EJ Lagasse Is Bringing Emeril’s Into the Future While Nurturing Its Legacy

The 20-year-old chef is wise and talented beyond his years

July 26, 2023 6:12 am
ej and emeril lagasse in front of their new orleans restaurant
We chatted with the young chef about what's next for his New Orleans restaurant

Anyone who’s interested in chef culture likely caught the bug from watching Emeril Live in those heyday years of Food Network. I certainly know that I did. As I’d settle onto the couch with my Dad, watching Emeril Lagasse talk about food and cook in front of an audience truly made for a joyful and educational 60 minutes, and it undoubtedly helped shaped me into the food-obsessed person I am today. So when I realized that his son, EJ, is also a chef, I couldn’t wait to chat with the next generation of talented Lagasses.

At 20 years old, EJ has taken over Emeril’s in New Orleans as chef patron. Whether your father is a renowned chef or not, it takes drive, maturity and talent to helm a restaurant at that age, all things that were clear about EJ throughout my phone conversation with him last month. We chatted about everything from championing Gulf Coast ingredients to the current renovations he’s overseeing at the restaurant, and how he’s bringing the family business into the future while both making it his own and preserving the legacy that his father built. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

InsideHook: I’m sure you get this a lot, but your father is obviously an icon. I don’t have to tell you that. His show had a big impact on my generation — I really think he’s who got a lot of people into chefs and restaurants for the first time. He’s certainly what got me into chefs and cooking when I was young. 

EJ Lagasse: I appreciate the kind words about Dad, he’s worked so hard for that for his entire life. So it’s always touching as a son to hear when people are so appreciative of the other things he’s done. It’s very nice. 

Growing up with a chef father, has getting into the family business always been your goal? Or did the desire for you to become a chef come later in your life? 

I never ever shied away from being in the kitchen with him or being in the restaurants as a kid and running around. And there are a number of people who’ve worked with The Emeril Group for 20-some odd years. And I hear stories of, “Oh, the first time I met you you were three years old and you ran by the fish line and almost got knocked over by one of the cooks. You were like four or five years old.” I hear a lot of stories like that. So I’ve always been running around in the restaurant and always felt really at home and really comfortable in the restaurants.

I always had an interest in being a professional chef. I just think that it took a few people to show me, “Hey, you can do it this way, you can do it that way. And it doesn’t have to be exactly the way that your Dad’s done it.” And things like that really got me to bite. But it’s one of those things where when you get bit with the bug, if you will, you don’t shake it. That’s just the way it works.

Smoked salmon cheesecake with caviar
Smoked salmon cheesecake with caviar
Romney Caruso

I think it’s so great that you’re able to learn from your father and carry the torch, but in your own way. Besides working with your father or cooking at home, are there other restaurants that had an impact on you? Any standout moments throughout your childhood or your teenage years that made you think, “Oh, my goodness, I think I want to be in the kitchen too”?

I had a dinner at Cafe Boulud in New York City when Gavin Kaysen was the chef. And I still remember the pomegranate glazed duck that I had as my main course. And I remember leaving that dinner — I was like eight years old, nine years old — getting in the car to head home and turning to my dad and saying, “Hey, this is what I’m going to do. This is awesome.” And I just remember feeling like, “It’s so incredible that there’s all this fine service going on in these restaurants, and if I can make people feel like this, that’s really awesome.” 

My grandmother on my Dad’s side cooked all the time, and it was all Portuguese food. And I’ve spent a lot of time in Portugal, when I was younger and even now. So there’s always been an influence of food and tons of moments where I said, “Yeah, this is probably what I want to do.”

Your family is Portuguese. Are there certain flavors or dishes from that cuisine that have influenced your cooking? 

Obviously there’s an  incredible amount of seafood used in Portuguese cuisine. And there’s also that correlation between being in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region because it has the most incredible seafood in North America. So there’s a lot of that inspiration — sort of Mediterranean but also the westernmost part of Portugal on the Atlantic coast where you’re getting these incredible prawns. Garlic, peppers, tomatoes and olives are used a lot in Portuguese cooking, so it’s also about using those flavor profiles. So I think when I go for bright and fresh, I think of Portuguese food quite a bit. But then there’s also the comfort side of things, you know? 

Would you say that the genre of European-meets-Louisiana cuisine has kind of defined your cooking style?

I wouldn’t say that I have one style — I really do draw [inspiration] from all different areas. And I’ve had the privilege to travel quite a bit, and I could be inspired by a day trip walking around in Istanbul eating street food, for example. And I’m always inspired by eating out.

