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Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse meets Winter the dolphin

CLEARWATER — Empty your pockets, the dolphin trainer told Emeril Lagasse. Wallet, watch — everything.

The celebrity chef, surrounded by his production crew in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Thursday, nodded and tossed a wad of cash into his assistant's purse.

"Anything else?" he asked.

"Hand sanitizer," replied Robin Bates, supervisor of marine mammals. "Here."

She squeezed a drop of Purell into his hands.

"All right!" he said. "Time to meet Winter."

Lagasse — known for his recipes, restaurants, television show and catch phrase "Bam!" — strolled into the aquarium with his entourage, his daughter and a trailing Clearwater police officer. He stood by a Dolphin Tale movie poster and stared into a camera: "Every day you come," he said, "you're going to find a real live movie star."

Lagasse checked into the Sandpearl resort on Clearwater Beach Tuesday, where he stayed while shooting an episode of Emeril's Florida, a 13-part Cooking Channel series that explores, as he put it, "restaurants all through the Sunshine State."

A specially prepared apple-baked brie at the Cassis American Brasserie in St. Petersburg is among his Tampa Bay favorites, so far. He's also been spotted at the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in Pass-A-Grille and the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City in recent days.

Between eating, the chef wanted to see Winter, the aquarium's dolphin that learned to swim with a prosthetic tail and starred in the film Dolphin Tale. His visit was arranged for Thursday.

However, before shooting segments in the aquarium's "Winter Zone," Lagasse walked across the parking lot to the Island Way Grill, where owner Frank Chivas waited.

The restaurant was empty at 1:30 p.m. A painter, who had seen Hulk Hogan a few times and wasn't easily star struck, quietly rolled a fresh coat of beige across the ceiling.

"Boss!" Chivas said, shaking Lagasse's hand. "If I knew you were coming earlier, we would've been done painting! How many people are eating?"

Lagasse and his entourage placed drink orders — water, Chardonnay, iced tea — but, as it turned out, didn't have time for lunch. Two more aquarium scenes had to be shot before they left for Orlando.

No matter, Chivas told them, I'll make you something special later.

Meanwhile, inside the aquarium, a Tampa-based production crew set up more cameras. Winter, unfazed by the fuss, swam through her daily 1:30 p.m. presentation as onlookers — young and old, local and international — snapped photos.

Bates, the dolphin trainer Lagasse chose to interview, mentally prepared for the spotlight. She'd been on television "between five and 50 times," so she knew to speak calmly, slowly, clearly.

"I have to remember he's just another human — a really well-known, talented human," she said. "Otherwise I'd turn into a heaping pile of goo."

Lagasse's daughter Jillian, who serves as his part-time make-up artist, brushed matte foundation powder across Bates' cheeks.

Lagasse asked her questions: Why did you become a trainer? How do you work with the animals? What's Winter like?

"Now, she's just a normal 7-year-old girl," Bates said, smiling. "Full of life. Energetic."

After the interview, Bates and Lagasse — stripped of his pocket possessions and, thanks to the Purell, human germs — climbed onto a platform in Winter's pool.

Bates showed the chef how to get Winter to wave, swim in small circles and whistle for the crowd.

"I've seen so many dolphins in the Panhandle. They swim right up to your boat," Lagasse said on his way out of the aquarium. "Winter's super smart, you know. She had a bad accident, got wrapped in that crab trap — but it looks like she's doing great now."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4224. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse meets Winter the dolphin 01/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 7:31am]
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