Emeril!: Inside the Amazing Success of Today's Most Popular Chefby Marcia Layton Turner
A revealing look at the real "Emeril live"
Emeril Lagasse is a phenomenon-a television chef and restaurateur who has parlayed his outsized personality and gastronomic acumen into a multi-million-dollar culinary empire. Along the way, he's added new catchphrases to the American idiom-"bam," "kick it up a notch," and "pork fat rules"-and won the hearts (and
A revealing look at the real "Emeril live"
Emeril Lagasse is a phenomenon-a television chef and restaurateur who has parlayed his outsized personality and gastronomic acumen into a multi-million-dollar culinary empire. Along the way, he's added new catchphrases to the American idiom-"bam," "kick it up a notch," and "pork fat rules"-and won the hearts (and stomachs) of millions of loyal fans.
Now, for the first time, you get to enter into Emeril's incredible world. Filled with candid stories and vivid details, EMERIL! Inside the Amazing Success of Today's Most Popular Chef reveals how this culinary connoisseur made it to the top of his profession, while staying true to his main mission-showing ordinary people how to have fun with food.
Weaving together Emeril's personal and professional journeys to international stardom, EMERIL! Inside the Amazing Success of Today's Most Popular Chef offers an entertaining look at how one of the world's most talented chefs became a household name.
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Emeril!Inside the Amazing Success of Today's Most Popular Chef
By Marcia Layton Turner
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-65626-7
Chapter OneSEIZING OPPORTUNITIES
Life just doesn't hand you things. You have to get out there and make things happen ... that's the exciting part. -Emeril Lagasse
Smells just like my mom's kitchen," responded Emeril Lagasse to Ella Brennan, who had just asked what the 23-year-old thought of the kitchen of Commander's Palace, the legendary New Orleans restaurant she co-owned. Emeril had been invited to tour the kitchen and restaurant back in 1982 as part of a weekend-long interview process with Brennan and her clan. The Brennans were looking for an executive chef to replace Paul Prudhomme, who had left months before to start his own restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen.
It was that answer, coupled with Emeril's talent and enthusiasm, that may have sold Brennan on hiring him. "The enthusiasm, the integrity, the energy, it was all evident," she says. Soon after, the young chef found himself leading the kitchen of one of the top restaurants in all America.
Now running a company worth, by my calculation, somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, consisting of nine restaurants, nine cookbooks, two television shows, and a growing list of culinary products and kitchen accessories, not to mention the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, Emeril has achieved a stratospheric business growth rate. From nothing to $200million in little more than a decade is quite an accomplishment-and a sign that Emeril is not just a chef who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, he is a visionary who knew what he wanted and pursued it from a very young age. And now instead of pursuing opportunities, they are pursuing him.
A Passion for Cooking
Emeril's quick rise to power in the culinary world is not surprising when you look back at his formative years in Fall River, Massachusetts. Born in 1959 to Hilda and Emeril Lagasse Jr. (a.k.a. Mr. John), Emeril was the middle of three children, which also includes Delores, his older sister, and Mark, his younger brother. His French-Canadian father worked at Duro Finishing, a local textile mill, dyeing suit linings, and his Portuguese mother was a homemaker who took great pride in her cooking.
One of Emeril's earliest culinary memories was of helping his mother add vegetables to a soup pot at around age seven. Said Hilda Lagasse, "He wanted to be right there, put the vegetables in. But I would show him how to do it, slowly with a spoon. But sometimes, believe me, he used to get in my way, right in my way. He was always in front of the stove." Even at an early age, Emeril wanted to be in control when it came to cooking.
"My mom and I spent a lot of time cooking together when I was little," he told Parenting.com. "She was so great about letting me help-and much of what I know, I learned from her. Our family life really revolved around the kitchen and eating and cooking together, and it was then that I learned how happy food can make people." That observation-food can make people happy-would evolve into Emeril's career objective years later.
Emeril did not spend his whole childhood in the kitchen, however. He had his own paper route, played baseball, learned karate, and was a Cub Scout, just like most of the boys his age. But unlike most of them, cooking was his favorite activity. "I was kind of viewed as a weird kid because I liked food," he remembers.
One skill that he would carry forward was his comedic side. "Emeril always knew how to make people laugh in any situation," says former classmate John Ciullo. "He was always kind of a class clown. School was sometimes a tense place and he always knew how to make people relax."
