The Essence of Emeril

In honor of his 25th year in business, celebrity chef and restaurateur Emeril Lagasse returns to New Orleans to celebrate the restaurant that launched his multimillion-dollar culinary empire.
Jeff Johnston

Chef Emeril Lagasse has done a lot in the past two and a half decades – become a world-renowned chef, TV star, best-selling author, prolific businessman, celebrated humanitarian and even an animated alligator in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”

But when this Creole-cooking superstar longs to get back to his culinary roots and “feel the love,” all he has to do is return to the spot that started it all – a former pharmacy warehouse at 800 Tchoupitoulas St., that, since opening as Emeril’s New Orleans in 1990, has served an estimated 2.7 million customers.

“Emeril’s New Orleans is really what put me on the map,” says Lagasse of his restaurant, known for its BAM!-tastic interpretations of appetizing Creole classics. “It’s been an amazing journey for the last 25 years, not only with gastronomy and wine, but with the people and service and what we are as a restaurant.”

Savoring its silver anniversary on Thursday, March 26, 2015, Emeril’s marked the milestone with weekly throwback menus, including a time-honored dish that literally helped open the doors at Emeril’s – Quail Milton, named after influential New Orleans City Councilman James Milton Singleton, who aided the permitting process to open the eatery.

The culmination of the celebration was a trio of six-course dinners hosted by Chef de Cuisine David Slater, General Manager Kevin Delaune and Lagasse himself. “3 Nights with Emeril” shone the spotlight on the continued bold innovation at Emeril’s with surprise selections showcasing the future of the “New New Orleans” cookery.


Chef Emeril Lagasse poses at his flagship restaurant, Emeril’s New Orleans, with Ray Gumpert, sommelier, Chef David Slater, chef de cuisine since 2008, and Kevin Delaune, general manager.
Photo by TSara Essex Bradley
 

 First You Make A Roux
 

Delaune says Emeril’s cooked up its own singular recipe for success from the start – an artful mix of passion, consistency and local support.

“Targeting our locals,” says Delaune. “That’s one thing we’ve done great over 25 years. Making them customers and doing whatever it takes to get them back – providing them with an exceptional experience every time they come in.”

Emeril attended Johnson and Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts and honed his craft in French cuisine in Paris and Lyon, France, later working in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. He succeeded Chef Paul Prudhomme at New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace in 1982, working for the Brennan family of restaurateurs until striking out on his own in 1989.

At that time, New Orleans’ Warehouse District included few galleries, and even fewer streetlights, but when Lagasse found the perfect property on the corner of Julia and Tchoupitoulas streets, he knew it was where he wanted to spice things up.

“I had found the space,” Lagasse says, “but didn’t have the financial capability until I sold most of what I had. I wrote up a business plan and finally went to one of the most conservative financial institutions, [which] said they would give me the money. At this time no new restaurants had opened for about six to eight years because of the oil and gas economy, so the fact that they would lend me the money, given the economy and state of the Warehouse District at this time, was a double risk.”

Determined to redefine New Orleans cuisine while paying homage to traditional Louisiana flavors, Lagasse debuted his white tablecloth endeavor on March 26, 1990. His only goal was to satisfy the sophisticated palates of New Orleanians in a festive, unpretentious setting. If he could do that, he says, he knew his kitchen would prosper.

Success was immediate. The same year it opened, Emeril’s New Orleans was named Esquire Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year.


Emeril’s New Orleans’ max capacity is 249 diners. A staff of approximately 100 serves between 200 and 400 patrons daily.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
 

Lagasse the Leader
 

Delaune has been with Lagasse since the beginning, first working at Emeril’s in 1990 as a server, and working his way to general manager in 2004. He credits Lagasse for being a consummate chef and the best businessman he’s ever known.

“What I’ve learned is how to operate one of the nation’s finest restaurants under the tutelage of an icon,” Delaune says. “Stepping out of the shadows of Commander’s Palace, we didn’t want to forget where we came from but we certainly wanted to create our own identity. Emeril did that. From him, I learned how to keep everyone motivated and focused on who we are and remembering who we were.”

 Delaune says the restaurant’s local success helped Lagasse, and when his celebrity status kicked in it took Emeril’s to another level.

The success of Emeril’s led Lagasse to open NOLA, located in the French Quarter, just two years later and a restaurant in Las Vegas [Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino] shortly following. “From there, the momentum just kept moving,” Delaune says.

