Share this article

print logo

PERPETUAL-MOTION MAN
NOBODY KICKS IT UP A NOTCH LIKE EMERIL -- BUT IS HE MORE SHOWMAN THAN CHEF?

He swoops, he shouts, he schmoozes, sweats and stirs. And then -- God forbid there should be a moment of silence -- he yells, "Bam!" and tosses food out at his audience.

We are talking about TV chef Emeril. As in Emeril Lagasse. To some people, of course, there is only one Emeril.

Nothing, but nothing, stops Lagasse from cooking what often looks like good food on television in front of his devoted fans.

And nothing stops him from bursting out onto the set like David Letterman at his most brash, with the band playing spiritedly.

And nothing stops "Emeril Live" (which happens to be taped) from being the No. 1 show on the Food Network, either. (At present, the Food Network doesn't air in the City of Buffalo, but it's on every night just about everywhere else in Western New York.)

So the big news is that Emeril Lagasse is coming here for a book signing on Oct. 5. His new book, "Every Day's a Party," has just been published by William Morrow ($26), and he will be at Sam's Club at 3735 Union Road, Cheektowaga, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to talk about it. Sam's Club was chosen, said his publicist, because it's such a big store: "There's plenty of room for people to wait in line if the weather is bad."

In case you didn't know this already, crowds don't bother Emeril Lagasse. He genuinely likes to meet the folks.

He also likes to get outside New York City, where the show is taped -- and where he has gotten blasted by food writer Amanda Hesser in an article in the New York Times for lousy food and general messiness.

She accused him of "poor cooking skills," "mangled tradition," "a facade of accessibility" and "sloppy presentation."

"On one program, Mr. Lagasse topped toasts with cheese, with steak, with peppers or with cheese and meat," Hesser wrote. "Then, instead of slicing onions to lie on each one -- as anyone else would -- he tossed chunks of raw onion over the entire plate, missing many of the toasts.

"For a finishing touch, he identified a couple of the individual toasts in the rubble and dropped a bit of Creole mustard on each: the unappetizers of the evening."

"That hurt me very much," Lagasse said on the phone the other day. "But I told myself that there is only so much time to cook on the show and food is a subjective thing. I got calls from Julia (Child) and Jacques (Pepin) the next day in sympathy."

Whatever the Manhattan critics have to say, Lagasse's latest book tour is concentrating on what someone once called "the places in between."

"We've often done book tours in places like L.A. and Chicago, but I asked myself, what about the people in small cities like Fall River, Mass. (his birthplace)?"

From Buffalo, he's moving on to Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, he said.

Karen Katz, executive producer of his show, calls Lagasse a "natural with great spirit." She confirms that the Food Network is thinking of moving tapings out into the heartland at least twice a year -- if they can can figure out a way to handle the crowds, that is.

The New York Times may dis him, but plenty of people, even in the Big Apple, have fallen in love.

"We get 118,000 requests for free tickets for a total of 1,500 seats during a week of shows," Katz says. Competition is so keen, tickets are handled by lottery.

Emeril Lagasse, 40, comes from modest beginnings. He is of Portuguese and French Canadian descent and worked in a local bakery as a youth. Then he worked his way through the culinary program at prestigious Johnson and Wales College, went to France and eventually went to work for Ella Brennan as executive chef in Commanders' Palace in New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurants in the United States.

Lagasse left there 10 years ago to open his own national award-winning restaurants -- the cutting-edge Emeril's and NOLA in New Orleans. He has just purchased another New Orleans restaurant called Delmonico's, and he also operates eating places in Universal City, Fla., as well as a steak house in the new Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and the New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand, also in Las Vegas.

"People thought we were crazy, serving fresh fish in the desert," he laughs.

But they don't think he's so crazy anymore.

Lagasse has written several books and will be named one of People magazine's 25 Sexiest Men Alive in November. (You heard it here first.)

He stays, however, relatively humble and very likable.

"It's not just a case of 'he who dies with the most restaurants wins,' " Lagasse says. "Cooking is my passion and I do it every day."

But anyone who watches him on television knows he has found his true vocation. "Bam!" he shouts, tossing an onion into sizzling fat.

No need to ask what kind of fat it is, either. "Pork fat forever" is one of his mottos. His audience chants it right along with him. (This may be the noisiest cooking show on television.)

Another of his favorite sayings is, "Kick it up a notch!" That means adding richness to a dish by using butter and cream or a great deal of Essence, his own brand of spice mix that he's not averse to mentioning.

"Be sure to season both sides of the meat," he tells his viewers on one show as he douses a steak. "There's nothing worse than eating a piece of meat that has taste on only one side."

Off screen, Lagasse insists he's a different person.

"I'm a pretty shy guy," he said over the phone. "In ordinary life, I'm calm and soft-spoken, but when I'm on TV with a live audience I get this great energy. It's very fulfilling when I get in there.

"And if my shenanigans can influence people, particularly young people, to get interested in food, I'm going to keep on doing them. I'm having a lot of fun."

Emeril Lagasse likes simple recipes. "Everybody can do things with truffles, but we're not going to do crazy things. We're not putting blueberry sauce on everything. The most important thing is how the food tastes.

"People in general are still a little intimidated about cooking, and most of the intimidation is because of recipes," he says.

"A big number of ingredients can put people off."

The chef does have some rules, however.

"I tell people they must read the recipe more than once before they cook from it. If you were planning a trip, for instance, you would at least read a map before you left."

And he also tells people to measure out ingredients before they cook. On TV, of course, the guy doesn't employ so much as a teaspoon.

"I don't want to come on the air like some scientist. I'm just trying to teach them basics at a basic comfort level," he explains.< And that's exactly what a lot of fans like about Emeril Lagasse. As mentioned, there are a lot of them.

"It's great entertainment," says Adrienne Gryta of Snyder. "I'd love to be at the show."

A Jamestown viewer agrees. "I'm not a person who will just tune right into Emeril," says Mary Anne McAuliffe, who has enjoyed meals at Emeril's in New Orleans. "But if I happen to get to the Food Channel and he's on, I just hang in there.

"He's very entertaining, he's got good music, he's funny, and he is a very good chef. He's got very good recipes. I've never actually done one but I have been tempted and I've learned a lot about food."

A lot of guys like to watch Emeril cook. "I like him because he demystifies some of the all-hallowed cooking techniques," says a fan from Eggertsville. "He's usually good for a couple of ideas, and he handles techniques without lot of pomp and circumstance. 'This is not rocket science,' he keeps saying.

"I've taken his recipes off the Web site a couple of times (no recipes are given on television) and they were really good."

But others feel that Lagasse's personality has eclipsed his food.

"I guess there's a lot of competition for TV chefs, and Emeril has a good gimmick trying to be funny and brash," says Tom Hiltke of Buffalo, who watches the show because he has a satellite dish.

"But he doesn't carry it off too well. I can hear the audience trying to laugh at his jokes. He fools around too much and doesn't dispense enough information.

"Do I ever cook his recipes? No, I don't, and one of the reasons is that I don't have any of that Emeril Essence in my cupboard.

"Sometimes his program seems just like an infomercial to me."

There are no comments - be the first to comment