That's one of the reasons why they come to our restaurants. They're treated just like we would treat, and we try to treat my guest that comes in for an experience. One of the reasons I think we're more popular with the motion picture and music world is because we kind of leave them alone and let them just have a great time, and let them have a great dining experience, and not be bothered by people. Deep down inside, that's what they want. What I'm trying to do is give whatever the guest wants for that particular guest experience. Everybody's different. Everybody has a different expectation level. Everybody has different knowledge about wine or about food, or about cigars, or whatever else the case may be. We let those people relax, kind of like they're in their home, or my home, and have a great experience. They've varied from Alec Baldwin, Kevin Costner, to Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, to famous playwrights to Sharon Stone to Sammy Hagar to Teri Hatcher.

Q. How about Anne Rice?
A. Yeah. She's been in the restaurant. She's a great lady, and a great New Orleanean. But you know, that's not what I'm trying to run my restaurants for. I'm trying to run my restaurant just to be a good restaurant, and hopefully appeal to the majority, so that they can come and have a great experience.

Q. Now that you have this T.V. show of yours, are you more recognizable to people?
A. Well, I don't know. I'm not wrapped up in the whole egotistical thing of what I do. I'm still getting up, doing the cooking, and running the businesses everyday. It might be in New Orleans or it might be in Las Vegas or it might be in the studios, but I'm cooking everyday, because of what I enjoy doing. We don't get the television show here in New Orleans, so you can't really monitor that. The only monitoring I get is the mail, and the people who come into the restaurant, and there are quite a few of them, who have watched the show.

Q. With the movement on to eat less or no red meat at all, do your restaurants cater to the vegans and vegetarians?
A. Well, to answer that, personally, you can't abuse life, and you have to be sensible about what you're eating or what you're consuming. In the last few years in my restaurants I have seen more of a movement but I think it's more of an educational and a supply of products than a trend of saying vegetarians because I do a lot of vegetarian food particularly at Emeril's but they're not necessarily for strict vegetarians. My way of going about it as a restaurateur is that I don't label anybody anything. If they don't eat meat, that's their business, and it's a challenge for us to create something for them that's vegetarian for them, or no meat or no fish. If they have a low cholesterol diet or if they have a low sodium, who am I to label them? That's their prerogative. My approach to it is we try to do everything that we possibly can for the guest. To take care of the guest. To fulfill the complete dining experience. A lot of doing that is by education, and by being able to have the customer educated and that means you have to educate your staff. So I spend a lot of time with my staff.

Official Website: Emerils.com

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