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Emeril Lagasse, author of Essential Emeril, says he keeps an open-minded approach to food.

On 3 recipes every cook should know


Sally Swift
: We love to talk essential recipes here at The Splendid Table. We've done this whole series called The Key 3 where we ask chefs and good cooks the three recipes that they think every cook should know. What are your three?

Emeril Lagasse: I would say probably No. 1 would be pate a choux, to either make profiteroles or to make gougeres. I think understanding that is important.

SS: So it's an essential dough.

EL: I think a basic bread dough is also very important, whether it's something as simple as pizza or a basic white bread dough that you can proof. Understanding that, I think, is important.

Then I would think probably the technique of making an emulsion. People get a little freaked out about making an emulsion. It's really just whisking it and doing it slow.

SS: Like a salad dressing. A vinaigrette is an emulsion.

EL: Exactly. I think those three I would probably stick with.

On chow mein sandwiches

Fall River Chow Mein
Lagasse's recipe: Fall River Chow Mein

SS: The book contains more of your essentials. One of them that I found really, really interesting was the chow mein sandwich.

EL: I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. This particular recipe was really -- as most of the book is -- a memory of my journey. Part of my journey was growing up on these chow mein sandwiches from a place called Mee Sum, which is still there. Every time I visit Fall River, I have to go to Mee Sum and get one of those chow mein sandwiches.

SS: It's literally chow mein that is in a hamburger bun?

EL: It's in a hamburger bun. They would wrap them in this wax paper. You would get them in a paper bag. I can remember when they used to be three for $1. You'd buy a bunch of them and take them home. The more you waited, the soggier they got.

On chefs who have influenced him


SS
: I was surprised to see you dedicate this book to Charlie Trotter.

EL: Charlie was not only one of my best friends, but he was also one of my best pals to cook with. We did a lot of cooking and a lot of traveling together. We really explored a lot of parts of the world together to learn.

One that's in the book is a journey that we had together when we went to see Fredy Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland. Fredy Girardet was a Swiss chef who had this restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland, for many, many years. He ran the restaurant with his mom and a really incredible talented maitre d'. Many times Charlie, I and some friends would make the journey over there.

Charlie was not only my best friend, but he was a brother. He was, as I say in the book, a passionate explorer. He was certainly a scholar. He was a perfectionist. He was near genius and ran an incredible restaurant in Chicago that really puts Chicago first on the map for grand cuisine. He's well missed.

SS: You talk about a lot of your chef friends in this book, people who have influenced you, like Mario Batali.

EL: That's what Essential Emeril really is. It's not really a memoir, but it's sort of a journey -- maybe the last 30 years, how it has evolved. I couldn't put everything in the book and I couldn't put everyone in the book.

But there are people like Mario Batali who have inspired me. There's a very unique pasta dish that I did my version for him. Larry Forgione was certainly a chef who inspired me at a very young age, before I started the Commander's Palace, back when he was at The River Cafe. He became a mentor.

SS: How old were you then?

EL: In my young 20s.

On his evolving style as a chef


SS
: You were talking about traveling with Charlie. Is there a culinary trip that you haven't taken yet that you're excited to make?

EL: I haven't spent a lot of time in Asia. I'm more the other side of the pond. I have spent a lot of time obviously in France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain. My influences and my style -- which is a bit rustic, certainly bold -- I think are because of not only my heritage, growing up and how I was influenced at home, but also certainly how I was schooled and where I studied. Where I visit is more of those particular areas of the world. It's more the mortar for me.

I just had a trip to Greece and I experienced some wonderful food there. I would like to go to Australia again; I think it's a pretty interesting part of the world. But that's exactly how food is.

I have some good friends who are Greek. I never really thought much about their cuisine and culture. Then, all of a sudden, I had a recent trip there and I was blown away. I was blown away how every island has a little bit different influence than the next, and the style and the technique. I find it fascinating.

But that's how I approach food. I'm always very open-minded. I believe that you should learn something every day or you're cheating yourself. That's how I approach it. As I'm getting older and things evolve, my style just continues to keep getting probably a little simpler because I'm more ingredient-driven than I am about stuff being cute on a plate.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.