Chef Stirs Creole, Cajun Pot With Creativity

New Orleans restaurateur Emeril Lagasse is inspired, but not confined, by local flavors

ON an otherwise bare brick wall in Emeril Lagasse's restaurant hangs a large abstract painting. In its swirling dark blues and purples, for those who look closely, hide a chef's hat and a Mardi Gras mask. Superimposed over it all is the rim of a plate.

The painting stands out in a dining room dominated by elegant simplicity - hardwood floors, schoolroom chairs, starched white tablecloths. Yet it could easily be missed in the bustle of the dining experience at Emeril's. A crowd of people waiting to be seated forms at the door; a swarm of black-jacketed servers glide in and out of the open dining area; in one corner, eight people sit at a bar overlooking a cooking area where they can watch Mr. Lagasse perform his nightly magic.

But taking the time to see the symbols in the painting is like getting to know Lagasse.

As a boy in Fall River, Mass., of a French-Canadian father and Portuguese mother, Lagasse answered ``musician'' to those asking what he wanted to be when he grew up. But after choosing Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. over a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Lagasse never looked back. It was the same when he moved from the Northeast to New Orleans in 1983.

Food is his life now - symbolized by the toque, or chef's hat, and the plate in the painting; and New Orleans - depicted by the Mardi Gras mask - is his home.

``When I have the day off, the thing that I do is cook,'' Lagasse says matter-of-factly in an interview after a busy lunch shift.

His signature restaurant, Emeril's, is closed on Sundays and holidays, but that doesn't keep Lagasse out of the kitchen.

``For me it's a way to express myself about the joy of friendship. I do that through food.''

He was wooed to New Orleans by the owner of the restaurant many locals call New Orleans's best, Commander's Palace. Lagasse worked there for seven years before venturing out to open a restaurant of his own in 1990. Having opened a second, more casual restaurant in 1992, named Nola's, he moved his parents from Massachusetts to New Orleans in 1993. He published his first book called ``Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking'' (William Morrow & Company, 354 pp., $23) last year. Lagasse says he has no plans to leave. ``I have this incredible city for food, this incredible city for music ... and it's filled with great people.''

THE 10-month growing season in southern Louisiana is key to Lagasse's cooking. Farm-fresh food is his departure point when creating new recipes, which he does every night. One of his restaurant's specialties is ``Emeril's Degustation,'' an eight-course tasting meal.

The legacy of Louisiana's Cajun and Creole foods has molded Lagasse's current recipes, but not exclusively. Pesto, curry, and pico de gallo are just as likely to spice up Lagasse's food as the traditional cayenne pepper. Linguini, fried celery-root chips, and black beans are nearly as common ingredients as alligator tail or crawfish. He describes his dishes as having ``clean, interesting combinations and textures.''

Lagasse makes this distinction between Cajun and Creole: ``Cajun is the rustic, country version of Louisiana food, where Creole is the city food of Lousiana.''

Though Lagasse's cookbook emphasizes a revision of traditional New Orleans fare, he is quick to point out that New Orleans cooking is in no danger of being phased out. ``The city itself is not even as old as the cuisine. It's going to be, it's just going to be better.''

Looking back to those Cajun food traditions, Lagasse is planning a new book about what he calls ``comfort'' food or longtime rural Louisiana recipes. He is traveling around the state asking farmers, fishermen, and home cooks for their favorite recipes. ``I'm sure [they] have a bunch of little tips and secrets that I want to kind of `Emerilize' a little bit.''

Also on his plate is the creation of a model kitchen for Louisiana's Children's Museum that he hopes will inspire respect for the city's food among future generations.

What keeps Lagasse busiest, though, are the day-to-day details of running his restaurants. ``I never look at it as work,'' he says. ``It's my life, it's my passion. I'm having a blast doing what I'm doing.''

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