1997: Bam! Emeril Lagasse goes from chef to superstar
Emeril Lagasse had made TV cooking shows before, notably including “How to Boil Water,” “Emeril and Friends” and “Essence of Emeril.” Those, however, were oddly subdued affairs, failing to capture the ebullience of Emeril. Then came a 1996 primetime special to promote his “Real and Rustic” cookbook. It was taped live in front of an audience, but without the rigidity of a script. It was also a hit, becoming the first Food Network program ever to register a Nielsen rating. “Emeril loved the interaction; the network loved the numbers,” a 1998 story in The Times-Picayune read. Soon after “Real and Rustic” aired, the series “Emeril Live!” debuted, following a similar format. Unleashing Lagasse’s energy — and carrying over such quotable catchphrases as “Bam!” and “Let’s kick things up a notch!” from “Essence of Emeril” — it was a sensation. It pulled huge ratings. People lined up around the block to attend tapings. Lagasse was no longer just a chef. He was a rock star.
“Emeril Live!” ended its run in 2007, but its format has been adopted by countless cooking shows. A multiple James Beard winner, Lagasse remains one of New Orleans’ culinary giants and is one of the most recognizable chefs in America. Over the years, he has built a business empire that includes 14 restaurants — including, in New Orleans, Emeril’s, NOLA, Delmonico and Meril — as well as his Essence seasoning blends, a series of cookbooks and a host of branded kitchenware.
- In a 1998 interview, Lagasse described how he persuaded the Food Network to let him go unscripted: “I finally went to the president of the network and said, ‘Look. You may be able to teach an actor how to cook. But you ain’t gonna teach cooks how to act. You either let ’em riff at what they do, or start looking for some good actors. Because this script stuff, it ain’t for me. I’m a cook.'”
- “Essence of Emeril” was the result of that conversation, but it was still missing something — which is where the live studio audience of “Emeril Live!” comes in. “It’s crazy,” Lagasse said in his dressing after a 1998 taping. “But you can see why I’m having fun, with the energy down there. The fans are absolutely phenomenal. It’s 20 degrees, and they’re out there in line from 10 o’clock in the morning.”
- Lagasse’s most recent show, “Eat the World” — a travel and food show made for Amazon — won a 2017 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Culinary Program.
- If “Emeril Live” marked Lagasse’s on-air high point, the short-lived 2001 sitcom “Emeril” was a low. Featuring Lagasse playing a fictionalized version of itself, it was cancelled by NBC after just seven episodes.
- Though he has built his career on what he calls “New New Orleans” cooking, Lagasse isn’t originally from the Crescent City. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, to a Canadian father and a Portuguese mother. That New England provenance is evident every time he adds “more gah-lic” to one of his dishes.
- Although offered a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music as a drummer, the young Lagasse — who had mastered the art of bread and pastry baking as a teenager working in a bakery — decided to pursue a culinary career. His mother cried.
- After studying at Johnson and Wales University, followed by a stint in Paris to study French cuisine, he was hired in 1985 to succeed the legendary Paul Prudhomme as head the kitchen at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.
- Lagasse’s most recent addition to his restaurant empire is Emeril’s Coastal Italian, which opened in late summer 2017 just outside Destin, Florida, where he now lives with his family.
- The home base for Lagasse’s business empire, fitting called Emeril’s Homebase, is in New Orleans and includes restaurant operations, a culinary test kitchen for cookbook and recipe development, and a boutique store for his signature products.
- In addition to his business pursuits, he runs the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, which, according to his website, “supports children’s educational programs that inspire and mentor young people through the culinary arts, school food and nutrition, and important life skills program.”
- Among the New Orleans programs supported by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation are Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, St. Michael Special School and a culinary learning center for at-risk youth at Café Reconcile. In addition, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Arts Studio is a four-year culinary arts program operated out of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
In addition to helping cement his status as a superstar celebrity chef, “Emeril Live!” provided Lagasse with a platform to serve as a charismatic ambassador for South Louisiana culture and cuisine. By doing so, he joined the pantheon of Louisiana chefs (including Justin Wilson and Paul Prudhomme) who used the medium of TV to bring the country to New Orleans’ table — and kicking things up a notch in the process.