The Fresh Chef

What makes Emeril Lagasse cook

By Nancy Rutman

Photography by Steven Freeman

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Are diners in your restaurants more curious about where their food comes from than they were when you first became a chef?

Absolutely. Today's consumer is so much more educated. If you aren't cooking with the freshest and best ingredients, you aren't in the game. I've been doing this in my restaurants and at home for more than 30 years. We've always listed the farm where our pork is raised, or our greens, because it really helps guests understand our commitment.

How important is it to you that food served in your restaurants be organic?

Very. We serve seasonal, organic, sustainable, and locally sourced products whenever they're available. We are constantly in touch with our purveyors and visit the local farmers' markets searching for organic produce, whether it's really amazing citrus or strawberries, or fresh spring peas. If it's organic, it's usually the best quality. And when you have great ingredients, I don't think you need to do a lot to the food. Great ingredients mean great food.

When we buy produce straight from the grower, we instinctively feel good about it. What benefits do you think the grower receives in exchange?

The commitment to go organic requires a lot of resources. Anything we can do to support our local farmers directly puts more resources in their pocket so they can maintain their equipment and manage their fields, protect their health, and still earn a living. If they have our support, maybe they will dedicate even more land to organic crops. With this book, we were able to really highlight the source—the farmers, fishermen, and ranchers—and feature all of their products.

Your book is dedicated to "all the farmers and fishermen (and women) who keep on keepin' on." Can you recall a case of one of these producers going beyond the call of duty?

If you look at the Gulf Coast fishers, it's easy to understand going beyond the call of duty. They brave the waters as part of their daily lives and have endured really hard times recently—first with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now with the oil spill—to keep on providing us with wonderful seafood.

What would you say to a shopper who doesn't see why she should pay more for locally caught shrimp when Chinese shrimp "tastes just as good"?

You gotta buy American whenever you can—and stay local. Louisiana's hard-working fishermen, shrimpers, and seafood purveyors are the heart and soul of our community. The prices they charge may be higher, but the seafood is top quality and super fresh, and they're barely covering their operating costs. The way I see it, we must make different choices about where we purchase our seafood. Simple as that.

You considered a career as a musician before deciding on culinary school, and music is often an important part of your TV shows. How do you think music and cooking complement each other?

I think music and food go hand in hand in making people happy. I grew up doing both, and I still love both.

If you hadn't become a chef, would you have become a musician or a farmer?

Ah, good question. I'd probably be a musician that lives on a farm.

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