Emeril Lagasse hasn’t always been a brand.
Today, the chef is a household name, TV celebrity, cookbook author and the man behind a dozen restaurants and countless culinary products.
But 25 years ago this month, Lagasse opened his first restaurant in New Orleans: Emeril’s, located at 800 Tchoupitoulas in the Warehouse District. It was a risky move on every front. The neighborhood was dicey, an industrial swathe without streetlights – never mind a white tablecloth restaurant.
Emeril Lagasse, on the line with his team — Photo courtesy of Emeril's
And although Lagasse’s culinary cache was informed by his tenure at Commander’s Palace – where the Fall River, Mass., native replaced Paul Prudhomme at the tender age of 23 – flying solo was a bold move. He had trouble getting financing. Purveyors demanded payments in cash.
But it wasn’t long before Lagasse’s original restaurant was drawing crowds and critical raves. Within six months, a five-bean review in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and an endorsement from John Mariani in Esquire had locals and visitors lining up out the door.
The ways in which his creativity changed the game for Creole cuisine in New Orleans and beyond can’t be overestimated. With insights earned over a quarter-century, Lagasse reflects on his career and hard-learned restaurant acumen for 10Best:
Q: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about the business 25 years ago?
A: I was inexperienced about design and working with an architect; I wish I’d been better prepared for that. I knew what I wanted it to feel like, and to look like. But the nitty-gritty – I wish I would have had better knowledge.
Secondly, I never really thought about the accounting part. The wine list, hiring, training, saucing interviewing – that was all good. But I never thought about the whole financial aspect. We were fortunate. I had established a great local clientele, and they came.
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement (so far)?
A: For a restaurant to stay in business 25 years and still be cutting edge is amazing. We’re still learning, mentoring, teaching and evolving. My team is highly motivated, and we’re having a lot of fun together.
Q: We learn from our mistakes. What is one that taught you an important lesson?
A: I’d say I would have been more cautious about our growth. In the early years, I just jumped in, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.
Now, I’m very protective of our growth: I analyze the marketplace, culture and people before we make any commitment. I get approached about a New York location all the time. We could have 30 restaurants there. But we don’t have one. It has to be the right fit for us to grow.
Q: What is the greatest change you've seen in the restaurant business in 25 years?
A: People are more educated about food and wine, and the expectations are a lot higher. I’m sure glad that I had the mentorship of Ella Brennan, who guided me to not only be a good cook, but a good restaurateur.
Q: Although you have restaurants in other cities, you love New Orleans. What makes this city special to you?
A: I fell in love with this city in the '80s for its people, music, food and architecture. Its European influences make New Orleans a unique experience in America.
Q: How do you see the city's food scene changed since Katrina?
A: When Katrina happened it devastated everything and everyone. We were all in shock. My staff had 38 different zip codes. I couldn’t go down to Wal-mart and buy a walk-in cooler. It took a while to get back on track.
Now, business is bustling everywhere, and there’s more competition, more ethnic places, really good chefs from other places moving here. Competition is healthy. It keeps us on our game.
Q: What's your favorite way to use social media?
A: When it first started, I was a big Twitter fan and I still am. But now, I’m more into Instagram for sharing photos and memories.
Q: What is the one dish you could never take off the menu at Emeril's?
A: It has to be the barbecued shrimp. People would go crazy. We go through 50 pounds of shrimp a day sometimes. That and the banana cream pie.
Q: You do a lot of work with kids. What one piece of advice would you give a young chef?
A: I think everybody, no matter what occupation, you’re trying to learn. Everybody needs a mentor. And you have to keep learning. If you don’t learn something new every day, you’re cheating yourself.
Q: What’s your "guilty pleasure" when it comes to food?
A: Frozen Zapps potato chips. That and leftover take-out fried rice.