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Emeril Lagasse

Celeb chef stirs up a passion for food

An Elvis Presley impersonator shook things up on "Emeril Live" when the show traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada.  

(CNN) -- Emeril Lagasse's career is hotter than a bowl of Louisiana gumbo. The celebrity chef has mixed Cajun cuisine with his energetic personality to create a conglomerate of six restaurants, a series of cookbooks, a line of cooking products, two top-rated cable TV shows and countless fans.

Lagasse's trademark expression -- "Bam!" -- sums up his zesty take on things.

"Emeril kind of goes through life with an exclamation point attached to him," said Matt Roush, a TV Guide critic.

Although he is known as "the ragin' Cajun," Lagasse was born far from the bayou in the small industrial city of Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1959. His father, John, has French-Canadian roots, and his mother, Hilda, has a Portuguese background.

While John worked long hours at the mills as a garment dyer and security guard, Hilda took care of the home front.

Related sites
Emeril Lagasse Web site
Food Network: 'Emeril Live'
Commander's Palace
Johnson & Wales University

"She ruled the house," Lagasse said.

"When I used to be in the kitchen, he always wanted to help out, and he was a tiny little thing," Hilda recalled about her son. "I think he was 5 years old when we made the vegetable soup, and, of course, I used to have to put him on a stool because he couldn't reach it. I'd have him put in all the vegetables, and he'd do everything I told him to."

"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," Lagasse said.

Intrigued by the mouthwatering aromas at Carreiro's Bakery, Lagasse talked them into giving him a job when he was 10.

"For a dollar an hour I went there, four hours after school, and washed pans for about two years," he said.

"The Portuguese little men that worked there, they used to love Emeril, and they taught him how to start making muffins, and then from muffins they started him gradually on the breads," Hilda said.

Making a choice

As a teen, Lagasse was interested in music as well as cooking, and he played drums in a band.  

Lagasse also developed an interest in music. He could play several different instruments, and he joined a local band as a drummer, performing several nights a week during the school year and nearly full time in the summer.

By the time he reached high school, Lagasse's life was consumed by cooking and music. As graduation neared, the New England Conservatory of Music offered him a full scholarship. Lagasse turned it down, opting instead to pay his way through cooking school.

"My mom was absolutely crushed," he said. "But my dad, the next day pulled me off to the side and said, '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.' "

Lagasse enrolled in a two-year culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

After completing the university course, he headed to France for additional guidance in the land famous for turning out great chefs. His reception was less than hospitable.

"You got laughed at, you got yelled at, you got treated wrong -- a very European way of operating," Lagasse said of his French experience. "You know, Americans are stupid, we only know about cheeseburgers and french fries and fried chicken, and we know nothing about real cuisine. So I went over there and knocked on a lot of doors and got kicked in the you know what a lot of times."

But Lagasse gained some insights.

"The biggest lesson I learned was that it wasn't the foam of a sauce or the aeration of ice cream or the glossiness of a sauce," Lagasse said. "Those things were great. The lesson coming back for me, which changed the curve, was that we all put our pants on the same way."

Going South

"Bam!" Lagasse gives his trademark flourish, turning food preparation into performance art.  

Lagasse returned to the United States and worked at restaurants in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, honing his skills.

His big break came when he was noticed by a headhunter for Ella Brennan, the proprietor of Commander's Palace. The New Orleans restaurant was one of the top eateries in the country.

"I met Ella over the phone, and it was the longest interview I ever had in my entire life," Lagasse said. "I think it lasted four months, no joke."

Through the months of telephone conversations, Brennan grilled Lagasse about his philosophy on people, on life and, finally, on food. At last, he met her face to face.

"My brother, Dick, and I sat down and had a Sunday dinner with him," Brennan said. "And I promise you, we weren't sitting 15 or 20 minutes when my brother left the table. Next thing you know I have a phone call. It's my brother calling me from out of the room, and he said, "I think he's our man.' I said, 'I do, too.' "

In 1982, Lagasse made the leap from the East Coast to Cajun country. He was an immediate hit with the customers and staff of Commander's Palace.

"Once Emeril got down here, we really had a chemistry. It worked," Brennan said.

Lagasse became a goodwill ambassador for New Orleans, winning favor with his sumptuous dishes and infectious charm.

After nearly eight years with the restaurant that had become like a home to him, Lagasse made the decision to go solo, opening Emeril's Restaurant in 1990. It became a huge success and was followed by his second New Orleans restaurant, Nola, in 1992.

Cable cooking king

In a rare unsuccessful venture, Lagasse starred in a failed situation comedy on NBC in 2001.  

The following year Lagasse jumped from the frying pan into the fire when he was asked to host a pilot cooking show for a new cable station, the Food Network. "The Essence of Emeril" was a hit.

"I think the reason Emeril popped out among all the celebrity chefs out there is a certain sense that there are no pretensions about him," said TV Guide's Roush. "He's just a normal guy who cooks great Cajun food and really gets off on it."

Lagasse's next big move was to do a live version of his cooking show in a New York studio. "Emeril Live" turned him into a national phenomenon. Phone requests for tickets to the show once blew out the switchboard in a small New England town.

The successes kept on rolling in. He has opened six restaurants -- with locations in Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada, in addition to New Orleans -- and plans to open another Orlando establishment this fall and a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2003.

Each of his cookbooks has made it to the best-seller list, and both cable programs are big hits: "The Essence of Emeril" earned two daytime Emmy nominations in 2001 and 2002, and "Emeril Live" won a 1997 Cable Ace Award for best informational series.

He also launched the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to help disadvantaged children pursue their dreams -- much like the former Massachusetts schoolboy's rise to stardom.

But Lagasse's road to fame hasn't been without its bumps. After his first two marriages ended in divorce -- a sharp contrast to his parents' loving 52-year marriage -- Lagasse is hoping the third time is the charm following his May 2000 wedding to real estate manager Alden Lovelace. His self-titled NBC sitcom, launched in fall 2001, succumbed to poor ratings after a few critically derided episodes.

But the sitcom disaster did not seem to slow Lagasse down or shake his spirit.

"People like him. He has a very engaging personality, but a good personality doesn’t make somebody an actor, and a good idea didn't make for good scripts," said Cynthia Sanz of People. "But he didn't let it get him depressed or anything. He just moved on to his other projects."

The flirtation with Hollywood, business ventures and numerous cookbooks notwithstanding, Lagasse said that food remains his passion and that his greatest satisfaction comes from sharing it with others.

"I feed off the love; I feed off the people; I feed off the excitement," Lagasse said. "And we have fun, and we cook, and we make people happy."

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