You know Emeril Lagasse from his restaurants, his television stardom and his lines of cookware and foods.
What you may not know is that Lagasse’s uncle had a farm in Massachusetts, and his family had a garden in their back yard. He says the experience of milking goats and picking strawberries helped him understand how to become a chef.
“I never realized the impact,” Lagasse says, “but when I got to Commander’s Palace” the legendary New Orleans restaurant where he began cooking in 1982, “it all clicked.”
Now a superstar chef, Lagasse wants other kids to have that same knowledge. Last month, he launched Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen, a national program that he expects to have in 10 schools by 2023, and perhaps 20 schools once the program is at full strength.
This is not a cheap proposition, which is why you won’t see it in hundreds of places. In order to get a $250,000 grant from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, the school has to put up the same amount.
“They have to have skin in the game as well,” Lagasse says of the schools. “They can’t say, ‘Hey, Foundation, poor, poor, pitiful me, we have to have this program.'”
In return, Lagasse presents them with seeds and plants, supplies with which to tend them, a curriculum to teach the students, and 100 of his recipes, tailored to young people, to make dishes from the things that the students grow. The project will be overseen by a teacher with a horticultural background. And, parents will be involved, too.
“We’re not just sending you a packet of seeds from Vermont. This is a serious commitment,” he says.
His goal is that the program “will inspire these young people to be a lot more educated about food and where it comes from and how simply it can be prepared to have nourishment for themselves and their families,” Lagasse says.
The program has begun with a small school in Florida. Next, Lagasse expects to expand it to schools in places like California, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico and Washington,D.C.
Since it’s expensive, Lagasse expects the schools to line up a partner, such as a local business, to help fund the program.
“There has to be a third part, because this is my money we’re giving you,” he says. “What do you think you’re doing, goofing around growing sunflowers?”
The effort is part of his increasing focus on philanthropy, which lately has been a key movement within the food world. Washington-based chef Jose Andres was instrumental in a widespread effort to feed people in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria last year.
During the October, 2017 wildfires in California wine country, Lagasse was among the chefs who stepped up to help growers in Sonoma and Napa Counties, along with another Food Network figure, Guy Fieri. (More about him later.)
His years of shows on the network and his signature catch phrase, “Bam!” made him a household name. More recently, he starred in the Emmy-award winning Amazon Prime series, Eat The World, which he says the network has not picked up for more shows.
But Lagasse is still a TV presence, appearing on his friend Rachael Ray’s talk show, where he was one of the chefs helping her celebrate her 50th birthday. He also is a regular guest judge on Top Chef on Bravo TV, whose 16th season has been filming in Kentucky.
Otherwise, he says his charity work and his restaurants in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Bethlehem, Pa., and Florida are his primary focus.
In November, his foundation will put on its annual weekend of events in New Orleans, including Boudin, Bourbon and Beer, a dine and drink fundraiser that draws dozens of chefs and thousands of people to Champions Square outside the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
That will be followed by Carnivale du Vin, a dinner featuring leading chefs and, you guessed it, wine.
There’s a noticeable difference with this year’s Boudin, Bourbon and Beer, however. In the past, early bird tickets cost $99. This year, the advance price for the Nov. 9 event has gone up to $135. That’s caused a few eyebrows to go up in New Orleans, as well.
Lagasse says there are two reasons for the price hike. One is rising food costs, coupled with rising entertainment costs. Both have eaten into the proceeds that the foundation receives from the event. Also, he doesn’t want visiting chefs to be out of pocket by traveling to New Orleans, so he is offering to reimburse their travel costs.
Fieri is one of Lagasse’s co-hosts for this year’s event, which also caused some surprise, because the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives host doesn’t have many ties to New Orleans.
But Lagasse says he’s known Fieri since his early Food Network days, and has tried for years to convince him to participate in one of his events. Last fall, the pair reconnected during their California wildfire efforts.
“I said, ‘Dude, when are you going to come to New Orleans? You can be a chef, you can be a host, you can do Saturday night (when Carnivale du Vin takes place), whatever you want to do, it would be great,'” Lagasse says. That resulted in Fieri’s participation in the fundraiser.
Lagasse, who just installed a new $500,000 kitchen in his flagship New Orleans restaurant, Emeril’s, said he also gets constant invitations for appearances and deals.
“I could be doing forty times more,” he says. “I’m very picky about what I want to do. It has to have a meaning and a purpose.”
That, he says, is why teaching kids means a lot to him.
The program comes at a time when chefs and restaurants around the country are having trouble staffing their kitchens. Legasse says he hopes one byproduct of his culinary effort is that it inspires young people to look into kitchen careers.
If that happens, he says, the budding young cooks can “push it to the next level.” Perhaps with their own style of bam!