For as long as he can remember, E.J. Lagasse, formally Emeril John Lagasse IV, has wanted to work in restaurants. After all, he grew up running around Emeril's, his father's signature restaurant in New Orleans. Now, after a complete renovation, the younger Lagasse helms the storied spot, giving it a fresh spin while paying homage to his family's staple dishes.
"I feel at home in this kitchen, behind the stove, and while this [opportunity] has come very early in my career, I wouldn't trade it for anything," said Lagasse over the phone. "I hope I am on the phone with you in 25 years, talking about the next anniversary of Emeril's."
Despite being born into the cooking empire, the 20-year-old has big shoes to fill at the restaurant, which opened before he was born. He said he is up to the task, and his pedigree attests to that. Lagasse started working in kitchens at the age of 13, helping out at Meril Restaurant in New Orleans. Now, he said, after formally studying the business and graduating from Johnson & Wales University in 2021, working to refine his skills in kitchens such as Café Boulud and Le Bernardin in New York City, Core by Clare Smyth in London, and Frantzén in Stockholm, as well as working as the chef patron for Emeril's last year, he's ready to the take the helm.
"It's an undertaking, getting people in place and getting a team together for the front and back of house," said the young chef. "But it's exciting too. I get to put my interpretations of the last 30 years [of Emeril's] on the plate and in the dining room."
While revamping the classic menu at Emeril's was a big part of the job, so was reimagining the space housing the fine-dining Southern food restaurant. For starters, the once 47-table venue now has 13 tables, creating a more intimate space that cleverly hides the inner workings of the restaurant in plain sight. The kitchen is out in the open, but silenced behind a floor-to-ceiling panel of sound-proof glass. The idea, said Lagasse, is for the diners to see exactly where their food is coming from and observe the mastery behind the plate.
"When you have less tables you are able to let these people have this experience," said Lagasse. "It's their table, they have a lovely time, and we hope to accompany that with great food and great ambiance."
The restaurant offers two tasting menus, seven courses each, though Lagasse said it ends up being more like 12 courses when counting the small bites, palate cleansers, and canapé’s sent from the kitchen.
The traditional menu focuses on updated Emeril's classics, including smoked salmon cheesecake with Emeril's reserve caviar, oyster stew, and banana cream pie. The other tasting menu is seasonal, which recently featured Georgia rabbit with Grand Isle shrimp, scorpion fish with Louisiana corn, and cauliflower with caviar.
There will only be 50 seats served each night, and the menus cost $195 for the traditional, and $170 for the seasonal. Wine pairings run $130 and $100, respectively. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Sharing the kitchen with Emeril's is The Wine Bar at Emeril's, the more casual side of the restaurant that's been sectioned off into its own space. This division was part of the renovation and offers diners a place for a light bite, cocktails, wine, or even a casual dinner. The free-flowing menu changes often, and may include grilled short ribs with thrice-cooked potatoes ($43), a bowl of gumbo ($21), crab salad with Zapp's potato chips ($23), and seasonal sorbets ($12). The wine bar opens an hour later than Emeril's, and can seat around 80 to 90 people each evening.
"I feel like we are going to try to reset and rebuild our foundation," said Lagasse. "It's a great restaurant in the city, representing NoLa on a regional level and perhaps, at some point, will also do so on a global level."
For now Lagasse is happy to be given the reigns of his father's signature restaurant. He's not alone in this undertaking, however. His father still has plenty of clout in his place, helping his son plan, plot and create the next chapter of the family empire.