And then television came calling.

“I was one of the first people hired for the Food Network,” he says. “It was really something to be part of growing that network from the ground up and seeing what it is today. Television is a powerful thing, and it really escalated my career. Combined with the success of the restaurants, the brand really evolved.”

Lagasse still sizzles as the food correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and he’s stirred things up on more than 2,000 episodes on the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Bravo’s “Top Chef: New Orleans” and TNT’s “On the Menu.”

In 2008, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia acquired the assets related to Lagasse’s media and merchandising business, including TV programming, cookbooks, the Emerils.com website, and his licensed kitchen and food products, for a reported $45 million in cash and $5 million in stock.


 

Wine is a significant feature at Emeril’s New Orleans. The restaurant’s collection of approximately 13,000 wines has been recognized among the top in the world for 14 years.
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
 

Peppering The Gumbo
 

Lagasse is also the best-selling author of 18 tantalizing cookbooks, including “Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking,” (1993) which introduced his gutsy take on contemporary Creole cuisine.

“This ‘New New Orleans’ cooking phase began by never disrespecting the traditions of the city or the state,” Lagasse says, “but by adding ingredients and techniques from other cultures that I felt were really contributing – Creole, Spanish, African-American and French with a little Italian and a little German. I began to add Southwest and Vietnamese flavors, too.”

Lagasse says Emeril’s began as a “from scratch” operation where everything was homemade – from the Worcestershire sauce to the ice creams. He believes in being connected to the land and sea and says it was important from the start to find the best local Louisiana farmers and fishermen to supply pedigree products from which he could create exciting eating experiences his customers would remember.

“We sourced mostly locally but also with American products in general. This was the beginning of artisanal farmers, from cheeses to beers, and I began experimenting with these products too,” Lagasse says. “The main thing about this approach, and why I stuck with it so long, is that it evokes the memory of my childhood, and I thought that’s how we should do it and that’s how it should be. Twenty-five years later this is still how we’re running our restaurant.”

Emeril’s Chef de Cuisine David Slater says he’s really embraced Lagasse’s “New New Orleans” cuisine. “It’s given me a great canvas to work from,” he says. “I use Emeril’s technique and style and add some modern spins to it, keeping it fresh and keeping it present. Chef [Emeril] has a passion that is contagious, so cooking with him is always a treat, and I’m always inspired.”

Much has changed in 25 years, including Lagasse’s workload: He now juggles the demands of 12 restaurants, his merchandise brand and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. On top of that, he says, he’s dealing with changes in the marketplace.

“Overall, the dining habits of consumers have changed,” he says. “People used to come in for long dinners with a several-course experience, whereas today that’s not so much the case. On top of that, there are more restaurants in New Orleans than ever. It’s motivation for us to always strive to become better and stay current while maintaining the high standards of our food and service.”

Lagasse is currently working on his 19th cookbook, “Essential Emeril.” It will feature his Top 100 recipes of all time and is slated for release this October.
 

Known for “kickin’ it up a notch,” Lagasse has put his own spin on contemporary Creole cuisine.Stirring The Pot
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
 

Stirring The Pot
 

Lagasse’s restaurant company, Emeril’s Homebase, located at 829 St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans, houses restaurant operations, a culinary test kitchen for cookbook and recipe development, and a boutique store for signature products. Eric Linquest, President and COO of Emeril’s Homebase, says to stay on top you need to remain ahead of the curve, know your customer and adapt to their needs.

“Being able to do that has led us to where we are today,” he says. “There isn’t any unique formula for pricing our menus other than wanting to give our guests a quality experience and overall value for their dollar when they patronize our restaurant.”

Emeril’s New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp is one of the defining dishes of Emeril’s “New New Orleans” cuisine, Linquest says, and has proved to be the restaurant’s most popular plate. Approximately 375,000 have been served, an average of 41 a day for 25 years.

Emeril’s has also sold more than 2.8 million slices of its creamy, dreamy Banana Cream Pie with graham cracker crust, caramel sauce and chocolate shavings. Selling at a current $8 a pop, that’s over $22 million in sales in just pie.

Tony Lott, who started as a busboy at Emeril’s when it opened, is now the director of operations at Emeril’s Homebase. He says many restaurants open and grow slowly into niches, adjusting to who and what they want to become along the way. Not so with Emeril’s.

