If you ever flipped on the Food Network in the ’90s, long before spiky-haired Guy Fieri and lithe Giada De Laurentiis were hightailing it to diners and whipping up spe-geyhhtt-i, you couldn’t miss a fast-talking chef with the thick New England accent, known to most simply as Emeril. The New Orleans transplant—who peppered his informative, high-energy cooking demos with the catchphrases “BAM!” and “Kick it up a notch!”—was synonymous with the cable network’s nascent popularity. Although The Essence of Emeril is but a mere broadcast memory, Lagasse’s larger-than-life personality endures. After all, the man has his own line of extra virgin olive oil, pasta, and Cajun seasoning.
“I’ll run into a lot of young adults, kids who grew up watching the shows, and they tell me I took the intimidation factor out of shopping, cooking, and eating,” Lagasse says. “I had an almost 13-year run on the Food Network, and those accolades I received changed my life. I went from getting busy to getting busier, and for me that’s what it’s all about. But my foundation is my restaurants. When all is said and done, it’s my restaurants that matter most.”
After spending seven years at the helm of New Orleans’ fabled Commander’s Palace, Lagasse launched a culinary empire with his eponymously named restaurant in the Crescent City’s Warehouse District, reimagining regional cooking with his own Southwestern spin, sometimes incorporating Vietnamese and Caribbean inflections. Today, his 14 restaurants span Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, Asian-inspired Tchoup Shop in Orlando, and the low-key Burgers and More by Emeril in Bethlehem, PA. All keep him running around the country, yet Lagasse couldn’t resist the siren call of television once more.
I had an almost 13-year run on the Food Network, and those accolades I received changed my life.
Making its debut this fall on TNT is the Mark Burnett-produced On the Menu, in which Lagasse joins host Ty Pennington of Trading Spaces fame as the awesome-sounding Menu Master. In this reality competition, home cooks will vie to create dishes for the restaurant chains and stadium concession stands; winners will be rewarded with their creations appearing on the menus of, say, the Cheesecake Factory the very next day.
In another era, it’s a contest a young and ambitious Lagasse, who graduated from Johnson and Wales University and fell for French cuisine while in Paris and Lyon, might have entered himself. Although the Fall River, MA native received a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, Lagasse walked away from it to cook. “I started working in restaurants when I was young; I watched Julia Child and Graham Kerr, and I just got the fever. I worked hard at it, and that’s still what I try to do,” he explains.
And so, the beloved TV icon continues to make moves. But before On the Menu premieres on October 3 (TNT, 8pm), he took some time to look back. From quail that opened up doors to a banana cream pie he can never take off his menu, these are the dishes that define Lagasse’s career-long commitment to kicking it up a notch.
Kale soup (caldo verde)
One of my earliest food memories is this Portuguese soup, which is also called caldo verde because of its green color. My mom always made it for me when I was growing up. I’ve experienced many versions of this dish and enjoyed it at plenty of Portuguese feast-day celebrations. My recipe for it has evolved over time, particularly after some recent trips to Portugal—I even made it for Top Chef contestants last season—but I often think of my mom’s recipe. It’s a simple and awesome dish I cook at least once a week. (Photo via Splendid Table)
From the ages of 10 to 13 I worked in a local Portuguese bakery, washing pots and pans. They took a liking to me and showed me how to bake the bread. We bake bread 14 times a day in my restaurants, and after 34 years in the South, I know cornbread needs to be salty with a pop of jalapeño, not sweet like it would be in the North. Making it reminds me of the evolution of my baking, starting from that Portuguese bakery where fresh bread first became a philosophy for me. (Photo: Food Network/Pinterest)
Smoked mushrooms and Tasso over angel hair pasta at Commander’s Palace
When I worked at Commander’s Palace, I had this dish in my head and wanted to make it at the restaurant. But Mr. Brennan, the owner, wouldn’t let me buy a smoker because of Garden District regulations. After he went home I’d improvise by making a smoker on the stovetop, and it worked. Good tasso was just as key an ingredient as the mushrooms. It’s one of the few dishes I brought with me when I opened Emeril’s. If I took it off the menu people would freak out. (Photo: Commander’s Palace)
I can truly say that this dish made my career. When opening Emeril’s, it was a huge challenge getting the appropriate permits. I had an appointment at City Hall to see the councilman in my district, Milton, and got word he was a fan of quail. So, I cooked up this dish of stuffed quail with mushrooms, Andouille, and a Port wine sauce, and walked into his office with it. Needless to say, it got me what I needed. I still enjoy recreating this dish. It’s a combination of flavors that always come together beautifully. (Photo: fleurdelicious-nola.com)
I believe in solid dishes. I’m not into ego trips with coulis, extractions, foams, and crap. Emeril’s opened during the heyday of blackened redfish, the Paul Prudhomme era. I wanted to create something different, so I made an Andouille crust instead. The combination of the crunchiness with the classic meunière sauce and shoestring potatoes is simple and amazing. (Photo: Gambit)
Double-cut pork chop with caramelized sweet potatoes, tamarind glaze, and green-chile mole
I introduced New Orleans to Southwestern flavors with this dish. Customers already had a love for sweet potatoes, but the green chile and tamarind were new to them. It wasn’t too spicy but had just enough punch that it was a hit. It would be difficult if I ever tried to take this off the menu. (Photo: Emerils.com)
Southwest chicken with black beans, salsa, guacamole, and fried tortillas
This dish was another way of showing my customers what Southwestern cuisine was all about: half an organic chicken, slowly grilled, with a black bean puree that isn’t too thick, pico de gallo, a bit of guacamole, and a nest of stacked up tortillas. At first it was just on the lunch menu of Emeril’s, but it was so popular I had to add it at dinner, too. (Photo: Emerils.com)
It became clear when I first moved to New Orleans that if you wanted to cook you needed to know how to make gumbo—and it better be good, because Grandma can make one at home that will kick your butt. Gumbo is an art form, clarifying, experimenting, and perfecting the roux. It’s a staple and comfort food, yet there are so many different versions. I love the duck-and-mushroom and seafood gumbos, but my all-time favorite is chicken and Andouille. A good stock and slow cooking will give you some delicious results. (Photo: Food Network)
Softshell crab with crawfish sauce
I experienced an abundance of fresh seafood when I first moved to New Orleans. Just around the time of Jazz Fest, the local soft shells are meaty and robust. We bread them lightly with flour and egg-wash them. There’s a fine art to frying—you need to get the right temperature so the crabs remain moist in the center. When the crawfish are in season, too, this dish hits it out of the park. (Photo: Food Network)
Banana cream pie with banana crust and caramel sauce
I can’t even begin to tell you how many of these we’ve sold. If there’s one dessert—maybe even one dish—that people go crazy about, it’s this one. There’s something about the old-fashioned pastry cream layered with bananas, caramel, and finely shaved chocolate. My mom would occasionally buy a banana cream pie when I was growing up. It was tasty, but it was nothing like this one. I wanted to bring those childhood tastes back, but make them decadent. (Photo: Emerils.com)