What's the best advice you ever got?
A friend once said to me, "You have to have a mentor, because then you'll always strive to be better." That turned out to be so true. I found mentors in people like chef Paul Prudhomme and Ella Brennan. They helped me become a better chef when I was still young and temperamental. One night we were in the middle of service at Commander's Palace and I was carrying on. Ella wrote a note on a little piece of paper and handed it to me. "Do me a favor and leave your ego at home," it said. That hit home.
Much of your new show, Eat the World, is about travel. Was there a trip that changed your life?
In my younger chef days, I had the pleasure to travel around Europe with the late Charlie Trotter, particularly to France. Charlie was always looking for the best, and we didn't just go there to eat — we went there to learn. A lot of what Charlie did was self-taught, yet he had one of the most successful restaurants in the United States. He would come back from these trips and test and test and just keep striving for perfection.
You've been a chef in New Orleans for 35 years. What's the key to cooking there?
When I first took over Commander's Palace, I had tremendous shoes to fill, replacing Paul Prudhomme. I knew I was fond of Creole-American food, but I realized I didn't actually know a whole lot about it. I wasn't really able to make my move in that city until I understood the traditions and culture of its people. That's true of understanding food anywhere, whether you're in South Korea or on the Amalfi Coast.
Can you walk into a restaurant and know if it's going to be good?
Immediately. Some indicators are the smells, the attitudes, and the cleanliness of the bathrooms. Once you're seated, though, I think the quality of the soup is the giveaway. If somebody is going to go out of their way to pay attention to the details of making a truly great soup, you know you're going to have a good meal. At the end of the day, you have to like people to open a restaurant. If you don't, you'll be unhappy, and that will come across.
Many chefs develop drug and alcohol problems. How did you avoid that?
I've just seen it fuck up too many people. Whenever I would look back on my life, I'd realize that so many of my old friends were either dead or in prison because of drugs, and that would make me think about what I was doing.
What role does music play in your life?
Music runs in my blood, just like food does, and I think it's what made Emeril Live so lively. It was not easy to pick one over the other. I turned down a full scholarship to a music school to go to cooking school instead. I thought my mom was going to have a stroke. She just couldn't imagine that after playing music as a young boy, I would turn down such an art form for an opportunity to sweat in the kitchen.
What have you learned about work?
I got my strong work ethic from my parents. My dad is in his late eighties and he still opens the restaurant every morning.
The restaurant business is so cutthroat. What has competition taught you?
I think it's healthy, but I don't get up every day and worry about other chefs. This is basically how I feel about critics as well. I stopped cooking for them and started cooking for me, and it made me a better chef because I wasn't worried about what everyone was thinking. I've been cooking for nearly 40 years, and I just try a little harder than I did the day before.
Lagasse's new series, Eat the World, streams on Amazon Prime. He owns 13 restaurants and has authored 19 cookbooks.
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