It’s the start of a balmy South Florida weekday, and Chef Emeril Lagasse and his team are gearing up for another day in the trenches—the ones about a mile offshore, at the edge of the Gulf Stream.
Standing on the mezzanine of his 70-foot Viking, Lagasse embodies the prototypical sportfishing sun-worshiper in a long-sleeve, UV-protective performance tee and a ball cap. The culinary icon, who grew up fishing on the Gulf Coast and calls New Orleans home, seems every bit as hospitable as the Big Easy itself on the opening day of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s second Line, Vine & Dine fishing tournament.
He keeps good company. His guests on board span an eclectic mix of boating and fishing enthusiasts who came together in the spirit of good food and wine, good fun and good works, raising money to benefit culinary, nutrition and arts education through youth charities.
Lagasse, who’s shaped an extraordinary career around food, wine and charisma, doesn’t need to tell me how passionate he is about this side of his life. It’s etched in the jovial expression on his face.
By the end of this year’s tournament, he and his friends will have raised more than $800,000 for charity. Sixteen teams competed in the two-day fishing tournament, and that’s plenty for Lagasse. He says the model was always to keep the event smallish in size, with fewer boats meaning a better overall experience for the captains and fishermen—and allowing the same personal touch that has defined the chef’s career since his early days on the Food Network with his “Essence of Emeril” and “Emeril Live” shows.
“When I started at the Food Network, a lot of critics called me out,” Lagasse recalls. “They said I was selling out. You know, I didn’t really understand the camera. But then one day it just kind of clicked—I figured out how to be myself. Critics will be critics, but when you’re real, people get that.”
And when you’re not real, people notice too, whether it’s at a charity fishing tournament or when trying out a new restaurant.
“I want to be around big thinkers,” he says. “There’s a lot of restaurants to choose from. Every part of the dining experience matters. If the bread comes out and it’s not good quality, that’s a strike for me. If I order soup, but there’s no love in that soup, that’s another strike. If they haven’t put any love into something as simple as a gumbo, why should I think there would be any love coming to my table moving forward? At that point, I’m definitely checking the restroom, and if it’s not clean, then I’m out. Life’s too short to eat bad calories.”
Lagasse is a people person through and through, and despite all of the glitz and glamour of the celebrity circus, he remains close to his roots, which took hold while fishing with his father and uncle along the Gulf Coast.
“I ran into Capt. Brad [Benton] 11 years ago, when I bought into a 65 Hatteras named the Ole Miss,” he says. “We got really into the tournament-fishing circuit. This was new stuff for us, so I hired Capt. Brad. He was a young gun at the time and people were like, ‘Don’t you want a more experienced captain?’ I said, ‘No, I want Brad. Brad’s good. He’s got heart. He’s got soul. We’ll learn together.’ As it turns out, Brad’s one of the best captains around now.”
After a few seasons, Lagasse and Benton realized it was time to get serious. They upgraded to a brand-new Viking 70, which they named Aldente—in part because of the cooking term al dente, and in larger part because Lagasse’s wife’s name is Alden. They spec’d the yacht to the nth degree for fishing and entertaining.
“She’s totally customized,” Lagasse says. “The guys at Viking must have thought we were insane: ‘We need a full oven in the galley so we can roast chickens. We need a big grill—a Gaggenau grill.’ They didn’t even know how to spell it. We love to cook on the boat. I mean we really cook … anything from roast chickens to ribs, steaks, grilled chicken Caesar salads, meatballs, pasta. We love cooking with the air fryer—no oil, no smell, easy to clean.”
Benton proudly displays the air fryer and chimes in from across the salon: “Tune in to QVC on …”
Lagasse chuckles. It is, of course, one of several Emeril-brand products aboard Aldente.
And all of them help to make sure Aldente is well stocked, especially for crew meals and snacks.
“We try to keep our crew happy, so we do some serious cooking,” Lagasse says. “Tomorrow we’ll do steak sandwiches with caramelized onions and cheese. Then we’ll do some lamb chops on Saturday for a snack.”
Lagasse is equally serious about fishing. He registers for every tournament he can. But owning Aldente is also about family time and having fun on the water with friends.
“Just being anywhere on the water, the atmosphere, it’s very peaceful,” Lagasse says. “It can change your whole attitude. I have to have that. I don’t mind working hard—and I do, I work a lot of hours—but I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have this. The water, it keeps me balanced. It’s not easy. I want to fish more, but I keep getting sucked back into the work thing. What can I say: It’s my passion. My love is food. I’m always thinking about food and where we’re headed next.”
He pauses, casting a thousand-yard stare out the port-side salon window before returning mentally to the conversation.
“Such as reinventing the fast-food business,” he adds, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Fast food is terrible because they designed it terrible. So I’ve figured out a way to make it delicious.”
Keep your lines in the water, folks. Team Emeril Lagasse isn’t done yet.
Q&A with Emeril
What's your most prized catch?
Blue marlin. Without a doubt. We just did a great trip to Bermuda last fall and caught a blue marlin, a lot of wahoo, a lot of tuna. We’ve been lucky.
Name one of your hidden talents.
Music. I’m a percussionist. I turned down a full music scholarship to the New England Conservatory to pay to go to cooking school. I was a high school band director for a couple years. I’ve been on stage with Ringo Starr. I’ve played with Sammy Hagar, Kenny Chesney. It’s been really fun.
What's your favorite place to visit?
New Orleans . The music, the people, the hospitality—there’s no place like it. There’s magic. There’s magic in the soil. The mix of influences: African-American, French, Spanish, Vietnamese. I think, dollar for dollar, people eat as well if not better in New Orleans than anyplace in the world.
What's in the wine chiller?
I usually like to start with chardonnay, but we drink a lot of pinot noir. —E.L.