Before there were Food Network icons and cultish produce, before farm-to-table was a philosophy and cake decorating became a competitive sport, there was Emeril Lagasse.
And his is a life story best told by the kitchens that formed and informed him. There was the Portuguese bakery where he washed dishes as a youngster, the pizzeria where he stretched dough in high school, the Asian restaurants where he learned the secrets of Chinese sauces, and of course the grand kitchen of New Orleans’ iconic Commander’s Palace, where he became head chef at 23.
It’s a story Lagasse is ready to tell. His latest cookbook, “Essential Emeril,” is his life in recipes, a collection that covers everything from Asian fusion and Tex-Mex to classic French and Italian.
“Cooking isn’t just about what ends up on the plate. It’s the journey, taking time, having a plan, being prepared, being patient, noticing the smells, being mindful of what’s going on in the pan,” he said. “(The book) is a generous slice of the amazing journey I’ve had up until now in this glorious world of food.”
Through stories and recipes that chart his course through the television and restaurant worlds, Lagasse shares the foods and people _ everyone from his mother to Mario Batali _ that shaped his career. Peppered throughout the cookbook _ Lagasse’s 19th _ are many of the New Orleans dishes he has become known for, including barbecue shrimp with jalapeno biscuits, pork candy ribs with spicy hot Creole seasoning, and andouille-crusted redfish with Creole meuniere sauce.
And through those recipes, Lagasse gives us a glimpse at another side of the chef Americans came to know best for kicking things up a notch. He reflects back on those early, nervous years when he first took over at Commander’s and spent his days off in the Louisiana country, visiting farmers and Vietnamese fishing boats, sourcing trigger fish and escolar that “no one else was bringing to the table.”
“If I could control as much of the quality of what was being served on the table for my guests, then this was what was going to be the path in building an incredible reputation as a chef,” he said in a recent interview. Eventually, “memories of my childhood started flashing back at me and why my family had a farm and why they raised animals. … The avenues connected and my love and fondness for what I was doing just grew.”
Lagasse also isn’t afraid of dropping the names of the many celebrities he has counted among customers and friends. And that’s half the fun of reading the book. For example, there are the “potatoes Alexa,” made with a portobello-truffle emulsion, named after Billy Joel’s daughter, as well as the triple truffle risotto he served to Sammy Hagar at his wedding.
Lagasse went on to open numerous restaurants of his own, including Emeril’s in New Orleans, NOLA and Delmonico. And the book is filled with tips and recipes inspired by those who helped him along the way, Charlie Trotter to Julia Child.
More recently, Lagasse’s television career has focused on Florida, where he lives with his family. When producers first approached him about “Emeril’s Florida,” Lagasse was taking a break and not interested. But the avid fisherman, who loves spending rare days off on the boat with his kids, said he started thinking about the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and all the lakes and ponds around the state. “I’m going to show people that there is so much abundance here.”
“I love the state,” he said. “I’ve met some amazing people from shacks that sell fish sandwiches to five-star restaurants.”
In the kitchen…
CHICKEN WITH CHAMPAGNE AND 40 CLOVES OF GARLIC
“The slow cooking of the garlic makes this dish sweet, nutty and creamy,” Emeril Lagasse writes in his new cookbook, “Essential Emeril.” “Some folks like to cut up a whole chicken, but I prefer all thighs. They braise well and the meat stays juicy. I used Champagne because I love the subtle flavor it adds, but any dry white wine could be substituted.”
Start to finish: 1 hour 45 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 to 12 large bone-in chicken thighs (about 5 pounds)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
40 cloves garlic, peeled (about 3 whole heads)
1/4 cup lemon juice, or to taste
1 cup Champagne or other dry sparkling or white wine
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Heat the oven to 325 F. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high. When the pot is hot, add the oil.
Season the chicken on both sides with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Working in batches so as to not crowd the pot, sear the chicken, skin side down, until golden brown, about 6 minutes per batch. Brown briefly on the second side, then transfer the browned chicken to a plate. Repeat with remaining chicken.
Add the garlic to the empty pot and cook, stirring, until lightly golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice, Champagne, broth and thyme. Return the chicken to the pot, nestling the pieces down into the liquid. Make sure some of the garlic is sitting on top of the chicken. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot, then place in the oven. Cook, stirring once midway to ensure even cooking, until the chicken is falling-off-the-bone tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Transfer the chicken and some of the garlic to a platter, then cover with foil to keep warm. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs from the pot.
In a medium bowl, mash together the flour and butter to form a smooth paste. Slowly whisk 1/2 cup of the hot juices from the pot into the paste until smooth, then add this mixture to the pot along with 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Whisk to combine. Don’t worry if some of the garlic cloves get smashed; they will help to thicken and enrich the sauce. Cover and cook over medium heat until the gravy has thickened, 10 to 20 minutes longer.
Season the sauce with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, or more to taste. Serve the chicken with the gravy spooned over the top and sprinkled with the remaining 1 tablespoon of parsley.
Nutrition information per serving: 870 calories; 560 calories from fat (64 percent of total calories); 62 g fat (18 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 325 mg cholesterol; 1,090 mg sodium; 13 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 56 g protein.
(Recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse’s “Essential Emeril,” 2015, Oxmoor House)