My New Orleans: Chef Emeril Lagasse

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse talks about how food can transform a city—and points us (fork in hand) toward places to find the 'new' New Orleans cuisine.

When he first stepped into the Commander’s Palace kitchen during the early 1980s, locals weren’t quiet sure what to make of the young man from Massachusetts. But by the time his eponymous Warehouse District eatery debuted in 1990, Emeril Lagasse had firmly established himself as a New Orleans culinary icon. He’s since gone on to open 12 additional restaurants nationwide, author 18 cookbooks, appear on countless cooking shows (including his latest, TNT’s “On the Menu”) and establish his own charitable foundation, which holds its annual Boudin, Bourbon & Beer fundraiser Nov. 7 at the Superdome-adjacent Champions Square, followed by the 10th annual Carnivale du Vin Nov. 8 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Where recently caught up with the “Bam!” man in a rare moment of downtime.

Your foundation benefits various local charities, from Café Reconcile to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and has nurtured numerous culinary careers. Discuss the importance of mentoring and giving back.

Meaningful mentors can make all the difference. Some of my biggest mentors, like Ella Brennan and her family, impacted so much of my life and career. It has always been important to me to teach and do the same whenever I can. Especially with kids and those coming from difficult backgrounds, we have found these kids often are ready to make positive change in their lives, but they need strong mentors behind them every day. My wife Alden and I feel such joy knowing giving back really does make a difference.

Lagasse and students from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.

Café Reconcile has helped jumpstart the revitalization of an entire neighborhood. Talk about the power of food in connecting communities, how breaking bread can assist in breaking through social barriers.

Food is often the center of everything we do, especially in New Orleans! It has a way of encouraging people to leave everything at the door, come together and embrace life. Programs like Café Reconcile, Liberty’s Kitchen and Café Hope teach basic life skills through the language of food, where an important part of the curriculum is sharing meals together. At the table, they address tough issues faced in their homes and communities on a daily basis.

Carnivale du Vin is counted among the nation’s Top 10 charity wine auctions by Wine Spectator, which has also consistently presented Emeril’s with its annual Grand Award since 1999. What advice would you give wine novices who might feel intimidated about ordering at restaurants?

Ask for help! Don’t be afraid to turn to your server or sommelier and ask questions. At my restaurants, we don’t want our customers to be shy. We want to help them choose the right pairings that are best suited for their meal. Also, it’s not always necessary to go with the most expensive bottle on the menu. Some of the best wines I’ve tasted are very affordable.

Bourbon was added to the offerings at last year’s Boudin event. Are you more a bourbon or beer man?

I’m a fan of both, but I’d say I’m more of a beer guy. It’s a great ingredient to cook with, too.

Boudin, Bourbon & Beer

Help guide us through your three local restaurants.

Each of my restaurants here offers a unique take on what I call “New New Orleans” cuisine—updating classic New Orleans dishes. At Emeril’s Chef Slater is constantly pushing the bar, incorporating international flavors using local products. Chef Scanio at Emeril’s Delmonico is firmly focused on a renewal of Creole cuisine, incorporating lots of Caribbean and African influences, in addition to more of the traditional Old World, European styles. NOLA in the French Quarter takes more of a refined approach to rustic Louisiana dishes—like boudin balls—and classic Southern favorites like fried chicken and bourbon mashed potatoes, while throwing in some other surprises like Vietnamese-style wings. That’s the fun part of New Orleans cooking—it’s a cultural mash-up of so many great cuisines.

What do you see as the next New Orleans cuisine?

That’s a tough question! I think this is a really exciting time for the chefs in New Orleans. We’re constantly setting the bar for the world’s top cuisine, which is amazing considering the size of our city compared to others like New York or Paris. I think chefs will continue to expand people’s perception of what is New Orleans cuisine by expanding the cultural influences. Just look at the explosion of Vietnamese restaurants here lately. And you’re seeing more Caribbean and South American-style restaurants and dishes popping up. I just see more and more of these other influences becoming more prominent in what we call New Orleans cuisine.

Emeril's gumbo

What's the one dish every traveler needs to eat when in New Orleans?

We have so many fantastic signature dishes in New Orleans, but I’m going to have to say gumbo. It’s one of my favorite dishes to prepare and eat. There are so many different takes on gumbo here in the city—chefs who put their spin on the dish. You’ll never have the same gumbo twice!

 

Douglas Brantley
About the author

Doug serves as the New Orleans editor for Where. He has lived ...