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Chef Emeril Lagasse talks travel influences and a secret favorite food spot in New Orleans

Photo by Josh Brasted

Chef Emeril Lagasse is one of the most beloved chefs in the world. He was one of the original celebrity chefs and has always encouraged us to “Take it up a notch.” He was a regular on Food Network for many years and taught us all to cook along with him. He now makes guest appearances on shows like Top Chef to inspire and support the next generation of high talent chefs. Chef Emeril shows no signs of slowing down and as we face this pandemic and is doing everything thing that he can to take care of his employees and his beloved community in New Orleans.

We were able to catch up with Emeril and discuss how to help your local restaurants, travel inspirations and New Orleans hidden gems.

The restaurant industry has been hit hard through this pandemic shutdown. I know you are devoting the proceeds from restaurant gift card sales to your employee fund. Are there other efforts that are taking place within the restaurants for the staff and community?

I have hundreds of employees, many who have been with me since day one, 30 years ago, and many who have just begun their journey with our family. They are all equally important and absolutely vital to this industry. It is the individual people who collectively make up our team and allow us to cook and create the dining experiences for our guests that we are so proud of. In addition to our Employee Relief Fund, and donating gift card sales to help our employees and their families, my restaurant team in New Orleans has partnered with #LocalHeroesChallenge and Chef’s Brigade several times over the past few weeks to ensure that those on our frontline are shown appreciation for their selfless work. We provide meals for hospital units, police stations, fire stations, and first responders. We will continue to do this as long as it’s needed.

How can others help out?

The best way to help out is by donating to or purchasing from your favorite restaurants or organizations that are focused on helping the hospitality industry at large. This can include gift cards, merchandise, etc. There are so many great groups that have showed up, and even formed to help with these efforts. Also, there are many groups and organizations that are helping with feeding the frontlines – I mentioned a couple in New Orleans but if you look in your community you will see who is doing the work and how you can help. 

What item is a must have during quarantine?

Alcohol! Ha. Also, I don’t know what I would cook without some chicken stock. But seriously, an ice cold Peroni while you wait for your roux to cook helps pass the time and is my personal version of a timer – two Peronis and I know the roux is done.

You are one of the most recognizable chefs in the world with TV shows, cookware, cookbooks and amazing restaurants. Is there anything else left on your culinary bucket list?

Oh man yes, the culinary bucket list is long! The thing about being a restaurateur is that the hard work never lets up. Emeril’s restaurant turned 30 years old on March 26th and while I’m so proud of that, my philosophy is that you have to keep evolving no matter how new or old your brand is. We are excited to add a seasonal and vegetarian tasting menu to the offerings and really just keep learning, responding to the needs of our customers and highlight the best ingredients we can find through our dedicated purveyors. 

What dish is your guilty pleasure?

Anything with a good gravy. The kind that sticks to your ribs. Last week I made Swedish meatballs and ate for three meals – over rice with steamed broccoli, over some warm buttery egg noodles, and then the grand finale: a meatball sandwich on toasty French bread with some melted provolone.

Is there any ingredient that you refuse or avoid using?

Margarine. Just use butter! 

The restaurant industry is such a competitive landscape. Is there a secret to staying original and relevant in this industry?

A quote I recently came across by Simon Sinek reminded me of something I believe to be true: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” I fell in love with hospitality because it allows me to connect with people every single day. The passion I have for meeting new people, learning from them, and teaching them is as important to me as the art of cooking itself. It always has been and always will be about the people. If you keep this in your mind, and let it be the foundation for every step of the process, from the sourcing of ingredients to the cooks on your line to the food on the plate, you’re doing the right thing.

I spoke to Isaac Toups recently and he spoke about you being a mentor. He said he learned how important it is to take care of your staff while working with you as the most important lesson. What advice would you give to aspiring chefs right now?

Isaac is a great cook and a dear friend. In the vein of “being about the people” – this belief starts with the people who work hard, day after day, in my restaurants. The dishwasher, the hostess, the server, the reservationist, the line cook, the pastry chef. There are so many roles in a restaurant and every single one of them is as important as any other. My advice to anyone in the hospitality industry is to seek out an environment where you feel valued every day.  Valued by your coworkers, your management team, and however far up the food chain it goes – it’s important to feel like a family. That can be eating together before or after a shift (we call this family meal in my restaurants), or being exposed to continuing education around food, wine, spirits etc. thus having the opportunity for upward growth, or feeling comfortable asking questions. Whatever your role is, find an environment that is fulfilling in multiple ways. Your growth & success whether individually or as a team will come easier this way.

Is there a travel experience that has influenced your cuisine or certain dishes?

I spent a while in London last year – I enjoyed eating at all the more modern restaurants from casual to fine dining. It’s an everchanging environment out there and I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years now and I get excited every day when I see, learn, or am inspired by new things. It’s not always about the food I’m tasting either. As a restaurateur, I look at service, plating, décor, music, uniforms and even flatware! It all matters and all lends to the ultimate experience. I’m excited about bringing some new things to all my restaurants this year. Always learning, always evolving but staying true to myself. It’s exciting and that feels good right now when things are the way they are right now.  

Is there a city you would like to explore or re-visit through cuisine? Where is it and what draws you to it?

I want to get down to Mexico City and some of the surrounding cities like Oaxaca. So many amazing things are happening there with dining whether its street food or Michelin stars. And talk about big flavors! There’s an ever-present Mexican influence on regional American cuisine, especially in the south. I like to keep a pulse on modern influences so I can evolve my food with my chefs.

What is one dish no one would expect you to love?

I had reindeer heart when I was in Sweden. It was delicious. 

What is the most special thing about New Orleans to you?

New Orleans is not just a city. It’s one big family. My family. I moved down there 40 years ago and fell in love. There’s so much to love. It gets in your soul and it never leaves you. It changes you, softens you, hardens you, inspires you, pleases you, challenges you, forgives you, and loves you forever. I will forever be grateful to my New Orleans family and look forward to serving her forever.

Any hidden gems or recommendations in New Orleans?

Pho Tau Bay. Not as hidden as it used to be but still my go to for weeknight dinners. My favorite dishes are: Chargrilled Pork Spring Rolls, Chicken Pho with extra bean sprouts and the Chargrilled Pork Vermicelli salads with an added Egg Roll. The Banh Mi’s are also killer.

Once quarantine is over do you have a dream vacation destination?

I can’t wait to get out on my boat with my fishing buddies. A couple long days of sport, cooking on the boat for a crowd. Man, I can’t wait.

Photo: Josh Brasted

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