He landed his first job at the ripe old age of 10, by convincing Carreiro's Bakery to hire him as a dishwasher. "One of my chores for my mom was, every day, I would have to go down to the local Portuguese bakery and get bread for the table," he explains. The mouthwatering aromas and congenial atmosphere were appealing to Emeril. That routine led to the opportunity to work with the bakers. For a dollar an hour, four hours after school each day, he would work, washing pans. After a couple of years, he was promoted.
Gradually, the bakers entrusted him with more of the baking duties, and Emeril became skilled at baking breads and cakes. Starting with simple muffins and moving on to sweet breads, Portuguese pastries, custards, and cornmeal breads, Emeril learned quickly.
By age 12 he worked at the bakery at night, attended school by day, and slept in the afternoon. "I worked from like eleven o'clock at night to seven in the morning at this bakery. And then I went to school. Then I'd come home at three o'clock from school and my mom would feed me. Then I'd go to sleep. Then I'd get up and go to work at the bakery." Although it was certainly an unconventional schedule for someone his age, Emeril managed to do well at all his endeavors, while maintaining a B-plus average in school.
His work at the bakery had a formative effect on Emeril, who enjoyed making a difference in customers' lives. "I would just see how happy people were when they came into the bakery," he explained to Molly O'Neill in the New York Times Magazine. Seeing the pleasure that he could give customers through food increased Emeril's passion for cooking.
Wanting more instruction, Emeril enrolled in a nighttime continuing education class on cake decorating, where he was the only male, and certainly the youngest, he says. "Every week we whipped up frostings and practiced making buttercream roses and violets." Despite his perfectionist streak, Emeril surprised even himself when he took first prize in the class competition. Wondering if he might truly have a knack for cake decorating, he proceeded to enter a big wedding cake contest and won the grand prize for the Northeast region.
Although baking may have been his first love, music was a close second. And Emeril excelled at that, too, from a young age, playing drums in a local 45-member Portuguese band when he was just eight years old, in addition to playing with several other groups. Never one to limit his learning, Emeril also taught himself how to play several other instruments. "I was a percussion major," he explains in a January magazine interview, "but I wrote music and played a lot of instruments besides percussion. I taught myself how to play a lot of wind instruments," including the trumpet, trombone, and flute. Always challenging himself, needing to learn more, Emeril developed skills that would make him successful.
In high school, Emeril opted for vocational training in culinary arts at nearby Diman Regional Vocational High School, where he enrolled in 1973 at the age of 14. Even then Emeril was a standout, according to his former teacher, Chef Edward Kerr. "He was very energetic, a go-getter. He performed his assignments, performed them very well. Even back then he had the signs of being an exceptional student," Kerr reports. Another instructor, Paul Amaral, remembers, "He was a good leader."
But he continued his musical pursuits out of school, playing at dances, weddings, and parties with a Top 40 band. Ultimately, it was his musical skill that would be rewarded-with a full college scholarship to the New England Conservatory. In his parents' mind, it was an opportunity he could not afford to turn down.
But he did.
Bettering His Position
Faced with a free ride to college to study music or having to pay his way somewhere else, Emeril took the hard way, but the right way for him. He chose to pursue a culinary career instead.
Being able to make difficult choices is the sign of an excellent leader. Early on, Emeril demonstrated his ability to weigh his options, factor in the pros and cons of each path, and make a choice that he knew to be the right one, ignoring outside opinions or preferences. That is a rare skill in someone so young.
Researchers have found that many gifted students, as Emeril surely was in music and culinary arts, have a difficult time establishing priorities and setting long-term goals because they have several potential career paths, as Emeril also did. But the existence of a mentor, as the Portuguese bakers were for Emeril, had a maturing effect that helped Emeril "develop a vision of what he could become, find a sense of direction, and focus his efforts"-the sign of a successful mentoring relationship, according to Sandra Berger of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
Dr. Todd Finkle, who runs the entrepreneurship program at the University of Akron reports that, indeed, Emeril's career planning was remarkable. "Most kids have dreams to be something, but most don't follow through on what it is they want to do. For example, 70 percent of kids that get college degrees don't work in the field in which they got their degree.
"So, at such a young age to have already determined that he wanted to be a restaurateur is unusual," Finkle continues. "There must have been some person who had a significant impact on him ... a mentor." And, in fact, there was. There were several.
Throughout his career, Emeril has been faced with opportunities to be considered, evaluated, and acted on, but none so important as this first one, which led him on his journey.
Although he loved music, his heart was in cooking. So despite his parents' disapproval, in 1977 Emeril enrolled at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island. "My mom freaked out," remembers Emeril in an A&E television interview. "I think I might have gotten chased around the neighborhood a few times. She just never thought that the cooking thing would stick."
