Emeril Lagasse Q&A
and Chief Culinary Officer, Carnival Cruise Line
Who knew that a kid working in the local Portuguese bakery would burst onto the culinary scene with a bam(!), opening a series of successful restaurants, hosting popular TV shows and becoming one of the most recognizable chefs of all time? As a boy, Emeril Lagasse began bread and pastry making at a Portuguese bakery in his Fall River, MA, neighborhood. Turning down a music scholarship to follow his culinary dream, Emeril worked his way through the Johnson and Wales University culinary program to earn a doctorate.
After school, Emeril Lagasse turned his eye toward the classic cuisine of France. He polished his skills in Paris and Lyons before returning to the U.S., where he worked in several fine restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Building a reputation through his use of only the freshest products, he came to the attention of Ella Brennan, the doyenne of New Orleans culinary community. She persuaded 26-year-old Emeril to move to the Big Easy, where for nearly eight years he presided over Ella and Dick Brennan’s legendary restaurant, Commanders Palace.
Emeril opened his own restaurant in 1990. From the day the doors opened, Emeril’s Restaurant and its owner drew ecstatic praise. Following the success of Emeril’s Restaurant, he opened multiple establishments. NOLA, which opened in New Orleans French Quarter in 1992, and Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, which premiered in 1995, both drew crowds of fans and rave reviews. In 1998, Emeril also reopened the classic Emeril’s Delmonico in New Orleans. Two more restaurants quickly followed in 1999 — Emeril’s Orlando at Universal Studios and Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas. In January 2002, Emeril’s Chop House opened its doors in Orlando. In August 2003, Emeril’s Atlanta opened its doors, followed by Emeril’s Miami Beach in November. In addition to his restaurants is a series of books including There’s a Chef in My Family and Emeril’s Pot Luck. In 2002, Emeril established the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to support children’s educational programs that inspire and mentor young people through the culinary arts, nutrition, healthy eating and important life skills. To date, the Foundation has given millions to children’s causes in New Orleans, Las Vegas and on the Gulf Coast.
In all, Emeril is the chef/proprietor of restaurants across the country and the best-selling author of 19 cookbooks. Despite his success, Emeril remains devoted as ever to using fresh top-quality ingredients and employs cottage industry ranchers, farmers and fishermen to ensure he always gets the best. He constantly invents new recipes, much to the delight of his regular customers and the fans of his Food Network specials and shows, including Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril.
Most recently, Carnival Cruise Line announced that Emeril will serve as its Chief Culinary Officer. A restaurant concept created by Lagasse, Emeril’s Bistro, is already popular on two of Carnival’s most innovative ships, Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration, and now the famous chef’s culinary talents will be utilized fleetwide. In conjunction with this announcement, Carnival also announced that Carnival Jubilee will also feature an Emeril’s Bistro when it arrives next December in Galveston.
As Chief Culinary Officer, Lagasse will support Carnival’s skilled chefs with guidance on food trends and techniques as well as advise on future menu items and dining concepts. Guests will also see his input on the menus of main dining rooms fleetwide, including entrées designated as Emeril picks. The annual Seatrade Cruise Global Show is set for later in the month in Fort Lauderdale, FL. With that in mind, Total Food Service sought out Emeril Lagasse to get his thoughts on how food and beverage is evolving on the world’s cruise ships and of course his insight into a number of fascinating topics.
Talk a little bit about what drew you to developing recipes for Carnival?
Well, I had never really anticipated working with them. I had been on a cruise ship before as a guest chef, but I never really thought about working with them on a full-time basis. So long story short, I met the president Christine Duffy, who is really an amazing, brilliant lady. And she said, ‘Listen, we’re thinking about maybe seeing if you would like to do a bistro, sort of a longer theme. Not too big, like about 80-90 seats. How would you feel about that?’ So I said, I’m a little bit hesitant because there’s a lot of unknowns especially consistency, would it be considered? She said, ‘Well, here’s the thing, why don’t you meet my team? I have an amazing team.’ So I did, and she was absolutely correct. It’s an amazing, amazing team. A lot of the culinary staff is from around the world. She sent her top team to New Orleans, and we spent a week together at Meril and Emeril’s. Tasting and cooking and then they said, ‘Okay, look, we’re going to go back to the drawing board. And we’ll be in touch.’
