The Fresh Chef

What makes Emeril Lagasse cook

Nancy Rutman December 16, 2010

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!

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.

'Black Mission' Figs Stuffed with Blue Cheese and Lavender Honey
Fresh figs are the ultimate local fruit. They don't travel well. If you're fortunate enough to get your hands on a few pints, embellish them as below. Though we suggest 'Black Mission' figs here, you can certainly use any variety that's available.

  • ¼ cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers, plus more for garnish
  • 2 ounces creamy blue cheese (such as Valdeón, Gorgonzola dolce, or any Rogue Creamery blue cheese)
  • ½ cup mascarpone cheese
  • 12 fresh firm-ripe 'Black Mission' figs, stem ends trimmed

1. Combine the honey and lavender flowers in a small saucepan, and warm over low heat. Remove from the heat and steep the lavender in the honey for at least 10 minutes. Strain the honey into a small bowl and discard the solids.

2. In a small bowl, combine the blue cheese with the mascarpone and half of the lavender honey. Stir until almost smooth (slightly chunky is okay). Place the mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip and set aside until ready to serve. (Refrigerate the bag briefly if the mixture becomes too soft.)

3. Using a paring knife, cut downward lengthwise into each fig as if you were preparing to cut the fig in half, but cut only about halfway through the fig. Turn the fig 90° and make a second cut perpendicular to the first. Using your fingers, gently pry open the top portions of the fig to create space for the cheese mixture. Pipe the cheese mixture from the pastry bag into the figs. Arrange the figs on a serving plate and garnish with lavender flowers. Drizzle the figs with the remaining lavender honey and serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings

Nectarine and Mascarpone Tart in a Sugar Cookie Crust
The nectarines and mascarpone here play on the quintessential flavor combo of peaches and cream, and work extremely well together. The result is a simpler and lighter version of cheesecake that will impress even the most hard-core cheesecake aficionados. The uncooked nectarines give this tart a cool, fresh quality.

  • 25 sugar cookies, coarsely broken (about 6 ounces or 2¼ cups pieces)
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone cheese
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • 4 or 5 small firm-ripe nectarines, halved, pitted, and thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup peach jam, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. Finely grind the sugar cookies in a food processor. Add the melted butter and blend until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Press the mixture over the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake until the color darkens, pressing the sides with the back of a spoon if they begin to slide, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven, set aside on a wire rack, and let cool completely.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the mascarpone, cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, vanilla extract, and almond extract, and beat with a handheld electric mixer on low speed until smooth. Spread this filling in the cooled crust. Cover loosely and refrigerate until the filling is set, for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

4. Carefully arrange the nectarine slices on the chilled filling, fanning them in concentric circles to cover as much of the tart as possible. Brush with the warm jam.

5. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving.

Makes 8 servings


Recipes adapted from Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh, by Emeril Lagasse (New York: HarperStudio, 2010), courtesy Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

For more information:
Emeril Lagasse (restaurants, recipes, and videos)
Emeril Lagasse Foundation
Valdeón cheese: Artisanal Premium Cheese, 877-797-1200
Rogue Creamery blue cheese: Rogue Creamery, 866-396-4704

 

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