Emeril Lagasse is the chef and proprietor of over a dozen restaurants, has his own line of cookware and packaged foods, and was arguably America's first celebrity chef to crossover into full-on rock star status.
Yet, none of these accomplishments have stopped him from retaining an open mind as a chef, which is on full display in his new Amazon Prime series, Eat the World With Emeril Lagasse.
Premiering this Friday, it will join the ranks of Bizarre Foods, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown in the travel category of food shows that make you want to quit your day job to travel the world. But Emeril is introducing a new element to the "say a funny comment while stuffing yourself with delicious food" formula of food travel shows: He is learning to cook something new at each stop.
In South Korea, he gets nervous while frying a piece of soft tofu for a DIY vegetarian feast with Danny Bowien—complete with earth-aged kimchi and homemade soy sauce—in front a Buddhist monk. In Spain, he learns how to make fabada asturiana from a father and son team with José Andrés. In Italy, he makes pizza with Franco Pepe and eats cacio e pepe with Nancy Silverton. And so on and so on.
Last week, I sat down with him at his suite at the Ace Hotel overlooking the downtown Los Angeles skyline. We talked about the best country to visit for its food, why xiao long bao makes the perfect breakfast, and most importantly, why cooks of all skill levels should never stop learning new techniques and flavors from other countries.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Emeril. So, what was the best thing you ate? Emeril Lagasse: Nino's buffalo mozzarella that we experienced mid-day on a little crostini was super good in Italy. I'd call that a snack. I ate soup dumplings in China for breakfast. That was definitely my favorite breakfast. In Korea and China, I ate a lot of broth and noodles for breakfast, with egg and a little bit of vegetables. It was really, really good.
In Spain, it was fabada that we had at Casa Gerardo. It's a bean dish that they take very special care of, this father and son team. When the bean is harvested in the fall, most people harvest them and then they dry them. You can go to any butcher store or market and get fava beans.The dish has chorizo and blood sausage, and a piece of pork, then it's cooked down. It's absolutely delicious. It's like a bean stew, almost.
The episode with Danny Bowien was quite beautiful. That was a very special show—they're all very special, and they all have an educational perspective to them. There's obviously the colleague connection, and [the chefs I travel with], maybe it's not a place that he or she is familiar with either. Danny, however, was familiar with Seoul and South Korea, being born there but being adopted by an Oklahoma family. So he kind of grew up American-ized, but he got out of the box. We met up at the Mapo market, which was incredible, and we experienced some amazing cultural experiences there. That's also how I approach not only my life but also the show. If you can understand culture, and understand the people, then you can understand the food. And Danny and I just zeroed in on that.
If you're not learning something every day, you're cheating yourself. You have to have a mentor.
I probably had 25 different kimchis over there in Seoul. Then we took the bullet train to a Buddhist temple, which was a really emotional experience for Danny, and then we ended up going back and doing that pop-up restaurant. Because the first day we were there, some people told him that two guys opened Mission Chinese—they called it Mission Chinese, but they weren't doing Danny's food. So he contacted them, and said, "Look, I'm not upset, but if you're gonna do my food, I'm gonna come and show you how to do it right." So the next few days go by, and he and I are planning to do this pop-up restaurant where he did three of his dishes and I did three of mine.
This is Amazon's first unscripted food and travel series—what was it like to wing it? I had flashbacks of when I started at the Food Network, 20-some years ago. I never would've thought this is what it'd evolve into. And about how many people it reached. When I think about this show, television is going in a whole new direction. And you can stream this and watch one or two or all six of these in one go. It's amazing for me; people are no longer waiting until Tuesday nights to watch their sitcom or whatever. I feel like this is a very new platform, particularly in the food world. We'll see what happens.
It was interesting to watch someone as established as you become a student again. In Korea, you were nervous frying tofu. How was that? You're right on the money. In order for our industry to evolve, we have to keep learning. I'm continually learning new techniques, new ingredients, new culture. And that's been a philosophy of mine for at least the last 30 years.
It's always about learning and taking it to the next step. I tell my staff, my cooks, if you're not learning something every day, you're cheating yourself. You have to have a mentor. Doesn't matter if you want to be a radio DJ or if you want to be a mechanic, you have to have a mentor.
That's becoming harder, because young chefs think they know it all. How important is it to have a student mentality? I tell people to learn their craft. Just because you went to a program, you can't come out of school thinking you're gonna have a TV show. You have to become really good at your craft. There's sauteeing, roasting, butchering, garde manger—there's so much knowledge in culinary arts. I tell people that even if you cook for 50 years, you're still only gonna learn maybe that much if you're lucky.
I learned how to make French onion soup from 12 different chefs, and then finally a lightbulb went off and I said, 'You know what? I know how I'm going to make my onion soup.'
There's too many cultures, too many ingredients, too many techniques. Particularly people who have been cooking for a long time and come to me, and say, "Chef, I'm getting a little burned out. I've cooked 5,000 pieces of redfish the same way for months." So we try to rotate to give them the chance to learn, but also I encourage reading, eating, and experiencing different restaurants and food and chefs.
So I say, "Look, read, have a mentor, and really try to know your craft before you move on." What I say to young cooks: "Are you ready to be a sous chef?" Because that's not only a learning role, but also a teaching role. You have people looking up to you in a kitchen and saying, "What's the best way to make a bechamel? How do you make onion soup?" You know? I learned how to make French onion soup from 12 different chefs, and then finally a lightbulb went off and I said, "You know what? I know how I'm going to make my onion soup."
What do you think of cooking shows versus food travel shows? I love cooking shows—I did 12 seasons of Essence of Emeril and ten seasons of Emeril Live. Emeril Live is very different, because there was a live audience, band—but we really cooked. I kind of miss cooking shows. I feel like now we are going through a phase of challenge shows—some of them are terrible. I'm not trying to follow any kind of trend, I just thought this was an unusual opportunity and an unusual platform, and something in my life right now that is a perfect match for me. Because there's wisdom that I bring, but yet there's the challenge of learning. And sometimes I may not be in a comfortable environment.
If your viewers could only visit one country, which one would you recommend? I would have to say Italy or Spain. As you know, when I started learning and having mentors, the grandfather of cuisine was French. So I migrated to France to learn that and the classics. Then I started experiencing Italy and realizing Italy was the grandmother of the cuisine. Now I have to say that I don't think France is in the lead anymore. I think Spain is taking a lot of what they're doing—and not just jamón. I had some amazing meals in Ibiza and Madrid and Valencia, for the most incredible paella. I think those places are very, very passionate about their food.
In my opinion, the biggest surprise on the show was Sweden. There are more Michelin stars in Stockholm right now than, I think, in Paris. There's over 90 Michelin stars in Stockholm. And there's this new Nordic cuisine. With Marcus Samuelsson, we went to a restaurant with no electricity in the kitchen. All of the chef's cooking is done by wood, fire, and smoke. And that's where I experienced the most unusual thing, which was reindeer heart. It was one of the most incredible things I've eaten.
I hope the show has some success, because now I would love to go to Lyon with Danny Boulud. And I would love to go to Vietnam. I would love to go to Portugal with George Mendes.
I want to keep eating the world.
Good luck, and congratulations. Thank you for speaking with me.