Emeril Lagasse's new show on the Cooking Channel, “The Originals with Emeril,” examines established restaurants and their dishes that he says have stood the test of time. Thursday's episode comes to Chicago, and Lagasse's choices — The Berghoff, Twin Anchors and Gene & Georgetti – are likely to spark an argument or two among food fans. We asked him about those choices.
Why do “Originals”? It seems like fairly well-worn ground.
The way things are playing these days — everybody's trying to do something new. I thought it would fit right in to try and do something old. These are places that are original, obviously, that have been around for 50, 75 or 100 years and are still doing it right. There's a reason why they've been in business for so long. I thought it would be a perfect setting for me because it's not just hardcore cooking, it's cooking, it's people, it's customers, it's the restaurateurs and the chefs. This new generation right now has no idea what a Berghoff is. Or Tadich Grill. Or Antoine's.
Why The Berghoff? It's a great Chicago name, but it's not quite the same restaurant that it was.
My approach to that was that this family now, particularly the daughter (Carlyn Berghoff), who is leading and running this restaurant, is really trying to make an honest comeback of quality, of being a Chicago landmark that had once sort of fallen a bit. And maybe it became more of a tourist place than a local place. You talk about the Berghoff? The bakery? I was blown out by them still doing all the homemade breads and using their “mother” (starter). They have a mother that has, I think, been a part of the establishment for 40 years. Beside the bread and pastries, the sauerkraut — they could buy that stuff. The connection with the beer? I thought “oh, right, this is going to be some hoity-toity kinda thing.” They're really trying to do it right and they're doing a good job.
How were the restaurants picked?
Working with a production company out of Los Angeles, we submitted names of what we thought were true originals. Obviously, there are a lot of them out there that could classify as an original by years in business, but maybe they've changed hands or maybe the quality didn't stand its ground. So we wanted to be very, very true to what these folks were doing. If you and I walked into a place like Twin Anchors, is it really gonna be good to what I'm trying to convey?
Why Twin Anchors? Was this your suggestion?
I think there are a couple of things that drove that and Gene & Georgetti's as well. With Twin Anchors, they have a very different style of doing their ribs than anyplace in the country. That was very interesting to me, and to be able to show the viewer that you don't need some big fancy smoker to do great ribs. Their creamed spinach is one of the best and tastiest that I've ever had. And there's a lot of history there, from the Rat Pack to Sinatra's table to their slogan of positively no dancing and where that came from, to the more important thing, the family – third generation and what they're trying to carry on. As you know, this place is not fancy. It's basically a bar. But they've got an incredible local following. The integrity of what they're doing is incredible and they've been doing it consistently for 60-something years.
How much prep goes into an episode of “Originals” vs. a cooking show?
With a cooking show, the content of the culinary matter is basically what I do every day. With this, there was preparation, there was studying. The challenge was knowing the history, because some of these were going back 75 years. Learning who the torch had been handed down to. Learning about the memorabilia that had been collected in the restaurant. People and places and faces that maybe had visited the restaurant. That part had to be properly researched, but from my end it had to be correct.
You've done a lot of TV and you've got a lot of restaurants. How do you balance your time and make sure things are still going well where people eat?
It's not a thing about schedules. My schedule is ballistic. It's out of control. Between trying to do this show, trying to run businesses and trying to be the backbone and the fundamental, everyday part of my restaurants ... I just had a week off with my family, but before that the last time I really had a day off was January 6. Every day it's something. If it's not television, it's certainly the restaurants.
You're a big enterprise. Your name is important to the success of the restaurants. Is there a relationship between being on TV and the health of those restaurants?
When I first started doing television and started at the Food Network, that's sort of where my head was. If I could do something that would successfully broaden the industry — and we're talking 17 years ago — that would be great for the industry and certainly would not hurt, hopefully, the integrity of my restaurants. Today, I do TV because I like to do television. I write cookbooks because I like to write cookbooks. It's not because I'm looking for the next check. It's because I'm trying to add something to the lifestyle of people or the education of people.