NAPLES — One can "feel the love" the moment America's most famous celebrity chef — known simply by his first name — enters the room. • It's the media-only event at the Inn at Fifth prior to the recent Naples Winter Wine Festival. An assemblage of food reporters are here to talk with Emeril Lagasse, the New Orleans chef who made "bam!" a household exclamation. • "Aw, yeah, babe!" Emeril bellows as he enters the room.
Also in the room are Jonathan Benno from Thomas Keller's New York restaurant Per Se, Michael White from Alto in New York and Mary Ann Esposito of PBS's Ciao Italia.
Despite the culinary star power, all eyes are on Lagasse. The modest and cheery chef once was the top dog on the Food Network, which broadcast his popular Emeril Live! each weeknight for an incredible 11-year stretch.
But his star on the Food Network dimmed as nighttime programming moved toward entertainment and away from cooking instruction.
Lagasse and the Food Network parted company in late 2007, though the chef agreed to do specials such as the Next Food Network Star filmed in Miami last year.
"I think everybody is into this reality thing, probably controlled by what little remaining advertising dollars are out there,'' he says of the current slate of Food Network shows. "They (the Food Network) seem to think that the instructional thing is not the thing. But I mean, how much reality can you really have?"
It wasn't long before he was back on TV, hosting Emeril Green on the Discovery Channel's new eco-lifestyle network, Planet Green.
"You don't have to know how to boil water,'' he says of the show. "There's no rehearsal. I show you how to shop, then how to cook. The result is, one, you have a personal experience, and two, you learn how to do it, and, three, you get three to four new recipes."
Ratings, according to Lagasse, are steadily climbing for the show, which is filmed on location at various Whole Foods markets.
Early Food Network fans often lament the loss of Lagasse, Sara Moulton, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck, who provided viewers with serious cooking instruction. Today on Food Network, the nighttime programing is a mix of reality and behind-the-scenes shows.
But Lagasse is not one to fixate on the past. Less television work has given him more time to focus on his restaurants, including Emeril's at Universal's City Walk in Orlando. "That's been really great," he says.
Ever the optimist, he is thrilled by the evolving American food scene.
"I am absolutely amazed at how many people are cooking accurately now,'' he says. "And you know, 20 years ago, when I was sort of really forceful in the movement of American cuisine, and when I started in television 13 years ago, people thought I was nuts!"
The tough economy is driving more people into the kitchen, he says.
"We're getting back to our roots; people now are learning about comfort food and doing food like my mom and your mom did. It's all coming back and that's chic!''
Cookbook author Joyce LaFray is a freelance food writer based in St. Petersburg.