Chef E.J. Lagasse shares the advice his famous dad Emeril gave him about 'the burden of nepotism'
The now 20 year old says he thought growing up alongside his famous father was 'totally normal.'
I attended culinary school in 2004 — a time when everyone had started talking about restaurants and taking pictures of their food. It was just as the celebrity chef phenomenon took off, and one of the first class discussions we had as a cohort of students was to tell everyone the reason we'd enrolled in culinary school. The majority of the students had the same response: "I want to be like Emeril [Lagasse]."
While I was discussing the man who made so many of my classmates want to become chefs, Emeril Lagasse's son, E.J. Lagasse was just a baby. The now 20 year old, who has since become a chef himself, says he thought growing up alongside his famous father was "totally normal."
"People would come up to us on the street and take photos or ask for an autograph," he tells Yahoo Life. "It wasn't until I was 7 or 8 years old that I realized that the same things didn't happen to my friends' dads."
Up until the time I entered culinary school, only a handful of chefs were on television. Chefs like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Martin Yan and Ming Tsai focused on technique rather than panache. Television was filled with chefs and home cooks who focused on the food rather than the camera, though maybe Martin Yan's cheesing-while-rapid-fire-chopping with his giant Chinese dao knife disqualifies him from this group.
Then came Emeril, who came up through the ranks alongside his other chef besties: Norman Van Aken (the father of "Floribbean" cuisine) and the late Charlie Trotter, who changed fine dining in Chicago, Ill. forever.
Emeril was different with his larger-than-life personality and big, bold flavors and signature "Bam!" when adding his spice blend, the Essence. At his height, Emeril had half a dozen shows on at any one time, including the first of its kind Emeril Live! in front of a live audience, which helped launch the Food Network and inspired thousands to get into the kitchen and cook something delicious. Emeril was also one of the first chefs to turn his restaurant empire into a retail juggernaut, developing consumables like spice blends and sauces first, then cookware and kitchen equipment.
And E.J. Lagasse, one of four siblings, seems to be following in his famous father's footsteps. He says he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a chef. "I sat down at dinner with my parents and told them I wanted to be a chef. I was 10 or 11," he tells Yahoo Life. "The first thing my dad said was, 'Are you sure?' And the second thing he said was that the only way I wouldn't have the burden of nepotism on my back was to cook in the best kitchens in the country right away."
"It meant I had to work a little bit harder than everyone else to prove that I was working my way up on my own and not because of my father," he adds.
It's a challenge, says E.J., that he enjoys and accepts.
Emeril helped E.J. send emails to important restaurants and chefs asking to "stage" — work for free to gain experience — when he was a young teen. His first stage was at age 12. Eventually, he was sending those emails himself and getting responses from some of the country's top culinary leaders, including New York City-based icons Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Daniel Boulud at Cafe Boulud.
When E.J. was in high school, the Lagasses moved to the Florida Panhandle, where Emeril opened Emeril's Coastal. "I would go to half a day of classes online and then head to the restaurant to sling 400 pastas every night," says E.J. "I worked every single day in the kitchen. It was fast-paced and fun. I loved every minute."
Once word got around that Lagasse was working summers at five-star establishments like Le Bernardin and Cafe Boulud, doors started opening up. "Chefs would be like, 'Hey, we heard you're hanging out with Eric, would you like to come to our kitchen and work for a few nights?' And that's how I built my resume," he says.
His original plan to attend Johnson and Wales University and study culinary arts took a turn in 2020, when in-person classes were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. E.J.'s thoughtful and strategic personality took over, realizing he could complete high school and culinary school faster if he studied concurrently. After graduating from Johnson and Wales in only a year and a half, he combined his studies in culinary arts with business certifications and classes from other colleges.
"When the world opened back up, I immediately booked a ticket to London and started working for Clare Smyth at her three Michelin-starred restaurant, Core, and then moved on to the Hotel Frantz in Stockholm, which was amazing," says E.J. "I enjoy teaching and learning and going into restaurants and kitchens like this because you get an idea of the character of the city but also its people and culture and food. It's very inspiring."
As he traveled, worked and learned, he began a notebook where he wrote down ideas for Emeril's Restaurant, his dad's flagship restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, La., where he intended to work after returning to the states. Today, he serves as chef patron at the newly-redesigned restaurant.
Emeril's Restaurant was shuttered for 19 months during the pandemic, and its new concept features tasting menus with wine pairings with a more refined approach than his father's "Bam!" of the ’90s (though you can often see Emeril working the restaurant's pass alongside his son). A lot of that has to do with E.J.'s culinary experiences in New York, London and Stockholm.
"I'm still developing my own style, but at Emeril's [Restaurant] I'm working hard to meld those big flavors from my father's food that everyone loves with more luxurious technique and presentation," says E.J. "I want to pay homage to the way my father transformed American cooking while pushing the envelope gastronomically, too."
His goal: To bring Michelin-starred service and gastronomy to New Orleans. "London and Paris are about eight years ahead of New Orleans and New York is five years ahead," he says. "I'd like to catch that gap up a bit. There are a lot of chefs in this city, besides me, who are really pushing for that."
I want to pay homage to the way my father transformed American cooking while pushing the envelope gastronomically, too."E.J. Lagasse
According to E.J., he takes a European approach to the new menus at Emeril's Restaurant and aims for a less-is-more philosophy. "You have to edit yourself," he explains. "The techniques are both simple and complex. You can't overthink it." A tall order for the ambitious and self-described "obsessive" young chef.
Will E.J. open his own place someday to continue the Lagasse legacy? Perhaps.
"It'll probably take 15 years at least," he says. "Stylistically, it would be very similar in terms of my approach to food and the ingredients. Definitely fine dining. I've thought about it, but I don't think I'm anywhere near that time yet."
Visitors to Emeril's Restaurant are in for more exciting changes outside of the current tasting menu options: "What we're doing here at the new Emeril's is challenging enough and we're about to shut the restaurant for another eight months to do some major renovations," he says. "My primary goal is to take Emeril's to the next level. I can't wait to see what we can achieve."
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