He doesn't have any time for himself. Or, so he says. He is on the go every hour of the day. Or, so it seems. "Look," says Emeril Lagasse, "when I was with you in Louisville [we serve on the advisory board of Sullivan College], I had just come off the Orlando project. That was seven weeks without a day off. Since then, it's been two weeks here in Las Vegas working the Del Monico's project at the Venetian. Nine weeks without a day off. I'm killing myself. In a nice way, of course. There," he says, measuring time between his thumb and forefinger, "that's about as much time I have for personal life."
Emeril Lagasse was himself a Rising Star, crowned as such by Food & Wine magazine a year after he opened his first restaurant, Emeril's, 10 years ago in New Orleans. Now, five more restaurants later (two more in New Orleans, two in Las Vegas, and one in Orlando), he is killing himself. In a nice way, of course.
He manages to rise above the dissonance and the flak with his own version of Bams. He'd like to throttle that female twerp at the New York Times (she remains nameless) who, after begging Lagasse for a few minutes of his time, after pleading with him to let her sit in on one more of his "Emeril Live" shows on the Food Network ("I had such a great time at the first one," she tells him), she fabricates (there is no better word) a column that mercilessly skewers him, his style, his joie de vivre, his cooking. "I took it very personally," he says. "She was very abusive, very destructive. But, then, 55,000 people took issue with the fabrication. I sent her flowers and thanked her."
Speaking of the show, here's the routine: He travels to New York once every six to seven weeks for one week. There, at the Food Network studios, he tapes three live shows a day. Fifteen shows in one week. Tickets to the show. You want tickets? TFN is inundated with requests: they come by phone, by mail, through Cyberspace. Two weeks ago, 500,000 requests for 1,500 tickets. "We went to a lottery system," says Lagasse.
Fame can be an intoxicating drug, yet Emeril manages to stay grounded. Will you handle your fame as well? While you think things over, I asked Emeril some pointed questions about his fame and to dish up some advice for you.
Your first year at Emeril's and suddenly you're a Food & Wine Rising Star. What did that do for and to you?
Nationally, in the foodie world, it was recognized as some sort of Wow. This is somebody we have got to really watch and keep an eye on. We need to check out the place. New Orleans? It's not wrapped up in image . . . unfortunately. Sometimes you have to knock a little harder there to gain attention.
You said to me, "I'm still a Rising Star . . ."
Look, if you are in the business 100 years, you still are not going to scratch the surface, so my attitude is when I get up, I have to exceed what I did the day before. Listen, there's so much to learn. I tell people, "If you walk out of the restaurant and you have not learned something, not only are you cheating yourself, you are a fool."
What commitment must you make to exceed the previous day's standards of excellence?
Education is everything and as someone said better than I, "knowl-edge is power." We spend a lot of time every single day training the staff. Their knowledge base grows, their expectations grow, their making the customers's expectations and knowledge grow. When all you do, day after day after day, is follow— that's when mediocrity sets in.
Rising Star, all the other awards and accolades: worth it?
I'll tell you something: those things don't pay the rent. Something else: I'm not wrapped up in all that stuff. I'm just doing what I'm doing. I'm just a cook. I'm trying to perfect my craft. I can't afford to be wrapped up in all of that nonsense. I've seen too many people get wrapped up in it; and I don't like what I see.
But, without Emeril's, without the Rising Star recognition . . .
You're right, Emeril's is the flagship. Everything started there. Without Emeril's, there would be no second or third, fourth, fifth restaurant; no cookbooks, no TV show.
Maybe when you were at Commander's Palace (New Orleans), having replaced Paul Prudhomme, a tiny voice inside of you said, "Some day, I'm going to be really great."
Maybe when I was 12 years old, working in a Portuguese bakery, I heard that voice.
And when did you figure you were somebody great?
I haven't figured that out yet. Well, no, that's not necessarily true. About three years ago, the horns are beeping in New York City and the taxicab drivers are going, "Yo, Emeril . . ." that's when I figured something was starting to change.
Is the celebrity bit all it's cracked up to be?
I've sacrificed a lot. But I don't have any regrets. I don't have a lot of time to myself. I wish I had more. I'm not with my daughters as often as I'd like.
Any advice you'd like to give this year's class of Rising Stars?
Stay focused. Lead, don't follow. Keep you eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. Don't believe all of your press clippings—good or bad. You're only as good as your last meal. Set trends, don't follow them. Keep the momentum going.
Your legacy as an evolving Rising Star?
Scary enough that I'll be remembered as the guy with this "bam" thing. Better? Years from now, maybe someone will say, "Oh, there's Emeril. He's a little older now, but he really did something for the American table."