Chef Emeril Lagasse started cooking at the age of 12, in the kitchen with his mother. And he was good at it. He was also an exceptional budding musician; Lagasse turned down a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. “This cooking thing kind of took over,” he said when I sat down with him for a quick chat during this year’s Cayman Cookout. Lagasse was one of the many celebrity chefs, culinary influencers and wine and spirit experts who gathered at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman for the 10th Annual Cayman Cookout in January.
It’s safe to say that the chef who went from Johnson & Wales to kitchens in Philadelphia and New York before moving on to international culinary grooming in France made the right choice. In my conversation with him, he gave me a peek into his food world.
How do you choose what events you’ll be a part of while balancing your home base work? Why the Cayman Cookout?
Eric has invited me several years, but it’s a very difficult time of the year because we’re just coming off of a very busy New Year’s in New Orleans and then Sugar Bowl … And the next thing you know, this sneaks up on you and you’re not well prepared. But this year it worked out, so here I am. I don’t do a lot of things, though I get invitations. I started the South Beach Food and Wine Festival with Lee Schrager 16 years ago, and I’m still doing that this year; it’s probably going to be my last year. It’s gotten so big and so heavily influenced. I’m here because I love the camaraderie of this team with Eric and Federico and what they’ve put together. It’s such a high quality group of chefs. So, I’m excited about that.
What is your food philosophy?
Simple. The best ingredients you can find. Keep it simple. That’s what sort of makes my latest restaurant, Emeril’s Coastal Italian, so special is that we’re on the phone at 5 a.m. talking to the fisherman. They’re just getting into the dock at that time and they ask me what I want. Because of the relationships now that we have with them, we can keep it simple and fresh … it doesn’t have to be complicated.
What about your background influenced you to really love Cajun and Creole cuisine?
I grew up in Massachusetts in a very prominent Portuguese community; my mom was Portuguese and she basically ruled the house. So, I was influenced at a very young age with her about cooking.
You had what seems like a fast rise to becoming an executive chef; clearly you were a standout talent from the start. What would you tell young chefs to do now to enrich themselves?
Back when, there wasn’t all of this popularity of culinary schools and culinary programs so you really had to have a mentor, and I still believe in that. My foundation is all about mentoring. No matter what occupation you’re in, whether you’re a journalist, chef or mechanic, it doesn’t matter; you have to have a mentor. I was lucky when I was young that I had my own mentors that were sort of my comic book heroes but they were chefs. So, what I’d tell young chefs is that this is a fascinating industry and there’s so much knowledge to be learned that they should take as much opportunity to learn as they can because once you have the title of chef, you now have to teach. And the only way you can learn at that point is to be self-taught or to be around colleagues that we’re together around this weekend. Knowledge is power. There’s so much knowledge in the cooking industry because there’s so much diversity. Don’t rush it. Learn every day. If you’re not learning every day, you’re wasting your brain.
What has been your most impactful recognition and why?
Besides having my children, I’d say it’s a combination of starting my foundation (Emeril Lagasse Foundation) and the impact it’s made on youth in New Orleans, Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. It’s given them hope, mentoring and learning. I’ve been very fortunate to receive a lot of accolades and some of them stand out like when I opened my flagship restaurant — there wasn’t a restaurant that had been awarded five beans since the last time I was a chef at Commander’s Palace. That was a pretty significant moment and then the same month, we were named “The Best Restaurant in America” by Esquire magazine. Winning the Humanitarian Award at the James Beard Foundation … being recognized by my peers for what I’m doing with my Foundation and youth in America.
On his radar…
Chef Bernard Carmouche
When I was a chef at Commander’s Palace, he came to me for a job and I asked him what he was applying for. He told me he’d wash dishes, so I asked him why he wasn’t in school. At the time he was maybe 16 and was growing up in a pretty bad neighborhood in New Orleans. I thought I’d go visit with him and his family … I would Bernard, right now, up against anybody in the country.
St. Paul Bell
He’s been with me 30 years; he’s a sous chef. No one can make gumbo, red beans and rice or soul food like St. Paul.
– Katrice L. Mines