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Essence of Emeril


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POSTED: Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There's an elegance and quiet classiness to Emeril Lagasse one-on-one that belies his boisterous television persona, that larger-than-life presence that “;kicks it up a notch”; to the wild cheers of a studio audience. It's not just Lagasse's understated, thoughtful demeanor that's revelatory, it's his perspective on food and people.

“;I told my wife, I've never had a bad meal in Hawaii,”; he said a few days ago at the Kahala Hotel & Resort, where he headlined this year's Food and Wine Classic. “;It's not because it's anything fancy. It's because the product is fresh, and the spirit is fresh. That's good for everyone.”;

Sustenance, for Lagasse, extends beyond just food.

And while Lagasse working the crowd isn't the setting for articulating his philosophical leanings, the fact that people respond so positively to his food and presence indicates that they may be getting the message anyway.

Karen Pancottine of Seattle, who attended the “;Essence of Emeril”; dinner at Kahala on Friday, said she's a fan “;big time. He has a genuine love of cooking and an ability to share that, as well as his love of people.”;

The celebrity chef's empire includes 11 restaurants, 13 cookbooks and several television shows. For all that, said one former employee, he continues to run his business with the warm spirit of “;a mom-and-pop operation.”;

“;The impressive thing is that he's very humble,”; said Elmer Guzman, owner of the Poke Stop restaurants, who worked as a sous chef in Lagasse's flagship restaurant, Emeril's, in New Orleans. “;He has star status, but he just loves the food and takes care of his team very well. He's like a father figure.”;

“;I don't treat anyone differently than I want to be treated,”; Lagasse said in discussing his approach to success. “;I work hard; I try to get up and do better than the day before, because in this business, you've gotta be at the top of your game.”;

OF COURSE, all this philosophizing would be for naught if it weren't for the food.

“;The key to good cooking is simple, not overcomplicated,”; Lagasse said. “;Great, fresh, local ingredients, organic—if you can—can carry you a long way. Techniques can be honed as you keep learning.”;

“;With Emeril's food, everything tastes good, and he has fun with food,”; said Guzman. “;His food is cutting edge, yet it has a homey style—on the comfort side, but with bold and exciting flavors.”;

That platform worked well at the Friday dinner.

The menu included Kiawe Smoked Salmon, served with a Kahuku corn pancake, Osestra caviar, Asian pear and creme fraiche; Crab Meat-Stuffed Moi Roulade, featuring Kauai shrimp and a charred tomato butter sauce; and Macadamia Nut-Crusted Veal with Cheddar Grits and Andouille Sausage Ragout. The dishes were paired with Schrader Cellars wines.

“;The food was clean,”; raved attendee Gladys Oliver of Hawaii Kai. “;He layered the flavors, but you could taste everything.”;

Lagasse said that on earlier trips to Hawaii, he sent boxes of food from the mainland for his events. But it was a wild card as to which ingredients would make it past authorities. This time, given assurances from Kahala's executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi that Hawaii farms produce top-quality fare, he selected local seafood, fruit and vegetables for his dinners.

“;I'm very much pleased,”; Lagasse said. “;My philosophy is, if you have great ingredients, you have great food.”;

DESPITE A late night of cigars and socializing to finish off the Friday night festivities, Lagasse was back in his white chef's coat Saturday morning at a cooking demonstration in Kahala's Maile Ballroom.

The crowd was diverse: Seven-year-old Jadyn Bresslauer of Honolulu was there with her father, Alex, to meet her idol. Dorothy Phillips of Kahala, an avid cook and baker, said she's never failed to learn at least one small thing from watching Lagasse's shows. Crystal Dias gifted her boyfriend, Leroy Kamai, with tickets to the demo. The Makiki couple credit Lagasse with helping Kamai develop his talent in the kitchen.

“;Emeril is No. 1. I watch him everyday and take down every note,”; he said. “;Emeril uses basic ingredients, but it's good.”;

As Lagasse stirred up his Brazilian Fish Stew before the crowd, Dias said it was great to see the chef live after watching so many of his shows on television.

“;It's good to actually smell the food,”; she said.

Later, as the crowd finished up their Bananas Foster, the last of four featured recipes, Lagasse stepped away from a bustling kitchen, where preparation for his Saturday-night dinner was already in full swing, to talk briefly with a reporter. When he was done, a small crowd had already gathered nearby.

It was a rare opportunity for fans to gain accessibility to the man, who came to this event without his usual entourage of handlers. After the Kahala gig, and another cooking demo on the Mighty Mo on Sunday, Lagasse and his family were on vacation.

Jadyn stepped forward to shake hands while Dad wielded a camera. A woman handed the chef a lauhala basket filled with gifts. Another asked for a picture, and then another.

Though Lagasse was hard-pressed to return to his duties, he offered a congenial greeting here and a pat on the back there.

“;You have to exceed peoples' expectations, whatever that means: For some, it means my name, for others, it's a thank you,”; he said. “;What I want is to make people feel a little bit better than when they came in.”;