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There’s just no place in the world like New Orleans to eat with all the different influences from around the world and amazing ingredients that are available locally. What are some of your favorite places to eat in the city right now? 

I think what the guys at Saint-Germain are doing is absolutely unbelievable. That’s an incredible restaurant, and I try to go there when I can because they’re always great inspiration. The same goes for Ana Castro and the team at Lengua Madre. I think the things they’re doing over there are incredibly thought-provoking. And obviously it paid off for them this year, as she was one of the best new chefs in Food & Wine, and rightfully so. I think that she’s an incredible person and an inspiration.

It’s amazing to see that New Orleans is so accepting of all of these different types of restaurants, and that, as a chef, you can come here and do what a chef wants to do. And those are just a couple of the three dozen incredible chefs that have either been here for a long time or are just now making their name in the city. And it’s inspirational to be in the conversation with all of these people and talking about where food can go in New Orleans. 

I love to hear that New Orleans is a place that really lets chefs express themselves. What are some of the dishes or projects that you’re currently most excited about spearheading at Emeril’s? 

We actually just announced our renovation project here at Emeril’s. We’re completely gutting the building and reopening in late September with a real focus on providing a luxury experience. That’s the goal for us, and I want to use the most incredible Louisiana produce. I think it has some of the best independent farmers in the country, and as I said earlier, the seafood is absolutely outstanding. The game that’s here is also incredible. It’s a really exciting moment for us right now to be able to get ready and for this renovation and reopening and all of these things that we’ve got planned, like adding new members to the team. It’s going to be a lot of work in these next few months and even more work after the fact. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great time.

Congrats on the reno, I’m sure it’ll be beautiful. You’re talking a lot about the purveyors and farmers with this amazing seafood, produce and the game, which I didn’t realize was such a big thing in Louisiana. Are there any particular ingredients that you’re excited about right now or that you want to play with a little bit more when the restaurant reopens? 

We’ve been working with these farmers for a good six to eight months now, and we’ve developed a great rapport with them to the point where now they’re asking if they can grow anything for us particularly, anything that we want to request — which is incredible. In Poplarville, Mississippi, which is just across the Louisiana border, there’s an exceptional farm called White Sands Pastures, and they’ve started raising quail for us. I just went up to visit them and see the first run of quail they’re raising specifically for Emeril’s reopening menu. When you’re able to utilize the bounty of the region, it’s an inspiring moment as a chef.

I really love that you support your local farmers — I think that practice makes a restaurant shine. Any ideas how you might prepare the quail yet? 

We love using our Japanese charcoal grills, so I’m sure that we’ll find a way to roast it and finish it on the grill. I’m a big fan of multi-component dishes. We definitely have an idea on the drawing board, I just don’t know exactly where it’s gonna go yet.

Potato Alexa Mushrooms, Alliums, Truffle Butter
Romney Caruso
Potato Alexa with mushrooms, alliums and truffle butter

When you’re not in the restaurant and you’re not menu planning for Emeril’s, do you have some favorite go-tos when you’re cooking for yourself or friends and family at home? 

I definitely have a few go-tos. I’ll just walk into a market or go to a farmer’s market, find something that is nice and lovely and then plan around that. And it’s weird because I’ll start off saying, “All right, today I’m going to make red beans and rice with pork chops — I’ll do something really comfort foody.” And I’ll end up doing something totally different. I’ll hand-roll pastas and make a basil pesto because I found some exceptional basil at the farmer’s market.

In the near future you’re doing this renovation, which is such a big plan. But for down the road, is there a type of kitchen or somewhere in the world that you really see yourself cooking in?

I am so fortunate that my Dad has given me absolute carte blanche when it comes to this renovation here at Emeril’s. And if there’s any kitchen that I want to cook in come this fall, it’s going to be the kitchen here. We have such an amazing team of not only people who work in the restaurant, but also our collaborators in this, the companies that we’ve hired to help with the redesign of the kitchen and the dining room. And they are 50 times smarter than any of us are, and certainly than I am. So they’ve really guided and every single detail has been thought through by them, and it’s going to allow us to have all the tools necessary to get the job that we want done. So quite frankly, I look at these renderings of this restaurant and I look at what’s coming in terms of architectural design, and I think I’d be happy here for 33 more years. That’s truly how I feel about it. 

And maybe there’ll be things that come about, but I don’t think I’ll ever need to have an EJ Lagasse restaurant because this is the Lagasse restaurant. This was my Dad being what he was in the ‘90s, it’s what he is today. I’m here now, and I hope to carry the baton forward and lead the restaurant with this amazing team and embark on this next portion of the story here at Emeril’s. That’s really my goal.


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