To earn his college tuition, Emeril worked evenings at the Venus de Milo restaurant in nearby Swansee, Massachusetts, where he started as a prep cook and worked his way up to chef de cuisine by graduation.
Although serious about his studies, Emeril still had his own sense of how things should be done, observed one of his friends, Michael Medeiros. Says Medeiros, "He would try to create his own type of recipe. When it was all spelled out for him on paper exactly how much to put in, he would always try to add in an extra spice, or cut back on the water, or add more spices." Even in college, Emeril would try to kick things up a notch. Despite always experimenting, always trying to put his own special twist on a dish, Emeril earned his associate's degree in culinary arts in 1978. Later, in 1990, he would be awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater for his contributions to the field of cooking.
The fact that Emeril was able at such a young age to make such a life choice-between two potential career paths he would likely have enjoyed-is unusual. Many teenagers might have been caught up in the prestige of a scholarship and the possibility of a flashy life in a successful band. But Emeril was much more of a realist who knew what would make him happiest long-term-cooking. Such self-knowledge is rare-even rarer at the age of 17. Coupled with the reality that he would be letting his parents down by refusing the music scholarship, Emeril showed great courage and maturity by making the harder choice, the less popular choice. But it was the one he knew would ultimately be right for him.
It is clear that Emeril had a vision, even then, for what he wanted his life to be like. Or at least what he wanted it to include-cooking. Knowing what would be most fulfilling for him careerwise was a critical first step on his way to becoming a world-renowned chef.
Fortunately, his parents eventually calmed down. Emeril's father was the first to concede that his son's choice was probably a good one. He told him, "Listen, Emeril, if you think that this is something you love, which obviously you do, and if you think this is a way you can get a ticket out of here, then you go for it." Getting out of Fall River typically meant getting a college degree and settling in Boston.
After two years in Providence, Emeril headed farther from home, into restaurants and hotels in the northeastern United States, as well as to France, where his real training as a chef began.
A Student of Food
Emeril's first position out of college was in the kitchen of the Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia. He then headed to New York City but had trouble getting a job because he lacked the right pedigree. "I went to New York City to cook but had trouble there because I was American," explains Emeril. "Americans weren't supposed to know anything about food.... At the time, in the mid-seventies, the good New York kitchens were run by French and German and Swiss cooks. It was difficult to get a job."
His solution? Get firsthand training abroad. That led to a three-month apprenticeship in France-in Paris and Lyon-where he started at the bottom again.
Such a decision is classic Emeril. Undaunted by his inability to land a cooking job, he looked for ways to improve his skills, rather than return to his last job and take a step back. Maybe it is ego, maybe it is a well-developed problem-solving ability. Either way, Emeril always manages to find a way around a temporary setback or roadblock. He is always moving forward, and if he cannot move forward, he takes a lateral move in order to make a move up possible later. Unafraid of hard work, Emeril never limits his opportunities initially.
Lacking opportunities to learn in New York, Emeril created a new opportunity in Europe and vowed to make the most of it.
Taking His Education Abroad
His goal for his time in France was to learn everything possible about classic French cuisine, so revered in the top American restaurants. Although he could not change the fact that he was American, to appease the European chefs making the hiring decisions back in the United States he could beef up his resume with European training.
Unfortunately, the French approach to training was rough-rougher than in America. "You got laughed at, you got yelled at, you got treated wrong," describes Emeril. It is "a very European way of operating," he contends. Despite his culinary degree, his French bosses viewed him as inexperienced. "I was beat up and pushed around and shoved and made to do all the grunt work. But that was OK. That was part of it. I didn't speak the language. Didn't make any money," which was also okay, since he was there not to make a lot of money, but to learn.
The commonly held belief abroad, Emeril discovered, was that "Americans are stupid, we only know about cheeseburgers and French fries and fried chicken, and we know nothing about real cuisine." Despite the negative stereotype, Emeril persevered, knocking on a lot of doors and getting "kicked in the you-know-what a lot of times," he says about his experience.
Excerpted from Emeril! by Marcia Layton Turner Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
MARCIA LAYTON TURNER is an Emeril fan who has been consistently impressed with Lagasse’s success in creating a culinary empire using his name as a brand. Having won cooking contests and awards at a young age herself, Turner once considered a culinary arts career. Instead, she became a small business expert, writing the award-winning Unofficial Guide® to Starting a Small Business (Wiley). She has written for several top magazines and Web sites, including Business 2.0 and iVillage.com.
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