Emeril honored  outside the kitchen

Photo by CHERYL GERBER -- New Orleans Center for Creative Arts culinary students Phillip Randall, left, and Quana Bourgeois, right, get the help of Emeril Lagasse. Show caption
Photo by CHERYL GERBER -- New Orleans Center for Creative Arts culinary students Phillip Randall, left, and Quana Bourgeois, right, get the help of Emeril Lagasse.

N.O. chef gets humanitarian award from James Beard Foundation

Most recognize Emeril Lagasse as the celebrity chef, restaurateur and colorful TV personality whose expressions of “kick it up a notch” and “Bam!” flavor his talk and reflect his dishes.

But Lagasse has done something else with his love of cooking, finding a way to mentor young people through the culinary arts in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Las Vegas, wherever he operates restaurants.

Ten years ago, he established the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and, in the years since, it’s granted more than $5.5 million to children’s education and culinary arts programs.

“I’ve always, even in my days at Commander’s (Palace) and when I opened Emeril’s 23 years ago, been particularly interested in mentoring people,” Lagasse said in a phone interview. “I think people need to have a mentor in their life.”

In recognition of his efforts, Lagasse has received one of the highest culinary accolades. The James Beard Foundation presented him with its Humanitarian of the Year Award on May 6 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

Founded in 1986, in memory of the renowned cookbook author and teacher James Beard, the James Beard Foundation is dedicated to “celebrating, nurturing and preserving American’s diverse culinary heritage,” according to the organization.

Every year it presents awards in a number of different areas.

A native of Massachusetts, Lagasse honed his skills as a chef in Paris, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, before coming to New Orleans in 1982 as executive chef of Commander’s Palace.

He opened Emeril’s Restaurant in 1990. That first restaurant was followed in the Crescent City by the opening of Emeril’s New Orleans and NOLA Restaurant.

Today, Lagasse has 13 restaurants, including ones in Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Bethlehem, Pa.

He’s a well-known figure on TV, as well, hosting “Fresh Food Fast” and “The Originals with Emeril,” both on the Cooking Channel.

The food correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Lagasse launched his latest show on the Cooking Channel, “Emeril’s Florida,” in January, according to the biography at his website, http://www.emerils.com.

Lagasse said that one of the mentors in his own life has been former tennis champion Andre Agassi.

Through his restaurants in Las Vegas, Lagasse met and became friends with Agassi’s father, and then with Agassi himself.

Lagasse served for 10 years on the board of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. Agassi has also established the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a public charter school.

“I saw the power of what he did,” Lagasse said.

Agassi’s school “now has a full 12 grades,” Lagasse said.

“To see the evolution of that was very inspiring to me,” he said.

Lagasse, 54, said he decided he’d like to see how he could help children in his community. He said he established his foundation 10 years ago “with the hope of giving back by exposing young people to the culinary arts — especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

While there are programs for children in all of the cities where Lagasse has restaurants, some of the programs that the Emeril Lagasse Foundation has founded or supported in New Orleans are:

  • The Emeril’s Culinary Center at St. Michael Special School.
  • Cafe Reconcile hospitality school.
  • Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at Green Charter School.
  • Liberty’s Kitchen Cafe and Coffeehouse.
  • The Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Arts Studio at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).

In many of the programs, students “get trained and have hope and get into the hospitality industry,” Lagasse said.

The Edible Schoolyard project involves an organic garden, outdoor kitchen and a café.

Students learn “how to garden and grow, harvest and cook” the meals they enjoy through the program, Lagasse said.

“It has really changed the kids, changed their lives,” Lagasse said. “I know that these kids have tested way higher, academically,” after being part of the program, he said.

The Culinary Arts program at NOCCA is now in its third year, Lagasse said.

This year, it had 100 graduates, he said.

Other programs of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation provide meals for children after school and in the summer months.

For funding the works of the foundation “we rely 95 percent on our events Boudin & Beer and Carnivale du Vin,” which will be held this year on Nov. 8-9, Lagasse said.

The fundraising weekend features boudin from 40 chefs of the South, Cajun and country music, Louisiana seafood and a charity wine auction.

“Thank God we have a lot of wonderful people out there,” he said of the foundation’s supporters.

Lagasse has lived in Louisiana for 31 years now.

“Always when I wake up, I feel like I’m a part of New Orleans and a part of Louisiana,” Lagasse said.