The Fresh Chef

What makes Emeril Lagasse cook

By Nancy Rutman

Photography by Steven Freeman

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Emeril Lagasse seldom lacks for words, but ask him to name the food that most reminds him of home, and he hesitates. For him, the answer is not so much a food as a feeling—the feeling of anticipation, of looking forward to the flavors that each time of year will bring. "Seasonally grown produce means home to me," he says, finally.

In his new book, Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh, the iconic chef captures that seasonal enthusiasm. Its roots run deep into his childhood in Fall River, Massachusetts, where he learned to stir up a vegetable stew under the watchful eye of his mother, Hilda, and tended a large backyard garden with his father, Emeril Jr. On visits to his Uncle Oliver's farm in nearby Westport, he spent many happy hours harvesting fruits and vegetables, milking cows, and gathering eggs. These visits gave him a lifelong appreciation for the people who bring us our food. "All of the chefs...in each of my restaurants," he writes, "carry on the tradition of using the freshest ingredients and of maintaining long-lasting connections with local farmers."

Emeril regularly shares his passion for regional, organic food in his cookbooks and on his TV shows, including the newest, Fresh Food Fast, on the Cooking Channel. He is perhaps most serious, though, about igniting the same passion in the next generation. His own children tag along when he shops for family meals: "Not only is it fun for them to help Dad pick out the produce," he says, "but they also get a lesson in forging a relationship with the people who provide it." And since 2002, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation has supported programs for youth in the communities that host his restaurants, including Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, based on the Berkeley, California, original.

Q&A
Emeril recently gave Organic Gardening some of his thoughts on seasonal food—and oh, yes, a few mouth-watering recipes highlighting the fruits of summer, too.

How much of what you do in the kitchen and garden can be traced to your family's love of good, fresh food?

Making the connection between food and the people who grow it has always stuck with me. Being exposed at an early age to growing and harvesting food from my dad's garden and my Uncle Oliver's farm gave me an appreciation of how farming works and the fresh ingredients that come from that. It's at the root of who I am as a chef.

Is your work with the Emeril Lagasse Foundation a way of "paying forward" the encouragement you received from your family and community?

I was very fortunate to have some incredible mentors growing up. My mom, Miss Hilda, inspired me and helped me learn something new every day, as did everyone I worked with along the way. If we can inspire one child, we've achieved our goal of making the communities that we live in, work in, and eat in a little bit better.

What have you learned from the kids involved with the Edible Schoolyard?

Whenever I visit, I'm amazed at how they recognize all of the different herbs, our native plants, okra, greens, lettuces, and Creole tomatoes. They are learning about the importance of fresh, local foods and can finally relate to the stories that their parents or grandparents tell at home about how they used to have backyard gardens. It's all about reconnecting them with our rich culture and with the soil.
 

We assume that kids today would rather not work in a garden. Do we underestimate them?

I think we do. Many of the kids involved in the foundation are incredibly interested in the whole process of gardening. They understand that it requires patience and hard work. Their instructors do a beautiful job of integrating the garden into everything they do, from mathematics to science to nutrition. At lunch, they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor each day by eating some of what they grow, with real plates and forks on reusable trays. It's a great outlet, and I know that they have fun and learn so much. They then take this message home and share it with Mom and Dad, and maybe want to start a small garden in their own back yard!

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