F&W Star Chef
Chef: Emeril Lagasse
Restaurants: Emeril’s, Emeril’s Delmonico, NOLA Restaurant (New Orleans); Emeril’s Orlando, Emeril’s Tchoup Chop (Orlando); Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, Delmonico Steakhouse, Table 10, Lagasse’s Stadium (Las Vegas); Emeril’s Chop House, Emeril’s Italian Table, Burgers and More by Emeril (Bethlehem, PA)
Background: Commander’s Palace (New Orleans)
Education: Johnson & Wales University
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mom. When I was probably about 8 years old, she taught me how to make a vegetable soup, mostly from veggies out of the garden. I learned that food equates to passion, and passion equates to how people feel. She was Portuguese, so she cooked a lot of Portuguese food, particularly around the holidays. There were also staples every week, like caldo verde, and pork and clams, or pork and periwinkles. She often made a dish she called favish, which was favas stewed down with tomatoes and garlic; that’s still one of my favorites.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I worked at a lot of restaurants. Back then, all of the restaurants had a version of French onion soup, so I learned how to make it from probably ten different chefs. Some used beef stock, some chicken, some a combination. Some cooked the onions longer, some shorter, some used allspice—there were so many twists on it. Then the day came when I had to make my own French onion soup and put my own stamp on it. I haven’t made it in a long time, but it’s still one of my favorites, especially when it’s chilly. Mine’s a little different from when I moved to New Orleans and took over Commander’s Palace. They had more Creole seasonings, and the stock was creamier, because they used milk in conjunction with the stock. I use three-quarters beef stock and one-quarter chicken stock. Cutting it a bit with chicken stock doesn’t make it as heavy; I like it a little lighter and not as dense. Sometimes I’ll even go 30-70 with it. I cook the onions a good 20 minutes, so they get color and you extract as much sweetness as you can. They’re probably not quite to the darkness of milk chocolate. And I’m old-fashioned: I still think the best cheese for the crouton is Gruyère.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Perfecting a roast chicken with vegetables is an art. I have a cast-iron vertical chicken roaster, but I’ve also used a basic roasting pan that I’ll line with my potatoes and root vegetables. If the root vegetables are large, I’ll either cut them or blanch them a little so they all cook evenly. Depending on the size of the chicken, 50 minutes to an hour is ideal. You’ve really got to rub the seasoning into it. Some herbs inside the carcass is nice, like thyme or a little rosemary, then sea salt and cracked pepper. Sometimes I do citrus like orange or lemon; sometimes I’ll squeeze the citrus juice on the outside before I rub the seasoning on. I recently started doing it in a pressure cooker. Americans are still freaked out about using those. But I’ve used it on a busy school day like Monday, when my kids have sports and music after school. I’ve perfected a pressure-cooker chicken with root veggies that I can have on the dinner table in about 20 minutes.
What’s a dish that defines your cooking style?
My cooking style is American school, classically trained. When I moved to New Orleans in ’82, I built on the foundation of Creole and Cajun cooking. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Cajun or Creole cook. I do cook that style of food, but I’d say it’s a bit more modern-rustic. So it has deep flavors, in a very rustic style, but with modern approaches. I don’t necessarily use dark roux in everything. It’s a bit lightened up. But as I continue to keep evolving and getting older, my style becomes even more simple. I rely on the soil more now than ever. When crawfish is in season, I wouldn’t need do fried crawfish tails. I might do a crawfish bordelaise that was light and delicious, with homemade pasta. Or when soft-shell crabs are in season, most people in New Orleans would fry or smoke them. I might grill them and do a very light sauce of satsuma orange and some beautiful vegetables.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You have to understand that there’s a lot to learn. There’s no question, but you have to work hard. You have to read a lot, and more important, I think you have to have a mentor.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I think what keeps me interested after all these years is that I’ve realized there’s just so much in this business that remains to be learned. I don’t take anything for granted, so I’m constantly learning and working on ingredients and other dishes from other cultures. I’m not a very good Asian cook. I have basic skills and techniques, but I’m nowhere near where I would love to be.
What is your current food obsession?
The past several years, I’ve been renting a house once a year in Spain. My family and I have gone there for a couple to three weeks at a shot. I love the people of Spain—the people and their passion. There’s a little island off the coast of Barcelona called Ibiza. The seafood is simple but incredible. You really understand what paella is when you have it there. I also go to France at least two times a year, try to go to Italy at least once a year. I still think those are the grandmother and grandfather of cuisines—French is the grandfather, Italian the grandmother.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I love to fish. Fly or line, it doesn’t matter. I fish a lot in the Gulf, but I would fish in a lake, too. It’s a nice way to understand the ocean. I have a tremendous respect for it.
You were so active in bringing attention to the Gulf after the BP spill; how is the fishing there now?
It’s actually been pretty good. It’s been really good. We’re starting to see more and more life come back, so it’s been very encouraging. I’m out there a lot, and I haven’t seen any oil. I don’t know where it went, but it’s probably safer now than ever, because they are testing and retesting all the time, the water and the species, etc., to make sure everything’s cool.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Fresh bay leaves. I have a [bay] laurel tree growing in my yard. I use the leaves in soups, stews; I just like the flavor that they bring out. It’s a flavor that most people don’t recognize. A lot of that is because most use dried bay leaves. But there’s nothing like a fresh one. It smells almost like holly.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Hopefully, guinea hen. If I see it on a menu, I’ll order it, but I don’t see it too often. I like the taste and texture. It’s richer than chicken, with more dark meat. Right now, at least around the Gulf Coast, the hot new fish right now is called wreckfish. You can’t find it a lot on the menu because you have to dive for them more than you can hook them. And they’re very deep, so you can’t net them.
What’s the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
Well, I’m a big wine drinker and collector. I’m a big Burgundy fan—I love all wine, but I would tend to go more toward red or white Burgundy. But I also like American Pinots—I’m a big fan of Kosta Browne, Williams Selyem, Patz & Hall, Domaine Serene. I like Pride [Mountain Vineyards]. But I’m not a snobby collector; I just collect what I want to drink. My wife is on a kick right now with this Hendrick’s gin, tonic, soda, mint and cucumber. We muddle the mint with a piece of cucumber to incorporate those flavors into the gin.
What is your favorite snack?
Zapp’s potato chips.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
I recently did a dinner with Norman Van Aken for his tenth anniversary. Someone at the dinner who had been close to James Beard gave me one of Beard’s French chef’s knives.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant for your next project, what would it be?
I would make it supermodern, superfun, with modern influences both in textiles and hard surfaces, other design aspects. I was in the countryside a couple of weeks ago in the northeast, and often wondered if I could just take one of those old barns and turn in it into a modern restaurant.