I’ll never forget the day the music died. The day the magic left. The day I realized that great food, restaurants and chefs in Vegas was just a big p.r. game, being played to the hilt by our big hotels. The day I realized that it was no longer about the food, it was all about celebrities shilling for that food.
Unfortunately, it was Emeril Lagasse — the man who put the “celebrity” in “chef” — who taught me that lesson. For it was Emeril who first seduced and then disappointed me, and therein lies a cautionary tale that I have yet to tell until now.
The year was 1997. Emeril’s Fish House was two years into its run and going great guns at the MGM Grand. Yours truly was hosting a Saturday morning radio show about food on 970 AM KNUU Radio called “A Taste of Vegas.” Don’t remember it? Well, neither does anyone else.
My co-host, ever the opportunist, saw a promotional gambit in sidling up to Lagasse and maybe having his (newly acquired) celebrity glitz rub off on the two of us. (Keep in mind, 1997 was just the dawn of the celebrity chef era, and even Emeril was not yet the household name he was destined to become.) Phone calls were made, interviews arranged, and the Full Monty was shown to us via the chef’s table inside the kitchen.
And Emeril, more than a few pounds thinner than he is these days, couldn’t have been more charming. He chatted with us, he sat with us, he posed for pictures and was gracious and engaging to everyone in the restaurant…not just a couple of lame-ass, local AM radio show hosts.
But what I remember most was how nice he was to my 12 year-old son. About halfway into a three hour extravaganza of food (pretty much the whole menu if memory serves), Number Two Son of ELV was getting a bit bored and restless. Somewhere between “How much more food do I have to eat?” and “When are they going to invent hand-held computers so I can disappear into a video game?” Emeril saw my son’s plight and took matters into his own hands.
“Wanna see the whole kitchen?” the Bam Man asked Hugh Alexander Curtas. “Sure,” was the ready reply. “Anything to get me away from all the wine swirling and my dad’s parsing the finer points of creole cooking.”
With that, Emeril whisked him away for a good half-hour and, while I bloviated about blackened redfish to my table-mates, gave a fascinated sixth grader a mini-education in the world of restaurant kitchens.
To say, with that gesture, Emeril Lagasse made two fans for life would be an understatement.
But things changed.
And Emeril got big, Really big. And the Food Network, with him as its biggest star, got even bigger. Sure, there had been cooking shows before, but they had been the province of hush-toned PBS types: fops like Graham Kerr and that pedophile guy. Emeril made cooking cool, and fun, and safe for straight men, and begat a revolution in the process. Without Emeril there would be no Mario Batali, or Guy Fieri, or Anthony Bourdain. The Food Network hasn’t had as big a star since, and now resigns itself to stupid cooking competitions and 12 hours of Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray every day. (Rule of Thumb #1: If you want to learn to cook, watch PBS; if you want your IQ lowered, watch the Food Network.)
Two years later, I found out just how big Emeril had gotten, and lost my innocence in the process. It was 1999. I was still doing that dreary little AM gig on Saturday mornings — complimenting, I thought, my regular KNPR segment every Thursday — and Emeril himself was coming back to town. This time it was a really big deal. But not so big I didn’t think I could take my same son down to the Fish House just to say hi to him for a minute or two. (We were old friends, after all.)
Also, by this time, my son was old enough to appreciate what a big deal Emeril had become, and was super-excited just to go down to the MGM again and see him again. I can still remember how thrilled he was, and the look on his face as we walked up to the restaurant.
Just as I can still remember trying to walk up to Emeril, only to be blocked by a phalanx of p.r. types who stepped in front of him and brusquely told me: “Chef isn’t speaking to anyone right now. You’ll have to wait, or maybe come back tomorrow.”
They said these things, of course, through the pursed lips and smarmy smiles of people who kiss ass and ooze insincerity for a living.
“Just to say hello to him?” I said with undisguised contempt. He was no more than four feet from me at the time, hiding behind at least half a dozen bodies who sole job seemed to be waving palm fronds as he walked by and shielding him from making eye contact with anyone.
I could see the disappointment on my son’s face, but all I could do was mumble something about what a mess it was, and not wanting to stand around for who knows how long, with a hundred other fans, waiting for an audience with someone we already knew. What I was thinking was that no fucking cook in the world is worth waiting around for — as if we were some lowly vassals eager for his eminence to grace us with his presence.
That was the day the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized it wasn’t about the food anymore. It was about media, and public relations, and television, and star-fucking.
Things have only gotten worse in the sixteen years hence. Andy Warhol was right, but he was also exactly wrong. Everyone will eventually become famous for fifteen minutes, but that means no one really is anymore. Emeril Lagasse made food television safe and sexy for big advertisers, and brought star power into cooking. But he also ruined something in the process.
His fame, like almost all fame, was fleeting, but he was hardly a flash in the pan, and he can still cook rings around anyone you see on the Food Network or Cooking Channel.
He’s also quite the nice guy. I’ve interviewed him a couple of time since and he’s always been chatty and fun to talk to. And don’t lose sight of the fact that his restaurants, both here and in New Orleans, are still some of the best in America.
But he made my kid cry, and in a small way, he made me cry for what restaurant cooking was about to become. And for that I cannot forgive him.