Emeril Lagasse, the chef with the megawatt smile, claims a nationwide empire, but his restaurants started in New Orleans. Emeril shares three of his favorite recipes and an exclusive interview.

Three Sides of Emeril
Emeril's Restaurant, the chef's flagship eatery, opened in 1990.
| Credit: Jennifer Davick

Certain icons make new orleans different. Hot jazz on the street corner. Beignets as light as air, paired with coffee that kicks. Bourbon Street in all its rough-hewn glory. And, of course, Emeril Lagasse.

Twenty-five years after arriving in the Crescent City, the man who practically invented the concept of the celebrity chef is a household name and the head of a culinary empire. Luckily for visitors here, he maintains three restaurants in New Orleans, each with its own identity.

As late-afternoon light slants through the window of Emeril's Restaurant, Emeril himself sits at a quiet table and talks about his businesses in this city the way a proud father talks about his kids. He describes how this building was a dilapidated warehouse when he bought it. "I would duck my head in here, and I would see the magic of the space," he says. "This brick warehouse with steel, wood, and concrete was masculine, and it really appealed to me. There was a connection between what I felt my style of food was, who I was and am as a person, and what this space meant."

Emeril's Restaurant opened in 1990. Three years later, he debuted NOLA, a funky spot in the French Quarter "doing rustic Acadian Creole with a lot of Vietnamese influences," he says, as a nod to the fact that he's had a Vietnamese family working with him "since day one."

In 1998 Emeril's Delmonico brought the chef full circle from his days cooking classic cuisine at Commander's Palace. The original Delmonico's opened in 1895 in the same building it occupies now. Again, the chef says the space inspired him: "The upstairs parlor was still the owners' home, and something came out and grabbed me about history and tradition. The lightbulb started going off about my tenure at Commander's Palace, how that was such grand New Orleans cuisine. Now Emeril's Delmonico has evolved into being another New Orleans classic."

Just like the chef himself.

Emeril's Restaurant
The scene: The flagship restaurant exemplifies the chef's showmanship. From the frenetic brushstrokes of New Orleans artist Doyle Gertjejansen's painting on one wall to the spice-filled glass panels framing the open kitchen, this place is about high energy. Don't expect a quiet dinner; do expect fun.
Lagasse's Lagniappe: "Half the menu changes nightly, based on what's coming in the back door," says Emeril. "We get wild chanterelles from across the lake after a big rain; we get soft-shell crabs or soft-shell crawfish or bluefin tuna."
Our pick: You'll find Emeril's signature Barbecue Shrimp at each of his establishments, but this is where it was invented. Plump Gulf shrimp come with a peppery sauce made of an extraction from the shells.

NOLA Restaurant
The scene: Just two blocks from Jackson Square, this spot is the most casual (and touristy) of the three. Exposed brick walls and a glass elevator to the second floor lend a hip vibe to this eatery in the heart of the French Quarter.
Lagasse's Lagniappe: "People ask, why do you have Vietnamese influences on the menu? Well, about 65% to 75% of our fishing fleet is now Vietnamese. That's why―because that's what NOLA stands for. NOLA reflects what's happening in the state."
Our pick: The duck confit-and-Parmesan pizza, drizzled with truffle oil and topped with arugula, stood out as one of the best dishes we ate in any of Emeril's restaurants. Almost sweet, balanced with the earthy flavors of truffles and duck, it packs a surprising flavor.

Emeril's Delmonico
The scene: The 19th-century building on St. Charles Avenue used to be a private club for gentlemen in New Orleans, complete with a boxing area upstairs. That kind of genteel history still fills the place. Chandeliers, an elegant bar downstairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows create a sense of old-world romanticism.
Lagasse's Lagniappe: "When we bought Delmonico, I thought about how these classic New Orleans places needed to be preserved, how there were very few of them left―Antoine's, Galatoire's, Broussard's, Delmonico's, Commander's Palace. I finally said, ‘You know what? I'm going to bring back as much of the classic New Orleans stuff as I can.'"
Our pick: Just for the pageantry of it, you need to try a Caesar salad prepared tableside. Then sample the duck leg and thigh in a cassoulet of beans, roasted squash, and French sausage. It's hearty and filling, as are many dishes at Delmonico. But you don't come to New Orleans to diet, do you?

"Three Sides of Emeril" is from the May 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.