When they got back in touch, they said, ‘Okay, we’re ready for you to really taste things now and see what we can do.’ I went to one of their ships in Miami, and their team executed my food beautifully, it was just amazing. I got to know the team and started working with them and developing a small, fun New Orleans menu for the Emeril Bistro on Mardi Gras, the first ship. I have a second one on the ship called Celebration. The menu has been refined over time, and that’s kind of what happens in the business as you move along. You learn from experiences. But it’s been an incredible experience. They have very talented people, not just the leadership. I’ve worked in the kitchen with these guys. They’re very disciplined, focused and culinary driven. They’re very curious about what they’re doing. And it’s been a great experience since then.
When you refine a menu like that, does it require cutting the menu and/or changing items?
We started with very basic: a gumbo, po boys, boudin balls, and my barbecue shrimp. We have signature items that they are executing to the tee. During my visit a couple of months ago on Celebration to experience the new style at Emeril’s Bistro, I tasted the whole menu. Every single dish was just spot on. The chef is just really doing a great job and leading his team doing a great job. But let me tell you, simplicity goes a long way. I don’t try to overcomplicate things and I’m not trying to do crazy dishes. We’re just trying to do basic, delicious food.
One of the examples is that once we got Mardi Gras going, we realized that there was a niche for breakfast that people were wanting beignets, but we didn’t have them. I formulated a beignet formula with my pastry chefs, and we went to show them. They went back and forth with us, and all of a sudden, they nailed the beignets exactly. Now it’s not Cafe Du Monde, I want to be Cafe Du Monde, right? But they nailed it and it’s become so popular. Now they want to put beignets on as a signature food.
When you are dealing with cruise ship dining, does it require a move to techniques like Sous Vide?
No, they’re not really doing a lot of modern techniques. They’ve been trained old school from scratch from the basics. We don’t do a lot of Sous Vide. It’s very much product driven. We’re constantly searching, because I’m a stickler for seafood. I have a small oyster bar as part of this bistro thing, with oysters, clams, crawfish (when they’re in season). That all has to be fresh. Oysters have a great shelf life if you properly store them. And let me tell you, these guys are trained to the tee when it comes to food safety, sanitation, you could eat off the floors in those kitchens. It’s very impressive. They announced that I’m the chief culinary officer back in January, which means that I’m just working a little closer with their top people giving them fresh ideas. Not only just with my restaurant but the ship as a whole including a steak restaurant. Okay, so what’s the menu of the steak restaurant? Well, we have this we have that we have this. Well, have you thought about this? Or can we execute this? What about sides? Maybe we should try this. This seems to be very popular in restaurants, maybe we should try that. But then it doesn’t stop there. Because what happens is then you got to think through. Okay, how do I get from port to port with this stuff being as fresh as it possibly can be, right? And so particularly when it comes to seafood, which we have a lot of, we rely a lot on several ports to reload and get fresh fish.
Given the need to connect with traditional breadline and specialty distributors, what are the key ports to make those connections?
There’s Cape Canaveral, there’s Miami of course. There’s New Orleans and Galveston. Then there is the West Coast, LA and Long Beach. So those ports can really bring it. The other thing is that most of these cruises are four days. There are some week-long ones, but most of them are four days. If you reload one time, when it comes to fish, beef is going to hold, chicken is going to hold, all mostly everything’s going to hold, but it gets a little tricky with fresh fish. What we have found is that the fresher we can buy, and the closer that we can align delivery to when it sails the better product that we’re going to have.
Now that you’ve spent some time on a ship, what do you think of a cruise ship as a place for somebody to build a culinary career?
