A ‘kicked-up’ interview: My conversation with Chef Emeril Lagasse

I was born and raised in a strong Portuguese community in Massachusetts. Getting together with friends and family for dinner was, and still is, a pretty regular occurrence. I can remember one night, in my late teens, going to the house of my parent’s friends, João and Adelaide, for dinner. At the time, João was probably in his late 30′s. Despite living in America for many years, his English was pretty poor. As food was being prepared, though, he flexed a little of his English-speaking muscle.

“Bam!”

“Anuda notch!”

It was an example of the impact that Chef Emeril Lagasse has had. To cynics, it may seem gimmicky. But, to so many others, it represents a sincere love and excitement for food and flavor. That night also exemplified the enormous amount of pride that a whole community has for one of their own. The “local” boy making good. And then some.

The Emeril culinary empire has grown to 13 restaurants nation-wide, and a variety of cookbooks covering some of his favorite cuisines. On October 16th, his newest, Emeril’s Kicked-Up Sandwiches: Stacked with Flavor, tackles some of the best sandwiches from around the world. I had a chance to interview Emeril. We talked a bit about how he got his start, why sandwiches are relevant to the food scene today, and a personal food memory.

Emeril Lagasse – Photo by Steven Freeman

Foodie Journal: You’ve inspired more than a few people to genuinely learn to love food during your years of cooking. When did it click for you that you really loved food, and wanted to make a career of it?
Emeril Lagasse: Growing up in Massachusetts, I watched my mother prepare fresh food from our garden. When I was only 10, I started working in a Portuguese bakery, soaking up the techniques —and smells— while washing dishes. I think that experience really solidified my excitement and passion for cooking.

FJ: In your career you’ve had the opportunity to release a variety of cookbooks. You’re newest, Emeril’s Kicked-Up Sandwiches, in coming out Oct 16th. What is it about sandwiches that made you decide to write a cookbook dedicated to just sandwiches?
EL: Sandwiches are part of the fabric of our daily lives. A great sandwich is easier to make than people may think. Just by adding a homemade condiment or using locally baked artisan bread, you can kick up the basic sandwich into a masterpiece.

FJ: I know for me, growing up, sandwiches were very much on the simple side. Or maybe, better said, on the boring side. Today, its a whole new landscape. What makes a sandwich special?
EL: There are three main components to a sandwich: the bread, the condiments and the other “stuff inside.” Condiments, spreads, chutneys, jams, salsas, salad dressings and more can really add tons of flavor – and spice – to a regular sandwich or wrap. And you can also think outside the box with bread, too. Lettuce wraps, samosas, and other unique combinations help to change up the typical turkey on wheat.

FJ: When I’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad, it seems like folks look at the sandwich as being very much an American staple. What do you think sandwiches mean to American culture?
EL: There are different variations of the sandwich all over the world—Middle Eastern pitas, Latin American tacos and empanadas, lettuce wraps of Korea … Our version tends to revolve around two pieces of bread with meat or vegetables and condiments inside. Varying the bread or forgoing it altogether and adding flavor-rich spreads can also change up a sandwich that may otherwise become mundane. I want people to know that you can make a great tasting sandwich right in your own home.

FJ: Do you have a favorite? If you had to choose one for a final meal, what would it be?
EL: Two of my favorite sandwiches are an oyster poboy and a grinder I used to get growing up on Columbia Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. Hmm … I’m not sure I can choose just one for a final meal … A guy can have two sandwiches as a closing act, right?

FJ: As we touched on, you’ve had an amazing career, and I’m sure with that have come some incredible memories and experiences with food. It may be tough to choose just one, but do you have a particular memory or experience with food that stands out as a favorite of yours?
EL: I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to cook and eat amazing food prepared by world-class talented chefs such as Julia Child, Roger Verge, the list goes on and on. As for a favorite memory, I’d have to say that teaching Julia how to eat crawfish definitely stands out. Cooking for my family is the best, though. Whether I’m making Meril her favorite mac n’ cheese or grilling with my son, preparing meals and eating with my family are some of my favorite times.

Emeril’s newest cookbook, Emeril’s Kicked-Up Sandwiches: Stacked with Flavor, is available for preorder, and will release on October 16th.

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