Emeril Lagasse's gift for cooking and working the crowd has made him a celebrity and moved the Food Network off cable viewers' back burner

MEAL TICKET

October 27, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Emeril Lagasse will look you straight in the eye and swear that he's just an average guy. A New Orleans boy who loves his mama and is the host of a little cooking show.

"Look," he says, as he moves closer and musters a soulful look. "I get up every day and put my pants on like everybody else. It's just a cooking show."

He's lying.

"Emeril Live" is not just a cooking show. And he's not just some chef looking to teach you how to make a mean Chicken Delmonico.

The man is a star. He knows it. The screaming, stomping fans who travel across the country to catch a glimpse of him know it. And, soon, if you don't already, you'll know it, too.

One can easily forgive Lagasse's soulful prevarication. It merely adds to his appeal -- a down-home kind of a guy whose swarthy good looks and boyish playfulness make rabid fans out of men, women and children.

"I don't try to pretend to be anybody," he says. "I'm just me. Nothing special."

Be sure, there is a world of growing Emeril-freaks out there fed daily by his raucous show on cable TV's Food Network.

College kids with way too much time on their hands have devoted Web pages to him. Button-nosed children who love purple dinosaurs mimic him. Smitten women propose marriage, and who knows what else, in their thousands of letters to him. Whenever this guy seasons a turkey breast, thick-necked men who knock down buildings or fight fires for a living whoop it up with the fervor heard at pro-wrestling matches.

He has created a long list of catch phrases that fans hurl at him every chance. "BAM!" he says when he seasons food. "Kick it up a notch." That's for times when he wants to break with traditional ingredients for a recipe. Then there's "Happy, happy, happy" and "Pork fat rules."

Lagasse is so charmingly entertaining that his show hauled a dry, unwatchable 24-hour cable network out of the ratings cellar. He now has two shows on the Food Network (the other one is "Essence of Emeril") and they are No. 1 and No. 2 for the station.

"I think there are some natural qualities I have that appeal to people," says Lagasse. "I think at a young age, I was an entertainer."

Looking uncomfortable, he quickly catches himself. "Not that I'm a performance persona."

He pronounces "persona" as "persom-i-na."

OK, so maybe there is some average guy in Emeril.

A passion for food

Emeril Lagasse (pronounced La-GAH-see) is lovable, smart, even sassy, but in a manly way. He's the guy you can go to a ballgame with or take to a high-falutin' soiree and he won't embarrass you. His passion for food, for making it taste good, for having a swinging good time, is what makes him so irresistible.

A tad short and on the pudgy side, the 42-year-old with the French Canadian and Portugese background has an infectious smile and the shiniest coal-black hair you'll ever see.

He learned to cook in his mother's kitchen in Fall River, Mass. As a child he juggled his love for music, sports and cooking. Cooking won out. He gave up a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music for a stint at the prestigious culinary school Johnson & Wales.

Jobs in kitchens in France, Philadelphia, New York and Boston followed before he got the break of a lifetime at age 26: At the renowned Commander's Palace in New Orleans, he would replace the famous Chef Paul Prudhomme. Legend has it that he sealed the gig when he walked into the kitchen and declared, "It smells like my mom's kitchen."

He stayed for seven years, soaking up the style and the sensuality of New Orleans and its food. He learned to pepper his deep southern Massachusetts accent with a "y'all" or two.

His own place, Emeril's, opened in 1990 to a 90-minute wait. Esquire magazine awarded it "Restaurant of the Year." In 1993, he opened a second, more casual version, called NOLA, an acronym for New Orleans, La. It too was a success.

That same year, he signed on with the Food Network for a show called "How To Boil Water." It bombed. He was given another shot on "The Essence of Emeril." It was just him and a camera guy -- and a script. Lagasse loathed being told what to do.

"I realized, you know, that's not how I do things," he says. "I had been cooking for 25 years. I didn't just come off the block. So finally they realized what we needed to do was cut [to the chase]."

"Emeril Live" was born. He had an audience, a live band and his imagination to play with for an hour.

More restaurants followed, one in Las Vegas and another one in New Orleans. In between, he co-wrote three cookbooks and got a weekly gig on "Good Morning America." Time named his show one of the top 10 television shows in the country. Just this month, GQ named him one of its "Men of the Year."

All the recognition has made getting a ticket into the "Emeril Live" studio audience tougher than getting a seat at one of his restaurants.

Fans flambe

It is supposed to be a cooking show, but with all the noise and fan worship, you'd think you were at a rock concert. All that's missing is the mosh pit.

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