Media Circus: Full Metal Skillet

The Food Channel's frenetic dude chef Emeril is turning cooking into a cheesy arena rock show.

Published September 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Having written music criticism in the 1980s, I fully recognize that, if God remains the master prose stylist of Old Testament fame, not a few writers who spent that decade plugging zydeco bands that "dish up a zesty gumbo of Cajun sound" will be having their asses skillet-blackened in hell for eternity. But allow me one last food-and-music metaphor to set the record straight. The tables are turned: If anything, food today is rock 'n' roll -- specifically, rock 'n' roll circa 1982.

Food has its own flashy arena shows. It has its own authenticity-and-equipment-obsessed amateur fantasists (replace "Fender Stratocaster," "Peavey amp" and "the tablature for 'Black Dog'" with "All-Clad sauti pan," "Viking spider-jet range" and "the recipe for paneed Mississippi quail" and you have distilled the soul of the average Molly O'Neill reader). Food even has its own fledgling MTV in cable's TV Food Network. And though it may never have a Michael Jackson, it may at least have found its Ozzy Osbourne -- Emeril Lagasse, aka Emeril, aka "the Bam-Bam Man," TVFN's first celebrity, who is biting the head off the food-entertainment genre and serving it in a roasted-poblano coulis on not one but two ear-splitting daily cooking shows.

"The Essence of Emeril" began life in 1994 as a glorified infomercial. But it became a runaway hit, as the personality of Lagasse, successful New Orleans restaurateur, gave way to the persona of the populist wild man "Emeril." Emeril mixed thorough explanations of moles and bouquets garni with a sort of borderline-Tourette's vaudeville, declaring -- in a memorable segment on frog's legs -- "Naw, it doesn't taste like chicken! It tastes like FROGS!" and, in what would become his trademark, yelling "Bam!" whenever he threw herbs into a sauti pan.

Emeril was a man who could show you how to prepare a cassoulet for Super Bowl Sunday and leave you with the impression that he may have actually watched a football game once. He was, in other words, Emeril LaGuy. The largest segment of his viewership was men over 30 -- including firehouse crews watching his show en masse -- and thus he was TVFN's ticket to not becoming Lifetime Network II.

Time to play You're-the-Executive: How-would-you-capitalize-on-this-ratings-gift? If you said, "Get him a second show! Twice as long! With a live audience! And music. And get me another fucking latte, I just ended a sentence with a period!" -- your corner office is ready. You have just invented the hour-long carny freak show, launched this past January, that is "Emeril Live."

Dressed in a stylish collarless black jacket, Emeril bounds into a nightclub-like studio, yelling "Bam!" and high-fiving audience members as a guest band plays a G. E. Smith-style musical intro. He strips to a T-shirt and is trussed into chef's whites on-camera by the production crew. He yells "Bam!" a few more times. The crowd yells "Bam!" back. Someone in the front row hands him a homemade sweat shirt. It too says "Bam!" or one of Emeril's dozen other catch phrases. He chats up the star-struck foodies, pressing the flesh and asking where they're from (Flushing, generally). Then he steps up to the butcher block. Hello, Cleveland! It is time! To! Rock!

Except actually it's not. See, here's the thing about metaphors: They're only metaphors. A cooking program with an eccentric host can be like a concert, a late show, a football game. But in reality it's just a damn cooking program. And while in an eggshell-white, sterile TV kitchen, a popeyed chef shouting, "I've been hyp-mo-tized!" like David Letterman is refreshing. On a faux talk-show set the same thing seems like -- a lame talk show.

This subtlety, however, is lost on TVFN, which is so determined to play up the host's popularity that it lets the audience hijack the broadcast, stretching a half-hour's worth of recipes into 60 minutes with you-had-to-be-there interaction. But then "Emeril Live" isn't about cooking. It is, first, about how much the slavish posse loves Emeril (and therefore how big a star he must be) and, second, about the audience's gratification. It wants to taste the andouille; it wants to scream its way onto national TV; it wants Emeril to yell "Bam!" "Pork fat rules!" "Kick it up a notch!" "Makes ya happy happy!" and "Weah LIVE, bay-BEE!" about 50 times apiece. It gets what it wants, and the results can be plain embarrassing.

Still, in a genre once dominated by prissy francophiles preaching to elites between pledge drives, Emeril is probably the most effective evangelist for serious cooking America has ever had. You can still see this on "The Essence" which TVFN thankfully still carries. Catch phrases and all, he's far preferable to stiffs like Mario Batali of New York's Po and TVFN's "Molto Mario," whose polite, nonna's-boy deference to tradition and authenticity makes cooking seem like a meek, dutiful obsequy to Bella Italia's dead.

All the more reason, though, to regret seeing a respected chef turn himself into a Muppet in the name of numbskulled programming. TVFN will ride this horse until its knees give (and this kind of hype can end in nothing but backlash and cancellation, preceded, perhaps, by a desperate interlude involving a crawfish-puppet cohost); right now, counting rebroadcasts, you can watch a full day of Emeril for every week of TVFN programming. He is the sort of franchise character that can establish a small cable network's identity -- a Patsy or Edina, a Saddam Hussein -- and by the time his persona's rotting corpse is pitched atop Jenny McCarthy's on the overexposure heap, TVFN will have moved on. In a sense it already has: The network is now in 25 million households, is lionized in Time and Entertainment Weekly -- and has captured an audience that's almost half male.

Regardless, however, Lagasse will have wrought a permanent change in the star system for American chefs, and he is hardly a victim of it. He is perhaps the restaurant world's first Shaquille O'Neal -- a superstar whose real legacy is finding new and more remunerative ways to be famous. By reaching beyond the Vongerichten groupies to the Dockers-clad millions, guys who might never drop $200 on dinner but will comb Williams-Sonoma and Barnes and Noble for last-minute gift ideas every Dec. 24 until doomsday (and did I mention that Lagasse's "Creole Christmas" will be published in October?), he has widened the tarte tatin for chefs still breaking in their first Play-Doh ovens. That's synergy, bay-BEE, and it's the essence of supersuperstardom.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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