Emeril Lagasse Is Finally Ready to Kick it Down a Notch
For as long as anyone under forty-five can remember, Emeril Lagasse has been the nitrogen in the cultural air. As one of the first chefs on the Food Network, he was a pioneer in transforming a man to a brand and a brand into an empire. His television presence began with How to Boil Water in 1993 but eventually comprised of a series of eponymous programs including the live show (Emeril Live!), a cooking show (Essence of Emeril), and a sitcom (Emeril). The combined onslaught brought the man, his catholic Creole cooking, and his catchphrases (“Bam!” “Let’s kick it up a notch,” and the word “gaaahlic” elongated in his Massachusetts accent into an elegant ski-jump) into the living rooms of millions of Americans. Simultaneously, his ubiquitous presence on QVC, where he sold various kitchen ephemera like Emeril airfryers to Emeril fully automatic pasta makers, brought appliance-effigies of Emeril into the kitchens of millions more. His written output has been prodigal and includes classics such as Emeril’s New New Orleans Cuisine and not-so-classics such as Emeril Lagasse Everyday Recipes for the Power AirFryer 360. He has reached a level of ubiquity one needn’t be conscious of Emeril to absorb him.
Emeril in his nineties heyday where he helped popularise the Food Network.
In fact, over the past decade or so, consciousness of Emeril has lapsed. Since both his live and cooking shows were unceremoniously cancelled in 2007, Emeril has been in diminuendo. In 2008, he sold his brand to his friend Martha Stewart for $50 million. Since then the brand, now lashed to the capricious steeds of venture capitalists, has cycled through multiple owners. (It is now owned by “some very nice Wall Street guys,” says Emeril.) His presence on cable TV is non-existent, although since cable TV is non-existent, it’s hard to disaggregate how much of this is due to the decline of the medium itself. His shows, to the extent that he has them, have been short-lived and lost in the whitewash of excess content. Eat the World with Emeril on Amazon, which won a daytime Emmy for Outstanding Culinary Program, was canceled after just one season.
He was in town to do the Rachael Ray show, promoting his newest shows, Emeril Tailgates and Emeril Cooks, which appear on Roku+, a streaming backwater best known for a Weird Al Yankovic biopic. (Though neither are revolutionary, both shows are charming.) As for his restaurants, which once numbered a dozen and stretched from Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) to New Orleans (naturally) to Las Vegas (of course), only a few remain: Emeril’s, his fine dining flagship; Meril’s, a global casual outpost, both in the Warehouse District of New Orleans; Delmonico’s Steakhouse, in Las Vegas and Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in MGM, plus two on cruise ships and one in Miramar, Florida, Emeril’s Coastal, near where he lives. His company, which once had 1600 employees on its payroll, has shrunk by half. But, says Emeril, sipping his coffee, “Let me make something clear: I’m not retiring anytime soon.”
Like his eyebrows, Emeril remains expressive and unruly. Though his once thick mein of black hair has thinned and grayed, the sparkle of his squinty eyes has lost none of its luster. His dimples, once salient, have been lost in his jowls but his smile still awakes them. And he smiles often, especially when recalling the illustrious sweep of his career. “I was the first chef to go to space!” he says, excitedly. (In 2006, he sent Emeril's Mardi Gras jambalaya to the International Space Station.) "Essence of Emeril started the Food Network!” he says at another point. He can play-by-play his origin story at the Food Network verbatim. “I said, ‘I want to be the Jay Leno of food, but without the nonsense.’”he recounts. At 63, Emeril Lagasse is the world’s foremost expert on Emeril Lagasse. Even for those less august, after a certain time the accumulation of one’s deeds is stored with the most care in one’s own internal archive. No one else has the capacity or the interest. This can be galling. When one has done as much as Emeril has—over the forty years he’s been on television (and before that when he reinvented Creole food at Commander’s Palace), he has been a churning mill of content, product, spin-offs, one-hour specials, co-brands and add-ons—it is all but certain that only he, he who has kept all the receipts, can fully understand his own achievement.
There are two ways to deal with this situation. One is to become angry and embittered, convinced that the world has overlooked a genius in their midst. Especially after the Food Network, a network he helped make, cut him loose, Emeril tried wrath. “I was angry for a long time,” he said. This rage metastasized as he was trotted out—or more accurately, trotted himself out—in the wake of his Food Network years to decision makers increasingly unaware of his considerable oeuvre. “I was tired of subjecting my life to 22 year olds who have no idea what I was bringing to the table, had never seen Emeril Live!, and has never been to any of my restaurants.” There were nibbles and bites but nothing as big nor with the capacity for quantum evolution both personal and professional like Essence of Emeril was. But really, how could there be? In the thirty years since he first stepped onto a television set, Emeril had created a world and now that world had passed him by. Cooking on television—that is the art form Emeril, following in the footsteps of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, had perfected—had spawned a universe of highly stylized and cheaper-to-make cooking competitions where the point isn’t so much to follow along at the range as to nicker and winny at the small glories and daily degradations of the erstwhile gladiators. This left Emeril, who has an avowed aversion to competition shows, battling obsolescence. He risked becoming the Kodak of the celebrity chef world.
From left: E.J. Lagasse, Meril Lagasse, Emeril Lagasse, and Emeril’s wife, Alden Lagasse.
Then the pandemic happened and turned everyone into a has-been. All of Emeril’s restaurants shuttered. “For over a two year period of time, nothing funded the businesses and the employees except for me.” And when the world reopened, many of Emeril’s restaurants did not. NOLA, his definitive New Orleans restaurant, stayed closed. Ditto the chophouse, the fish house and the burger joint in Pennsylvania In Las Vegas, the sports bar at the stadium closed. “I thought to myself,” he says, ‘Is it really worth it or is it just because you want to say you have another restaurant?’ Well, I don't need to say that I have another restaurant at this point in my life.” As for television, he says, he’s mostly done with the dog and pony show. “I’m not chasing the rabbit anymore.”
Most importantly, at age 63, he is no longer angry. “The world has changed,” he said, “I don’t know about you but I know it. I can feel it.” A flicker of sadness passes over his face, taking off like a stunt rider from the ramp of one eyebrow and landing on the other. But then it’s gone. Because after all, Emeril has changed too. “As you get older, two things either happen: you either don't get it, which you should've because life should be a learning experience, or you do get it. I'm not saying I totally get it, but I get it.”
Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse.
A man doesn’t name his son Emeril and his daughter Meril and his shows Emeril and his restaurants Emeril and his airfryers Emeril who doesn’t keen for the dynastic. And yet these days, Emeril seems at peace with his dwindling affairs. “There was a lot of baggage that left that should have left,” he explains. Plus, Emeril’s got a new generation of Lagasses to carry on. His twenty year old son, E.J., is now the chef at Emeril’s. After studying with Eric Ripert and staging across Europe, E.J. returned home last year. “E.J. came back with all this knowledge and he just hit it off with the guys,” explains Emeril, “we’re going to totally revitalize the restaurant, make it something that I always wanted it to be.” He’s even contemplating opening another restaurant with E.J,, a Portuguese tapas restaurant dubbed 34, after their respective generations.
Mostly, though Emeril seems a man unencumbered by his past, one able to contemplate the ebbs and flows of his life philosophically. After years of kicking it up a notch, he is ready to take it down a few. But what looks like retreat from one angle is advance from the obverse. Emeril Lives! might be over but Emeril lives nevertheless, an emperor emeritus in his throne drinking a cortado, and doing just fine.
From: Esquire US