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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Next Up in New Orleans

January 3, 2024

I have often wondered what it must have been like to have attended the Beatles first live performance as a group at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961. I would have loved to have been in the gallery on the 18th green at Tiger Woods’ first PGA win at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. The same goes for Michael Jordan’s entrée into the NBA, Joe Montana’s first start in the NFL, and Mickey Mantle’s first at bat in the Majors.

As I ponder those various scenarios I wonder if I would have known— in the moment— that I was in the presence of future greatness?

Some may say it’s too early to call, but I’d be willing to lay a month’s salary on the belief that I dined in the presence of future greatness last week at the newly reimagined Emeril’s restaurant in New Orleans. And it’s not necessarily the restaurant— although I think it now stands atop the New Orleans fine dining hierarchy— but the chef. And it’s probably not the chef of whom you’re thinking.

Celebrity Chef, Emeril Lagasse, one of the most well-known, recognizable, and multi-talented chefs in the country— and certainly the most noted and celebrated in New Orleans— has been a mainstay on the Crescent City’s food scene since his days at Commander’s Palace in the early 1980s. His flagship restaurant in the Warehouse District has spawned dozens of other concepts from Las Vegas to Orlando. I’ve been an avid admirer of Emeril, and his restaurants, from day one. But great restaurants aren’t all Lagasse has spawned. His son, 20-year-old Chef E.J. Lagasse, now manning the pass of his father’s namesake establishment, is one of the most impressive culinarians— regardless of age— I have met in my 43-year restaurant career.

Lagasse the younger has a resume that most 40-year-old chefs would covet. While most kids his age were spending summers riding bikes, playing video games, and hanging out at swimming pools, E.J. spent three summers in his early teens in the New York kitchens of the country’s most talented French chefs, Eric Rippert and Daniel Boulud. After graduating high school early and graduating from culinary school at his father’s alma mater, Johnson & Wales, he headed to Europe and staged in two separate Michelin three-star kitchens in Stockholm and London.

I first met E.J. Lagasse in the summer of 2022 while he was working at Emeril’s Coastal in the Florida Panhandle. My family and I were sitting at the food bar overlooking the kitchen— as I used to in the original Emeril’s years ago— and could tell by the way he carried himself in the kitchen that he was wise and experienced with a presence and self-assurance that belied his years. It was confidence without a trace of cockiness, a rare trait, especially in someone so young.

My family and I dined at Emeril’s this past summer, before they were set to close for a complete overhaul of the kitchen, dining room, menu, and general culinary philosophy. We were told that a major renovation of the restaurant was on the way, but the menu had already changed slightly with E.J. acting as Chef Patron. One could feel bigger changes on the horizon buzzing through the team.

Emeril was 23 when he took over as executive chef at Commander’s. E.J. bested that by three years at his father’s establishment. E.J. Lagasse is 20 going on 50 and one of the most impressive young men I have met— chef, or not.

Last week my family and I dined at Emeril’s 2.0. From the preparation, presentation, professionalism, and obvious skill level across the board, to the china, glassware, and silver paired with every course, Emeril’s 2023 is in altogether different league. In a city known for fine dining, but typically on a more relaxed level, this is New York and Paris-level fine dining excellence. I have toured the kitchens at The French Laundry and Per Se as well as several other Michelin three-star establishments and the facilities the father and son team of Emeril and E.J. have built— in a glassed-in fully visible kitchen from every spot in the dining room— rivals any I have seen.

Most of the former front-of-the-house veterans appear to be back, but the kitchen payroll seems to have doubled from the 1.0 version of the restaurant. The dining room is smaller and has fewer tables. According to E.J. they have gone from 400+ covers a night to 54. The economics of that change— from a business and financial standpoint— would be enough to make most restaurateurs overly anxious. But one can tell that the entire team at Emeril’s has bought into the father and son’s vision and mission. I have always believed that success follows passion, and there is enough passion in that building to fuel a couple of restaurants.

The menu is next-level and the service— from the initial tour of the kitchen to survey the evening’s ingredients that are to be used over the course of your meal to the tableside cheese cart— is polished and professional. Emeril’s is, in this columnist’s opinion, the best fine dining restaurant in the city, and possibly the entire South.

The current buzz is that New Orleans might be the next city covered by Michelin (way overdue). If that’s the case, I couldn’t imagine the newly reimagined Emeril’s being anything less than a two-star establishment.

My son, who is now in his second year of culinary school in upstate New York, is set to start his externship at Emerils in a few weeks. It will be nice to have him closer to home, though— as his career path goes— it will be even better to have him work in an environment where the son has an opportunity to surpass the father, which has been my dream for him since he first started discussing a future career in the restaurant business in his early teens.

Greatness must begin somewhere. That initial Beatles performance was probably a little rough around the edges. Mantle went 1-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored— an average day. Montana had a mediocre outing in his first start going 13 of 23 for 96 yards and a touchdown. E.J. Lagasse has hit a grand slam on his first at bat with the newly reimagined Emeril’s.

I’m not sure if we’re witnessing “future” greatness at all. It seems the greatness has already landed.

Onward.

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