“Emeril knew his vision and was able to put the whole package together from the beginning,” says Lott. “When we first opened, we were one of the only modern New Orleans restaurants. Now there are so many incredibly talented chefs and restaurateurs in this city, so it’s a lot more competitive.”

Delaune says the main objective is to stay foremost on their customers’ minds and make guests feel Lagasse’s presence in the restaurant.

“I’d like to think, at least, that we have made some sort of culinary impact,” Lagasse says. “I look around at the amazing talent in this city and all the great chefs. I’m honored that many have come through the kitchen at Emeril’s. It’s exciting to see how the dining scene has changed.”

Lagasse says Emeril’s is always evolving, including the addition of a new mixologist tasked with creating cocktails to add to the restaurant’s list of 13,000 wines – named one of the greatest wine lists in the world for 14 years running by Wine Spectator magazine.

Chef Slater also recently introduced “Omagasse.” A new take on the Japanese “Omakase,” the chef-inspired multi course dinner experience is served at the restaurant’s food bar.

“It’s never about going to work,” Lagasse says. “It’s about being around a team that has the same passion and vision of where you’re trying to go.”
 

Serving It Up
 

“The fact we were able to establish the Emeril Lagasse Foundation is one of my biggest personal joys, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the success of my flagship restaurant,” he says. “I feel fortunate to have been able to create the Foundation back in 2002 to support children’s educational programs that inspire and mentor young people through the culinary arts.”

Projects funded by the Foundation include an outdoor classroom, gardens, a fresh foods cafeteria and teaching kitchen at Edible Schoolyard New Orleans; an accessible learning kitchen for special needs students at St. Michael Special School; a four-year culinary arts program for high school students with a master-apprentice curriculum at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts; the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Hospitality Center at Café Reconcile; and hospitality training for at-risk youth at Liberty’s Kitchen.

To date, the Foundation has distributed more than $6 million in grants benefiting children’s charities in New Orleans, Las Vegas and along the Gulf Coast.

Lagasse received the 2013 Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for his philanthropic efforts to further the culinary arts in America.


“The fact we were able to establish the Emeril Lagasse Foundation is one of my biggest personal joys, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the success of my flagship restaurant,” Lagasse says. The foundation has supported an organic garden and healthy school meals program called The Edible Schoolyard at Samuel J. Green Charter Elementary School since 2006.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
 

Still Kickin’
 

While Emeril’s has built a strong international fan base and developed a foundation for benevolence, it has also proven itself a beacon of Southern-style resolve and resilience.

“Before Hurricane Katrina, Emeril’s was at an all-time high,” Lagasse says. “The restaurant was iconic, and people from all over the world were coming to New Orleans to visit the restaurant. After Katrina, we came back to a new playing field and certainly had lost some of that great momentum we had. It was a struggle on multiple levels. Without the loyalty of our customers, the support from the restaurant industry and the City of New Orleans, we wouldn’t be here today, and we’re forever thankful for that.”

Lagasse says it was inspiring to see the culinary scene rally following Katrina, leading to what he estimates was a 30 percent increase in the number of local restaurants. Undeterred by the competition, Lagasse says he took the opportunity to make Emeril’s even better.

“My greatest accomplishment would have to be this milestone,” Lagasse says of Emeril’s anniversary. “I’m humbled and thankful to the City of New Orleans and to all the customers who have come through our doors. Being open for 25 years is a pretty astounding thing, and it’s hard to believe that time has gone by.”
 


While New Orleans will always be home, the Emeril’s culinary empire has spread far and fast in 25 years.
 

• Emeril’s New Orleans (1990)

• NOLA Restaurant (1992)

• Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House
   (Las Vegas, 1995)

• Emeril’s Delmonico (New Orleans, 1998)

• Delmonico Steakhouse (Las Vegas, 1999)

• Emeril’s Orlando (1999)

• Emeril’s Tchoup Chop (Orlando, 2003)

• Table 10 (Las Vegas, 2008)

• Lagasse’s Stadium (Las Vegas, 2009)

• Emeril’s Chop House
   (Bethlehem, Penn., 2009)

• Burgers and More by Emeril
   (Bethlehem, Penn., 2009)

• Emeril’s Italian Table
   (Bethlehem, Penn., 2011)

• E2 Emeril’s Eatery (Charlotte, N.C., 2012)
 
For 25th anniversary recipes, visit:
Emerils.com/tags/emerils-25th-anniversary

 


 

Categories: Food, Hospitality, The Magazine