Chef Emeril Of Louisiana Is Hotter Than Tabasco Sauce

Posted: September 24, 1997

Hurricane Emeril - that's Emeril Lagasse, the chef and TV Food Network host - has blown into town.

If Monday night's crowd at the Barnes & Noble store in Marlton is any indication, Lagasse is one hot dude.

More than 600 people snaked around the stacks, and Lagasse wouldn't leave until he had signed copies of his new cookbook, Emeril's Creole Christmas, for everyone - four hours of scribbling. Yesterday, he hosted a sold-out cooking demonstration at Chef's Market on South Street for 200 people who paid $45 a head.

Today is an off-day, though he'll be on QVC tonight as part of the gala to mark the shopping channel's new TV studio. Tomorrow, he will host two luncheons at the Omni Hotel, followed by book signings at Fante's in King of Prussia Plaza (5 p.m.) and Chester County Books on Paoli Pike in West Chester (7 p.m.)

Here's his shtick: On his cooking show, Emeril Live, Lagasse (say it leh-GAH-see) is one part cooking instructor, three parts holy roller - a jovial, bellowing, arms-flailing, wisecracking dervish with all the subtlety of a quart of Tabasco.

On the show one night a couple of weeks ago, he was making a cake. He added a splash of rum to the batter, grinned at the camera like Jack Nicholson in The Shining - and then poured in the rest of the rum. ``Whooo! Let's kick it up a notch!'' he bellowed. The audience screamed back, ``Yeah!''

In person, though, Lagasse is quiet and intense - a swarthy guy with close-cropped black hair, thick eyebrows and an even thicker voice that drips with ``Fahl Rivah Mah-sih-CHOO-sits,'' as he puts it, where he grew up the son of a French Canadian textile worker and a Portuguese homemaker.

As a boy, he endured razzing from classmates who couldn't understand his fascination with food when he got a job in a Portuguese bakery and later attended Johnson & Wales University, the celebrated culinary-arts school in Providence, R.I.

Lagasse ended up cooking all over - France, New York, Boston, even a year in Philadelphia, where he worked at a Sheraton Hotel.

In 1982, a friend introduced him to New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan, who needed a chef at Commander's Palace to replace the legendary Paul Prudhomme. Lagasse and Brennan quickly hit it off, and he got the job.

Any other New Englander in New Orleans might have considered himself a crawfish out of water. Not Lagasse. He realized that the Portuguese dishes of his childhood (think chorizo sausage) had a lot in common with the classic dishes of the bayous (think andouille). A list of awards followed as Lagasse's reputation for fussiness spread. He still makes everything from scratch - sausage, cheese, even Worcestershire sauce.

In 1990, he went out on his own with Emeril's in the Warehouse District, which he followed up with Nola, in the French Quarter, and an Emeril's in Las Vegas.

His national fame grew in 1994 when TV Food Network picked up The Essence of Emeril.

His ad-libs - ``Bam! (when he tosses in ingredients) and ``kick it up a notch'' (when he gilds the lily in an otherwise ordinary dish with additional spice) - caught on among TV audiences more accustomed to more effete hosts. Lagasse can't go anywhere these days - along 33d Street in Manhattan outside the studio or along Tchoupitoulas Street near his office in New Orleans - without some 7-year-old screaming ``Bam!'' at him.

Last year, the show became Emeril Live, and the set was redesigned to add guest tables and a counter, where hungry people salivate while Lagasse cooks for them. There's a six-month wait for tickets.

Lagasse counts men among his biggest fans. ``I'm just an ordinary guy who cooks,'' says Lagasse. ``Guys see this as not intimidating. They think, `I can do this.' '' In case they forget, Lagasse hollers: ``We're not building a rocket ship here!''

He says his philosophy is simple: ``Have fun, eat great food, try to drink wine, and just sort of enjoy. . . . We're all wrapped up in the grind. We have to smell a little air once in a while.''

Tell that to Lagasse. In addition to his show, and his new cookbook, he's preparing his third New Orleans restaurant, Delmonico's, which will be followed by another new restaurant, at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.

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