My Obsession With Emeril Changed My Life

Photo: Jim Cooper/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
My obsession with Emeril Lagasse began in the mid-'90s, when I first moved to New York City. The Food Network was new, and I watched all the time. I loved cooking shows. They made me feel better about my own life. Broke and in my '20s, there was just something so soothing about watching a chef chop an onion or fold milk into a roux. Emeril was my favorite. And not just because he looked like The Count from Sesame Street. I liked that he was rough around the edges. Other chefs carefully measured cumin, one teaspoon at a time. Emeril hurled handfuls of seasoning at his food, yelling “BAM!” He seemed not quite ready for primetime. And he wasn’t. His show, The Essence of Emeril, was on at odd times, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. He behaved like no one was watching. He talked to the crew off-camera, like they were part of the show. “Hey Johnny, doesn’t that look good? Zoom in on that…” Once, he was grilling a steak and it started smoking. “That’ll go out,” he said, and turned to chop vegetables, but the steak caught fire and there were flames shooting behind him, and he didn’t even notice until the entire frame was filled with smoke. They didn’t cut to commercial; he just started waving a towel around. I immediately stuck a blank tape in and started recording, because it was just so good.
I watched every night. I watched after I came home late from any one of the many jobs I worked to cobble together money for rent. I watched when I waited up for the hot, non-committal Brazilian drummer I was dating, who would call at 2 in morning asking if he could come over. I always said yes, and then regretted it. But I knew I would be up anyway — watching Emeril. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, but something about Emeril made me feel like anything was possible. He didn’t care what anyone else thought about him. Years past. I worked as a production assistant, a samba dancer, and a receptionist at Univision (even though the only Spanish I knew was, “Buenos Días, Univision!”). I wanted something more, but I didn’t know what. Then, one Sunday I saw an ad in the paper for Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and something in me lit up. It was a long forgotten childhood dream. This had a future, I thought. Followed quickly by, Fuck, the application deadline is in three weeks. I got right to work. Suddenly I felt a sense of purpose. I wrote my personal statement on subways between temp jobs. I typed up the application late at night with Emeril BAM-ing in the background. A few days later, something magical happened. The temp agency I was working for called me early one morning and asked if I was available to fill in at The Food Network.

Something about Emeril made me feel like anything was possible. He didn’t care what anyone else thought about him.

I could barely breathe. I went to their offices on Sixth Avenue. There were giant posters as you walked in — Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Emeril, smiling down at me as if to say, “Cole, you live in the greatest city in the world, and anything can happen.” My first task was to type up a job posting for an audience warm-up comic for Emeril’s new show, Emeril Live. Instead, I applied for the job. And the same people who took a chance on a man who threw cayenne pepper at stews with his bare hands — hired me, a woman with zero experience. I couldn’t believe this was happening. The first time I met him it was like meeting one of the Muppets. He asked me my name. “Cole,” I said. “Like Cole Porter?” he asked. Yes. From then on, that’s what he called me. Backstage before shows, he’d jump up and down to get revved up, and say, “You ready, Ms. Porter?” Ready, Emeril! But it turned out that audience warm-up is a real skill — and I didn’t have it. I’d come out into the audience and say, “Who wants to meet Emeril?” and the audience went crazy. But that was kind of the extent of my material. I’d bullshitted my way into this job and I was already sinking. During the commercial, the director told me I needed to do better. How? Emeril took pity on me. He came out with me. He leaned down and whispered in my ear, “We need to kick this audience up a couple of notches, Miss Porter.” It felt a little sexy, him whispering in my ear like that. But also, I thought, Oh my god, he really talks like that! Kick it up a couple of notches! He slipped something cold into my hand. A packaged ice cream sandwich. He had a whole box of them, and he started hurling them into the audience. They went bananas, diving to catch them, jumping out of their seats. They were sufficiently warmed up. Emeril had saved me.
Photo: Photofest.
From then on, instead of writing comedy material, I threw ice cream sandwiches into the audience. It worked like a charm. Now, I was one of the off-camera people he’d refer to on the show. Along with Johnny the cameraman and so many others the audience at home couldn’t see. One time he started a show by saying, “Let’s hear it for Cole!” and got the audience to clap for me. So what if they were really clapping for the ice cream sandwiches? One afternoon, the producers were looking for new promo ideas and I thought it would be funny if we made up a new Spice Girl called Cajun Spice, because the Spice Girls were big at the time. The producers hated it. But Emeril loved the idea, and suddenly the producers loved it, too. Twenty-four hours later, we were shooting a promo, where I am Cajun Spice and Emeril is making me a po’boy. And I thought, This man can make anything happen. I worked on Emeril’s show for a few months — and then, toward the end of the season, I got a letter in the mail. I had been accepted to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I told Emeril I wouldn’t be back next season. He made me a homemade mint chip ice cream sandwich. It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. That night at the wrap party, I made out with Johnny the cameraman. When the Brazilian guy called me later at 2 in the morning, I didn’t pick up. And in the fall, I went uptown to Columbia, and started my new life. Many years have passed, but I still think of Emeril from time to time. I’ll see a sign for one of his restaurants, an ad for one of his products — his QVC air fryer, his rib rub seasoning. Sometimes I’ll see him on TV, beaming into the camera, every "BAM" encouraging me to "kick it up a notch." And that glint in his eye, reminding me that anything is possible.

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series