Emeril Lagasse: The Godfather of Celebrity Chefs

 David Moir / Bravo / NBCU

This fall, Emeril Lagasse’s name is the calling card on TNT’s first food-related show, On the Menu, where he’s the chef mentor and fellow celeb, Ty Pennington, is the host. The show, which premieres October 3, is a competition among accomplished home cooks to land a dish on the menu of a high-profile restaurant or restaurant group. The show has a lot going for it, not the least of which is celebrity producer Mark Burnett. With this trio of serial winners on the roster, the stars may have aligned for a hit show. 

It’s a high-profile endeavor in a long line of TV shows over the past two decades that have allowed this Louisiana transplant from small-town Fall River, Massachusetts, to bring, most famously, the soulful flavors of Cajun and Creole cooking into American home kitchens. After 18 books, 13 restaurants in five cities, a slew of hit cooking shows, a foundation committed to mentoring youth that earned him the 2013 James Beard award for Humanitarian of the Year, and catchphrases that most Americans know by heart ("BAM!", "Kick it up a notch!") accrued over a 36-year career, Emeril is on a first-name basis with his multitude of fans. He’s widely considered to be among the high achievers responsible for the American chef becoming a public figure. 

Why did you, a chef, initially decide to do television?
I believe in mentors and mentorships. It’s why I went into television. I wanted to move forward, evolve what American cuisine was 25–30 years ago. My people told me I was selling out, that I was a used-car salesman. I didn’t do it for the money; in the beginning I was getting $25 a show. I started because I had a passion, not to intimidate, but to educate people. On TV, you also get to experience a lot of things. I’m blown away by what I’ve been exposed to in Florida. Great chefs and hoteliers. People have no idea about the incredible agriculture there. They’re farming sturgeon, for instance, to make caviar that Petrossian is picking up.

What do you think of being a celebrity? 
I have chef on my jacket and card; I don’t have celebrity chef. It’s really about being the best craftsman. Everybody has a little different approach. I’m just trying to push the bar a little more every day. I’m a big believer in not adding more nonsense to nonsense. 

Could you talk about the changing landscape for TV chefs?
I was a big fan of Julia Child and Graham Kerr, the “Galloping Gourmet.” I never thought cooking shows would be as prominent as they are today. Twenty years ago, they were very personal. They were teaching people the ABCs. Now, the American palate has changed. People are looking for adventure. It’s a reflection of our society. Everything is so fast. If you don’t respond to an email in one minute, someone gets mad. That’s where cooking has gone, too. People want to see how fast they can cook a steak and how fast they can eat it. It may come back to something slower. I prefer something more intellectual. It’s not a race for me. I’m just trying to get better every day. That’s what I’m about.

With all you have going on, how do you ensure food with your name on it reflects your standards and tastes?
I have a great team that’s been with me 20-30 years. They understand where I am and the direction we’re going. I am hands-on every single moment of the day, and there’s good and bad to this. I haven’t been home in two weeks and have little kids, and I’d like to be home. But I have to deal with the everyday headaches and nonsense of running restaurants. I have to keep the brand moving ahead. I’m just the quarterback, but I can’t do it alone. You have to have a great team behind you. I don’t really want to be around small thinkers and people who don’t know what they’re doing. I get in the test kitchen with the culinary team nine hours a day, in the restaurants until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I wish I could tell you I was fishing.

Being a chef is exhausting, and you’re 55 now. How do you feel?
I feel great. I’m a big Pilates person, and I get into the gym as often as possible.

We hear you have a food passion that a lot of guys share this fall — tailgating. Any tips for grilling on the tarmac?
I’ve been tailgating for 30-plus years, and I’m a big football guy. When you’re cooking at tailgating parties, keep it simple with not a lot of ingredients and prior planning. Respect the fire, and don’t just turn it to high; don’t rush cooking because some things need to be cooked slowly. And remember sanitation: Wash your hands often, and be aware that food is perishable when you’re outdoors for hours.