Celebrity chefs from Gordon Ramsay to Guy Fieri have found a home on the Strip in recent years, which may be why originals like Emeril Lagasse may be less visible these days. But Lagasse, still one of the most famous and successful food figures in the world, is a true icon, a pioneering restaurateur who helped craft the Las Vegas dining landscape.
While he was blowing up in the early days of the Food Network, Lagasse opened Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM Grand in 1995, followed by Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian in 1999. His criminally overlooked contemporary American restaurant Table 10 opened at Palazzo in 2008, and one year later he took over Palazzo’s abandoned 40/40 Club and created Lagasse’s Stadium.
While maintaining his restaurant and TV empires, Lagasse has become a central figure in the culinary and cultural rejuvenation of his adopted hometown New Orleans, authored cookbooks, created a line of cookware, kitchen accessories and gourmet foods, and established a children’s education foundation.
Your early cooking shows The Essence of Emeril and Emeril Live helped set the foundation for food TV. What was your objective when you moved from the kitchen to the TV studio? Whether you’re an auto mechanic or a salesman or whatever, you have to evolve, and one of the ways you do that is by having a mentor. My goal was always to teach people how to cook, to talk to the TV like I’m talking to you right now. Here’s how to make a profiterole, and here’s the reason why you add the flour like this.
Then, when Emeril Live came, I got the chance to make a true connection to my soul, which was music. I’ve always had a musical background and I turned down a music scholarship so I could pay to go to cooking school. I just thought music connects people, food connects people, so why not try to do this show? So now we were teaching people and entertaining them. At the end of the day you know how to make coq au vin, but maybe Willie Nelson or Sammy Hagar came out and rocked the house while we did it.
You’re still doing lots of TV, plus cookbooks and merchandise and your foundation, which focuses on mentoring young people. How do you find the balance? I travel and read constantly. I’m constantly cooking and experimenting and researching products. I’ve been on half a dozen farms and fisheries in the last four weeks. I don’t know how many people are doing that stuff but that’s just me. Once it was just about becoming a great cook, but it now it’s about learning. It’s about ammunition, having the best products you can get, the best eggs from the best chickens. Right now, that’s what I’m into the most, finding the best products. And exploring that, like I’m doing with the [Cooking Channel] show Emeril’s Florida, I just feel good about where we are in America with cuisine.
You have restaurants all over, including New Orleans, Charlotte and Orlando. How is operating in Las Vegas different? Las Vegas is truly one of the stellar dining cities in the world. You gotta be on top of your game in Vegas. Something is always changing there, too. Nothing is forever in Vegas. The guy down the hall or across the street is going to be doing something newer and hipper, so you have those expectations and then you have to meet your own expectations as well. I’m not a licensee in Vegas. I’m an independent. In most cases the hotel is running the establishment but I’m a totally freestanding operator.
The constant traveling seems like the toughest part of the gig. I have a very supportive family who understands what it takes. At one point they were traveling with me as much as they possibly could, but now it’s a little more difficult. My kids are at an age when school is just so important, and we’re still looking for the right scenario as far as schooling goes. But Monday through Saturday, I’m just kind of on the run. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Las Vegas and we have some pretty wonderful things happening there now.
Like what? We are doing another renovation at the Fish House, which is nearing 20 years at MGM Grand. I’m getting excited about bumping things up at Delmonico, which is 15 years old this year. And we’re making a lot of strides at Table 10. Chef Tim [Doolittle] is doing a super job there. We’re constantly working on [Vegas] but that’s the story of my life. Emeril’s in New Orleans is going to be 25 years old next March, so we’re looking at what we can do there, too, to just keep things fresh.
How do your spend your Vegas time? It used to be, get off the plane, check in at MGM, unpack quick, get the chef coat on, head down to the kitchen and get to work. Now I’m trying to be smarter and trying to have a balance, spending a lot of time with the people in the kitchen and in the dining room and save a few hours to get out and see what’s happening. There’s so much going on in Las Vegas. It’s just like New York. As soon as you scratch one thing off the list you’ve been meaning to check out, five more show up.