Emeril Lagasse was sitting pretty in 1990. Then 31, he was executive chef of Commander's Palace and one of the five highest-paid chefs in the country. He drove a Porsche and had six weeks of vacation time each year.
The person signing off on all this, Commander's Palace owner Ella Brennan, gave him something else, though, which he credits today for leading him to open his own Emeril's Restaurant that year. That decision eventually led to a restaurant and media empire where some of the people who have worked with Lagasse since the Commander's Palace days now hold executive level positions.
"It goes back to that early philosophy I got from Ella about cultivating talent," Lagasse says. "You love what you do, but if you don't mentor people and give back, give them opportunities, how is this thing you love going to grow and evolve? One of the biggest reasons I have 10 restaurants is the people who work with me. People want to grow, make more money, become a manager, a chef."
Lagasse applies the same philosophy to his charitable foundation, which has raised millions of dollars to fund children's educational programs in New Orleans. For those community contributions, Lagasse will be presented this Saturday with the Alexis de Tocqueville Award, the highest honor bestowed by the United Way of the Greater New Orleans area.
"We see Emeril the celebrity on TV, the 'bam' and the 'kick it up a notch,' but behind all that is a man with a huge heart who cares about this community and especially the children of this community," says Kim Sport, chairwoman of the United Way's Tocqueville Society. "It's time for people to see that Emeril."
Lagasse has been a contributor to St. Michael's Special School practically since he arrived in the city in 1983. That early involvement set the stage for his Emeril Lagasse Foundation, which he created in 2002. Since then, the foundation has distributed $2.5 million to local nonprofits. A teaching kitchen at St. Michael's, a culinary arts program at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a new cafeteria and teaching kitchen for the Edible Schoolyard program at Green Charter School, and a children's performing arts center in Gulfport, Miss., have received major funding from the foundation, which also has given more than $400,000 to support summer camps attended by thousands of New Orleans children.
At Café Reconcile, $550,000 from the chef's foundation is fueling the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Learning Center, enabling the nonprofit hospitality training program to double its enrollment and add facilities for catered events to increase self-generated revenues.
"The thing about Emeril is his commitment to us for the long haul," says Café Reconcile founder Craig Cuccia. "Someone who helps you mature and realize your potential, set higher goals and show you how to get there, that's a mentor, and you can't put a price tag on what that's worth to an organization like ours."
This weekend's United Way honor comes near the end of what has been a momentous and sometimes tumultuous year for Lagasse. Last December saw the taping of his final episode of Emeril Live for the Food Network, the cable channel that propelled his fame and which he also helped define through the late 1990s. This past summer he debuted a series called Emeril Green on the fledgling environmental-themed network Planet Green. In February, he opened a restaurant called Table 10 in the new Las Vegas casino Palazzo.
In April, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia paid $50 million for the rights to Lagasse's cookbooks, television shows and kitchen products, making the chef an employee to represent his brand. The deal did not include Lagasse's restaurants, which he still owns and operates from New Orleans, or his foundation. Later that month, Lagasse shuttered a restaurant for the first time, his 5-year-old Emeril's in Atlanta, which had been skewered by critics.
"We weren't in the right location, we had landlord issues and we overbuilt the restaurant, spent too much money," says Lagasse. "But we can't blame anyone except ourselves. We didn't do enough homework there."
Lagasse takes the blame for that failure, explaining he should have better researched the Atlanta market. But neither that experience nor the state of the national economy has blunted his drive. In 2009 he intends to open a new sports bar concept in Las Vegas, and he has three restaurants planned for the Sands Bethlehem — a gargantuan conversion of a former Pennsylvania steel mill into a casino complex.
There has been no pause in his charitable commitments to New Orleans either. In November, he brought chefs, winemakers and 600 well-heeled donors to the city for his fourth annual Carnivale du Vin, the $1,200-a-plate dinner and wine auction that generates most of his foundation's funding. The one-night event raised $1.7 million, thanks to energetic campaigning onstage and at the auction tables by Lagasse and the other culinary celebrities he invited to rev up the event.
"If there's one reason we come down to New Orleans, it's not just because we love it here, it's because Emeril Lagasse asked us to," says Mario Batali, one of the chefs who cooked at and donated cash during the event. "And we'll do anything Emeril asks us, anytime, because he is the god of what we do."
The Alexis de Tocqueville Awards Gala is Thursday, Dec. 4 at the Sugar Mill events hall. For ticket information, call the United Way at 293-2647.