By the time E.J. Lagasse was born, his father, Emeril Lagasse, had been a celebrity chef for more than a decade. But little E.J., quite logically, assumed dad’s fame sprang from providing the voice for a cartoon alligator in the 2009 Disney movie The Princess and the Frog. “That’s why I thought he was always getting his picture taken,” he says.
Now the lens has widened to include the younger Lagasse as he takes the culinary reins at Emeril’s, the first restaurant opened by his father in New Orleans in 1990. He’s fully aware that nineteen years old is awfully young to be filling such a big toque. “It’s a long-standing family business, so there are high expectations,” he acknowledges. “But growing up with my dad, I’ve got a ten-year advantage on knowing how a restaurant works.”
Family photos of E.J. clad in kid-sized chef’s whites attest to this precocious head start, as does his preteen resume in kitchens of his dad’s expanding empire, including Meril in New Orleans and Emeril’s Coastal in Miramar Beach, Florida.
There were rookie blunders along the way. When ten-year-old E.J. burned a big batch of crème brulee at Emeril’s, his unamused dad suggested he gain experience in somebody else’s eatery for a while. So in his early teens, E.J. spent three summers working in the kitchens of two of New York City’s most celebrated French chefs, Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. “You’re a sponge at that age,” E.J. remembers. “I wasn’t in charge of my own section or anything, but I got to cook for real, and had serious conversations with the chefs about what I wanted to do. I still consider them to be mentors.”
More convinced than ever of his path, he attended the esteemed Johnson & Wales culinary school and, as soon as pandemic restrictions allowed, traveled abroad to hone his skills at two Michelin three-star restaurants, Core in London and Frantzén in Stockholm.
Meanwhile, the reopening of pandemic-shuttered Emeril’s in 2021 prompted Emeril and E.J. to advance their long-running discussion of making some changes to the Warehouse District landmark. They decided E.J. was the Lagasse to effect those changes, and last May he arrived in New Orleans to take over as chef patron, a title denoting he’s also an owner. Since then, a lot of long days have been spent in the kitchen, a lot of late nights developing recipes.
The pair agreed on enhancing Emeril’s fine-dining status with a new tasting-menu format in the main dining room, while maintaining a la carte service in the more casual wine bar. That’s not to say they saw eye-to-eye on every change.
“There were a few dishes dad said not to mess with, and frankly, I messed with them all,” E.J. says. “I like taking risks, and in the end I think he’s very happy.”
Case in point: the Potato Alexa, an indulgent melding of twice-baked potato, truffle, and cheese that Emeril created in the early 1990s for pal Billy Joel’s daughter. Under E.J.’s direction, it has been interpreted as a sculpted cylinder of steamed potato filled with an emulsion of truffles and mushrooms, topped with chive aioli and Parmesan mini-discs and surrounded by a truffle-butter sauce.
“There’s no reinvention when it comes to cuisines. It’s all been done before,” E.J. says. “I see what we’re doing here as refinement, taking dishes that have been around for three decades and evolving them in a contemporary way.”
He shares that an upcoming renovation aims to update the dining spaces. “We want to be the restaurant that people think of when they think of New Orleans,” he says. “We take great pride in this city and want to make it proud on a big stage.”
E.J. knows some longtime customers won’t like the changes—and may not like that he’s the chef who is making them. “The nepotism questions are always going to pop up,” he says. “I’m well aware that I’m the luckiest person on the planet, and my journey to this position was expedited. Now I have to prove I deserve it to the guests, my dad, and myself.”