I think it’s a great environment if you are adaptable to that lifestyle. Because it’s a tough lifestyle. These guys are working three months nonstop, and very little breaks. Those people that are doing that are trained and built like that, and then they have a month off. So for me, it doesn’t fit my personal lifestyle. But for somebody who I just met a couple of days ago, a young lady in a restaurant, that’s what she wants to do. She wants to go work on a cruise ship. And they all have different priorities. Some are financial, some are just like, hey, I got a great job and I’m not going anywhere. And I meet a lot of great people. And obviously, you got to love people. Because if you don’t love people, you’re in the wrong business, right?
Any interests from a culinary standpoint for Carnival’s guests to eat healthier from a legacy of “nine” meals a day?
No, I think it’s kind of like you can almost put it in the same boat as Las Vegas was 15-20 years ago. It’s all the big buffets, bring as big a plate as you can, stack as much as you can on it. That’s not happening so much these days. People are aware of their conscience about what they’re eating. They do want healthier choices. As you know, every possible allergy and whatever known to mankind, you have to deal with these days before it used to be just sodium. Now, it’s gluten, peanuts, all kinds of things. So, they have to be trained for that, and sensitive to be able to adapt to the guests, which they are. But the days of ‘I’m on a ship and I’m going to eat 15 meals a day’, that’s not happening anymore.
There are some places that are open, not 24/7. But the Pizza, coffee and donuts places, those kinds of places are open all the time. But the main restaurants now, they pretty much have set hours. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are the set hours, you have the prior plan, there are some upgrades that you can get as a guest. Like if you want to upgrade your package and go to the fancy, I’m just using this as an example, the fancy sushi restaurant, you can upgrade and do that. But for the most part, you have choices. And this is what you what you choose and you sign up for. And that’s basically your reservation.
What’s the long-term vision for Carnival’s dining?
A third Emeril’s Bistro will be part of Carnival Jubilee when that ship joins the fleet and begins sailing late this year. More details on that to come! But I’m continuing to work on projects for Christine (Duffy), the president. But nothing formally announced yet. Carnival has a new fleet coming on board, and they’re sort of Italian style. So obviously being Italian, you got to have the best Italian food! So we’ll see what happens.
What else is on your plate these days?
My son is slowly taking over the flagship restaurant [Emeril’s] in New Orleans as the chef patron. He goes by EJ and he’s the fourth, I’m the third. He is the Chef patron right now at the flagship and putting together his team. We have totally changed the format of Emeril’s when we reopened after the pandemic. So we’re not doing tons of volume. The experience is much different. In the main dining room now, which is only 14 tables. So basically, it’s tasting menu only. You have either the classic tasting menu or the seasonal tasting menu. Or you can do pre fixe, that we did as we’ve made the bar, which is now called the salon. And that filters into the private party rooms. There are no more private party rooms, so it’s the salon. And that’s where you can order a la carte. Still great experiment, great food, just different format. We’re putting together a really great team, really working hard to provide the best dining experience overall, both service, cleanliness, food etc. at the flagship.
What has your approach been toward cultivating your son’s career?
I have EJ on this new food innovation project at Johnson & Wales University that we launched in 2021. There’s another conference coming up. EJ went there, and so did I. Then when he graduated, he went to Europe and lived in London for six or eight months and worked at Core, then worked in France, Sweden and Lisbon. He’s very well trained, having spent a couple of years preparing. Yeah, he’s really good, super good. He’s doing a phenomenal job.
On the Emeril Inc side, the airways are full of your air fryers and pots and pans, what’s next?
That’s basically under an umbrella. It used to be with Martha Stewart, but then they sold the business, and it’s been resold three times now. But I’m not under contract with them. I do what I want to do. If I want to do air fryers, I’ll be involved with the whole shebang. I’m very into the design and all. I’m not just putting my name on a box.
To learn more about all of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, visit his website
All photography courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line
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