Emeril Lagasse was inescapable in the 1990s. Suburban cooks everywhere knew his signature catchphrases like “BAM!” and “Kick it up a notch!” which he bellowed over the airwaves while ladling out spicy gumbo or lighting bananas on fire.
But as the ‘90s waned and a new crop of celebrity chefs arrived on the scene, Emeril and his outsize personality faded into the background. Where did the decade’s golden boy chef go? And what is he up to now? We caught up with him to find out where he’s been and what lies ahead.
Lagasse splashed on the culinary scene in 1982 when he became executive chef at Commander’s Palace, the New Orleans landmark, but heads really started turning in 1990, when he opened his namesake restaurant. There, he wooed patrons and restaurant critics with his spin on classic New Orleans dishes like étouffée and banana cream pie. His showmanship quickly caught the attention of the entertainment industry, which led to the launch of his first show, How to Boil Water, on Food Network in 1993. Lagasse brought color and energy to food TV, which was previously more sedate with personalities like Julia Child and Martin Yen. Chef Aaron Sanchez credits Emeril with changing all that. “They were dump-and-stir shows. You get the recipe, you put the things in the pot, you stir,” he says. “Emeril added flair. He was like the OG, you know? We always looked up to him for that.” By 1996, Lagasse had his own show, the one that catapulted him into celebrity stardom: Essence of Emeril.
Emeril was suddenly everywhere. Between 1993 and 2001, he hosted three shows, wrote six cookbooks, served as Good Morning America’s food correspondent, and even acted in cartoons and a sitcom. Few chefs in history have enjoyed such a cult following: Fans packed every seat of the studio audience day in, day out to partake in the “Emeril experience.” They’d cheer like giddy teenagers at a pop concert when he added more spice (BAM!) or poured in extra booze (Kick it up a notch!). He made food fun, and his New New Orleans cuisine made gumbo and blackened everything trendy nationwide.
Ruth Reichl, writer and former editor of Gourmet—the long-shuttered leading food magazine of the ‘90s—says Lagasse injected new life into TV chefdom and shook up a certain loftier-than-thou sensibility. “Emeril was something new: a smart, funny chef who was showing people that chefs didn’t have to be snooty or cook complicated food,” she says. “Emeril was the first to go on TV and say, ‘This is what a chef looks like today.’ He opened the door for everyone else.”
But the Emeril craze had an expiration date. According to From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, the show’s aging demographic made promoting it less desirable, especially considering its overhead. Emeril Live aired its last segment in 2007, but Lagasse had no problem finding work elsewhere: on Ion Television, the Hallmark Channel, the Cooking Channel, Amazon Prime, and guest spots on shows like Top Chef.
These days, Lagasse is busy, but he’s less concerned with the spotlight. Even his social media presence is uncannily lowkey: He tweets out recipes from time to time but nothing voicey or controversial. Instead, he uses his platform to pay it forward. “If you don’t give back, how do you get involved?” he asks. After serving for more than a decade on the board of tennis legend (and fellow ‘90s icon) Andre Agassi’s foundation, he launched his own namesake organization, which has awarded millions of dollars in grants for food-related educational programs, among other projects, in underserved communities.
At Emeril’s, which turned 30 this year, the chef still insists vehemently on the best: from his employees, for his customers, and clearly from himself. “I’ve been known to throw a couple hundred pounds of fish in the middle of the street if you give me bad fish,” he admits. “But that was in the old days when I was a little younger and maybe a little bit more feisty– although I’m still pretty feisty.”
You have to be pretty feisty to keep going the way he has, running several restaurants and maintaining a growing charitable organization, while still shooting two upcoming series—including a tailgating show he’d just wrapped when we spoke. “It’s the middle of August. It’s 100 degrees today. We’re tailgating outside,” he says—not complaining, just making the observation. Lagasse is a ham on camera but an everyman behind the scenes. “I’m in the kitchen every day, you know, moving and shaking with the team, with everyone else, so it hasn’t stopped for me,” he says.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it’s like, I gotta be current. I think a lot of people don’t get up and say [that],” he says. “I’m gonna get up tomorrow and I’m gonna try and figure it out.” Lagasse isn’t threatened by the new generation coming up behind him; on the contrary, he’s helping them succeed. His son works at his flagship restaurant. “It’s like, I gotta dig a little deeper because these young people today, they’re on fire,” he says. It’s a responsibility he seems to cherish, kicking it up a notch to ensure his vision and legacy continue.