What little I've known about celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has come from catching snippets of his early TV shows and eating in two of his restaurants, one in New Orleans and one in Las Vegas. My overall impression from the few minutes of television was negative; I felt he came across more as huckster than as chef. The food in the Las Vegas restaurant was good but not great, though its banana cream pie remains by far the best I've ever eaten in a restaurant. The food in the New Orleans restaurant was quite good and made me wonder if I had misjudged him.
Here at the Cayman Cookout, I chose to attend a session of his to learn more about him.
Though the first dish he made--salmon cheesecake--struck me as not my type of food, the others intrigued me more, and his command of flavors and textures was superb.
When he opened the session to questions from the audience, though, he really won me over. In person, he's a quiet man who speaks in carefully considered and measured sentences, with no hyperbole and a great deal of passion for both food and his charitable foundation, which focuses on helping children. A man from New Orleans took the mic and told a story of meeting Emeril when he was first at Commander's Palace and of how great a guy Emeril had been then and still was, and how proud all the people from that neighborhood were, and Emeril teared up a little.
On Sunday night, he worked outside with his team preparing the appetizers for the finale dinner.
I caught him here in a rare moment looking away from the food. He very politely turned down multiple photo and autograph requests until his team was done cooking all the appetizers and he had individually thanked all of the chefs working there with him. He was gracious with the servers and praised them and the importance of what they were doing. Then, he posed as much as people wanted, smiling the whole time--but the only times he looked genuinely happy were when he was working on the food with his team.
I leave the Cayman Cookout determined not only to seek out more of his food but also with the conviction that this is a decent man of great talent, a man I'd like to get to know further. That's quite a change for me, and one I would not have gotten the chance to make without being here, so I am again grateful for the opportunity to attend this event.
I also learned again, as if I should need the lesson, that seeing only one aspect of a person is almost never enough to make a valid judgment about the person.
Not that this will ever matter to him or even reach his eyes, but I feel obliged to say it nonetheless: Thank you, Chef Lagasse, for what you did here, for being a trailblazing chef, and for your charity work.