Chef Emeril Lagasse's hectic, successful career includes new restaurant

NEW ORLEANS - If Chef Emeril Lagasse seems to be everywhere at once in the culinary universe, well, that's because he is.

Lagasse, with his familiar thick, dark eyebrows and crisp, white chef's coat, is all over television. His best-selling cookbooks line bookstore shelves. His food products fill supermarket aisles and his pots and pans are prominent in department stores. Retail sales are estimated at $100 million.

That's not counting the bedrock of his business - the nine restaurants spread from Las Vegas to Miami Beach with post-Katrina sales of around $85 million. No. 10, Emeril's Gulf Coast Fish House, opens to the public Friday at the Island View Casino in Gulfport, Miss.

Lagasse has anchored this food empire inside a handsomely refurbished building on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, his hometown for 17 years.

Dubbed Emeril's Homebase, it is the corporate mothership where Lagasse and staff keep all things Emeril humming along - the restaurant operations, publishing, licensing agreements, Web site, and product development, testing and shipping.

"Homebase is the support system for everything we do," Lagasse said before giving a tour of the offices, product warehouse and combination test kitchen and culinary library.

A corner of the lobby is dedicated to the merchandise produced and endorsed by Lagasse, including a new line of coffees, wines, seasonings, cutlery, clothing and cookware.

On the opposite wall, a towering portrait of Lagasse appears to keep watch over his golden brand - exactly what the real-life chef-turned-CEO does.

"We have to be very careful about protecting the brand because it is a very serious brand," he said. "It's something that we didn't buy or it wasn't handed to us. It was something that we planned."

The "we" Lagasse often refers to is the team of lawyers, accountants, chefs and other professionals he has assembled to keep an eye on his retail and philanthropic ventures. There is even a staff member who does nothing but handle restaurant-customer compliments and complaints.

And though Lagasse prefers to do some things the old-fashioned way (he works on a legal pad and shuns e-mail), he is proud of how his corporation uses technology to wire the restaurants into Homebase.

Every day, the general managers send text messages and faxes to report on the number of customers and identify VIPs in the house.

"We have very sophisticated stuff just from being in business for so long," he said. "We designed our software for our restaurants. We're very connected to the customer. That's just the way that we do it."

Managers use a computerized system to keep track of diners' likes and dislikes.

"We know how many times Mrs. Smith has been in, we know her birthday, her favorite cocktail, we may even know what she doesn't like."

Lagasse's attention to detail is what most impressed Island View co-owner Rick Carter, who calls his new tenant "about the sharpest (businessman) I've ever met. He goes through every detail of everything, all the way down to the napkins. It's the reason he's so good and so consistent."

In preparation for the Fish House opening, Lagasse said, "I had lots of meetings and tours to make sure the fabrics right and the lightings right. I'm very, very particular about details."

When Carter and Terry Green tried to lure Lagasse to their Gulfport casino to open a restaurant, Lagasse, whose wife, Alden, is from Gulfport, said he preferred his visits to the Coast to be low key.

"I said, Oh Rick, don't do this to me. I really come down here to relax, to play, to see my family."

But Carter persisted and they finally worked out a deal.

Lagasse received his formal culinary training at Johnson and Wales University and worked in kitchens in Europe and in New York before being tapped by the Brennan family to take their fabled Commander's Palace to the next level.

He succeeded and after several years left to open his flagship Emeril's in 1990 in the Warehouse District when it was seedy, not swanky.

His second New Orleans restaurant, Nola, kicked off a string of openings and opportunities that set Lagasse on the path to one-name fame.

But the recognition has a down side. Though Lagasse drives around New Orleans in his Range Rover, he hires bodyguards when he's in New York or on a book tour.

"The hardest part is in the restaurants and you're cooking and really trying to give people the best dining experience you can and then 25 (camera flashes) go off. I do what I can to accommodate them but I ask them to understand that people are there spending a lot of money to have dinner."

But Lagasse doesn't complain about the fanfare. "It's been a fun journey," he said.