Original Publication Date: Mon, 24 Feb 1997
That deep frying sound network TV executives hear over their shoulders is coming from the kitchen – Emeril Lagasse’s kitchen.
Lagasse has transformed “The Essence of Emeril,” a spirited little 30-minute cooking show on the Food Network and amped it up a thousand degrees into “EMERIL LIVE,” an hour-long explosion of food, laughs and good times.
Not many cable TV shows cause ABC, CBS and NBC prime-time schedulers to sweat. But outside of maybe “ER,” “Homicide” and “NYPD Blue,” there isn’t anything more fun to watch at 10 p.m. than Lagasse cooking and cutting up. Just look out for the powdered sugar as he launches it on the run from one end of his TV kitchen to the other.
“What you gotta do, you gotta go . . . ” Just then, Lagasse races across the studio. “BLAM! Like that!”
Wait – did you miss that the first time?
“We’re a new show,” he says, slightly winded. “We can’t afford instant replay so we gotta go . . . ” And he’s flying across the stage again, arms flapping. This time, the audience shouts it with him: “BLAM! Like that!”
Lagasse’s show pulsates with the same kind of anything goes energy that powers Rosie O’Donnell’s gab fest. He’s like the Galloping Gourmet – untraceable, quirky accent and all
– on triple espresso.
Talking about the use of shortening in beignets – how boring could that be, you’re thinking – Lagasse says, “I had these recipes that say do this, do that. Who MAKES these rules?” He explodes. “Let ’em get their own show! I’m gonna do it MY way!”
Rules? The problem with cooking is too many rules.
“You don’t have to have perfect squares,” Lagasse tells his audience as he slices the beignets before frying them. “Who cares, you know? Like we got some architect judging us at breakfast!”
The audience for “Emeril Live” sits in an ideal configuration for this type of show, some on bleachers, some at round, cafe-style tables, still others right at his cooking counter, close enough to savor Lagasse’s creations first-hand.
Lagasse, 39, owns two restaurants in New Orleans (Emeril’s and NOLA), a third in Las Vegas (Emeril’s New Orleans Fishhouse), has authored two cookbooks (“Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking” and “Louisiana Real & Rustic,” both published by William Morrow) and employs 350 people overall. The entrepreneurial chef was discovered three years ago by former Food Network President Reese Schonfeld. Schonfeld saw Lagasse performing his magic at the Emeril’s Restaurant display kitchen in New Orleans.
Very little in Emeril’s act has changed since then, except that he looks up at the camera while cooking now instead of down at his food. And he works at keeping his TV recipes simple.
“I’ve always done food that can work in a set time frame,” Lagasse says. “The message I’m trying to get across is, it doesn’t have to take three days to do this. With planning, you can do a lot and really have quality food every day.”
Where does he get all that enthusiasm? Beside the espresso machine in his dressing room, Lagasse – who has no stage training – says restaurant cooking should always be entertaining.
“If I don’t think the staff of my restaurant is pumped up enough to go ‘on stage,'” he says, “I’ve been known to sometimes take the whole staff jogging around the block before we open to get everyone psyched.
“I’m a people-person,” he continues. “If I have an empty restaurant, I wouldn’t be energized to cook a lot of great dinners. Having a live audience energizes me. And I look at cooking the way other people look at theater or music. Food is definitely an art form. I’m just fortunate that now I have an audience of people on the show who don’t have to pretend they have smell-o-vision. We’re actually feeding these people. I’m putting my reputation on the line as an artist, as a chef. That’s a blast – in between the breaks, you’ve got somebody in row 3 who just drove in from Virginia and they say, ‘Oh, my God, that smells so good!’ And I can say, ‘Have a taste!’ If somebody has a chance to put my food in their mouth, that tells the story.”
Certainly the crowd went wild when he tells them he’d make enough beignets for everyone.
“Those other 10 o’clock shows that come on, all you get from them is headaches and nightmares when you go to bed!” Lagasse says. “At least we give you food, know what I mean?”
Actually, “Emeril Live” may be more like the old Arsenio Hall show – all Lagasse needs now is a trademark move like Hall pumping his fist in the air. Maybe he could spin a jar of his own seasoning – “Essence of Emeril,” natch – on the edge of his index finger.
All kidding aside, the only thing Lagasse really needs to do is be truly live. Because despite the show’s title, “Emeril Live” isn’t.
Surprised? So was Mr. Media.
“Because of my restaurant schedule and other commitments I have,” Lagasse explains, “I shoot up to 12 shows in a week. It’s taped live.”
That will probably surprise anyone who has ever seen the show or promos for it, which certainly give the impression it’s live, as in “happening right now.” But it’s not.
“The network certainly would like for it to be live, live,” Lagasse says. “But right now, because of my love and passion for my restaurants, I’m still cooking in my restaurants everyday.”
He tapes “Live” in three-a-day bursts, much as he recorded up to seven “Essence of Emeril” programs a day for the last two and a half years.
Will the show ever live up to its “Live” name?
“Who knows?” Lagasse says.
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