Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has slipped out of the kitchen for a while to take a slow meander through Florida, uncovering the cuisine and scenery that make the Sunshine State such a tourist destination for a show on the Cooking Channel.
The new series premiered this month. In "Viva Florida," the third episode of Emeril's Florida, airing at 10:30 a.m. Sunday and repeating 9:30 a.m. Monday, the chef stops into the Columbia in Ybor City to watch fifth-generation owner Andrea Gonzmart make her signature sangria and paella Valenciana. He's filmed at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, the Hurricane and the Loews Don Cesar Hotel at St. Pete Beach and the Sandpearl Resort at Clearwater Beach, among other local places, for the series. He was also spotted at the Chihully Collection in downtown St. Petersburg.
"The show isn't just about cooking and food," Lagasse said recently by phone. "It's a food travel show, where every show has a connection to food. It could be a cattle ranch or a resort with great golf or beaches. I believe in this great state and what it has to offer, but it has an image problem. I took that very personally. As I began doing research I found that the more you dig, the more that comes up."
For Gonzmart's part, meeting the famous chef and part-time Florida resident (Lagasse has a house in Destin, two restaurants in Orlando and also sells his cookware line on HSN, based in Clearwater) was a thrill.
"I've met a lot of famous people before, but I was so excited to meet him," Gonzmart said. "He set up and had his entourage, arriving one day in September in the afternoon and we finished shooting by about 9 p.m. It was on a scale I've never experienced before — he even brought his makeup people. But he totally embraced me."
According to Gonzmart, Lagasse was a quick study, observing her technique and commenting along the way.
"He helped me take the paella out of the oven, but mostly he watched me do everything, and he'd say, 'I notice you added the garlic after the onions.' It wasn't so much about him cooking."
A first-timer to the Columbia, Lagasse was enthusiastic.
"It's a landmark and the food is pretty spot on. It's very impressive and Andrea was very hospitable."
From historic Spanish/Cuban to the latest in Miami Beach nightlife, Lagasse keeps it moving on the show, visiting St. Augustine, Pensacola, the Kennedy Space Center and Tampa just in the third episode.
"We wanted to cover the whole state from the Panhandle to the Keys. There's so much diversity in Florida — in the southern part it's very infused with South American ingredients, in the center of the state it's more like Creole and the northwest part is very different, fused with Southern cuisine and New Orleans influence," Lagasse says, adding, "It's a big state. Go to a state like Rhode Island and a johnnycake is a johnnycake."