Emeril, Live

Celebrity chef talks Austin, new cookbook

photo courtesy of Giant Noise

Emeril Lagasse – the bridge between Julia Child and Top Chef – hit Austin yesterday to promote his new cookbook, Essential Emeril, and to help raise funds for the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. We caught up with him at a cocktail party at the Hotel Ella prior to a collaborative dinner with Olamaie chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas.

Austin Chronicle: After more than a dozen cookbooks, how do you go about finding new themes?

Emeril Lagasse: It’s kind of my life, so it’s what I do and breathe 24 hours a day. Essential Emeril is actually not quite a memoir, but it’s a journey, it’s a 30-year journey of a lot of places, faces, and a lot of people and dishes that have made some sort of mark on who and what I am.

AC: If you had to pick a dish from this book, what is best representative of you?

EL: It’s impossible. It’s 130 of my favorite recipes. There were a lot of people I had to leave out, a lot of recipes I had to leave out. It would be very hard to just pick one dish. I have some childhood memories there. I have memories of my mom early on when I started. And then I have a lot of recipes from my mentors as well, and colleagues that I cooked with and traveled with. I dedicated the book to my friend, the late Charlie Trotter. I mean, yesterday it was the mortadella and chile pizza and perfetta rolls and today it’s going to be the andouille crusted redfish.

AC: Was there maybe one that almost made the cut?

EL: There was one particular place, and maybe it’ll be in Essential Emeril 2, I don’t know. There’s one particular place where a family owns this funky place in New Orleans called R & O. And I had some memories of them, their sons, taking me out shrimping, and shrimping in Lake Pontchartrain. And so I had a few of their dishes that, unfortunately, just didn’t make it. They have a phenomenal meatball pizza. They have a delicious crawfish pie. And obviously I was going to do something about shrimp, because the memory was about shrimping. That’s one of many that just didn’t quite make it.

AC: I’m half-Cajun, and one of the things I hope to do is learn more about Cajun food. I think it’s important.

EL: It is important. There’s a dish, one of the dishes in the book called stewfée, which is made with shrimp. It’s absolutely an inspiration from Cajun country.

AC: This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. When you look over that decade of recovery, what do you see?

EL: I think what sticks out the most is I’m a really positive person, so I’ve been slightly involved with a lot of people, men and women, of rebuilding the city. So I’m really pleased to see where the city has evolved over 10 years, to where it is today. To see the business … It’s amazing to see the restaurant growth. It’s amazing to see the community growth. Now it’s growing again. New Orleanians are pretty resilient people. So they really know how to bounce back from things like that. New Orleans is one thing about Hurricane Katrina, but what a lot of people don’t really know, or really don’t talk a lot about, is that the city really had a problem because it broke down and it got the water. But the hurricane really hit the coast of Mississippi. Even today it is still devastated, 10 years later. But I’m optimistic that - keep them storms away, and we’ll keep moving forward.

AC: Have you spent a lot of time in Austin?

EL: I’ve been here a few times. I worked here a little bit shooting Top Chef a couple years ago. I have a god child, she’s almost like my daughter, who goes to school [at UT]. Yeah, I like Austin. She’s loving it. She’s in architecture, and she’s doing really well. I’m hoping that she’s going to stop by. She’s a pretty serious student. She doesn’t mess around.

AC: We have our own food community here. Is there any place you dine while you’re in town?

EL: I’ve been to a few places, but if I single one out I’m going to have a few people that are going to be mad at me. That’s sort of what happens when you’re in my situation. There’s a lot of great restaurants here. Austin is an amazing food town. I love the whole spirit. I love the food truck spirit. I love the influences of … There’s amazing Asian, and there’s amazing Mexican. There’s just amazing food. I like how they’re really building up the urban farmers right now. I think that’s really so cool. They’ve incorporated now two days of the farmers market, I was told. That’s a big deal.

AC: I heard you were at Springdale Farm today?

EL: It was awesome. I had the pleasure of visiting with some high school students, and not only touring the farm, but also spending time with them about moving forward in their lives and their careers.

AC: What’s the most important thing to know for young chefs?

EL: It’s a tough business. It’s a really tough business between the hours and the physical [demands], so I’m telling young cooks to really make sure they have a mentor, they read a lot, and to make sure they really want to be in this environment. Because it’s not an easy environment. Today a lot of them, they graduate and immediately they want their own TV show, they think right away they’re going to open a restaurant. It takes a lot of time to learn, and to hone the skills. I really try to focus on that: learning the basics and building on the basics to really become someone.

AC: You often talk about it being really important to you to have employees that you’ve been with long-term. What does it take to stay in business with you?

EL: It takes a lot of hard work. I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do. But every day we get up and try a little better than the day before. And it’s not easy. So it’s a grind every day to try and get better - whether that’s the front of the house, whether that’s our wine list, our service or our food, our relationship with the community and our farmers. It’s really just trying to get better all the time.

AC: Obviously you’ve built this enormous empire - if you could hit the pause button on all of that and start again from scratch, what kind of venture would you get yourself into?

EL: If it wasn’t music-related, it would be something fishing, with the ocean. Maybe I’d just get a charter boat. I’d just start doing some charters, making some fancy sandwiches on the boat.

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Emeril Lagasse, Austin Food and Wine Alliance

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