New Orleans can lay claim to an impressive number of famous restaurateurs, but there is one whose celebrity surpasses all the others combined. So when the board at the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience met to decide who would receive the 2018 Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award in Hospitality there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. “In fact, it was kind of no-brainer,” says NOWFE President Jim Fein. “If you think about Emeril, his personality and what he means to the city of New Orleans, this was an easy choice.”
Emeril has reached that rarified status where he can get by on just one name whereas we mere mortals require at least two. Already well-known by the standards of the time when he left Commander’s Palace in the early nineties to open his first restaurant in a sleepy, inexpensive part of town called the Warehouse District, his career bloomed in the spotlight with the concurrent rise of the Food Network. He went from being a New Orleans name to a national one, and since then his company has grown to employ more than 1,400 employees across 14 restaurants with substantive positions in television, publishing, merchandizing and more. His reach is more than global; he has also contributed recipes to NASA for use on the International Space Station.
The Ella Brennan Award recognizes an individual who has made a lifetime commitment to the hospitality industry through leadership, personal and professional accomplishments and philanthropy. It is named in honor of ‘Miss Ella’, whose singular personality has made her a living legend in the field. And in this instance the connections could not be more direct. “I had the pleasure of working side-by-side with her for almost eight years,” Emeril says. “I think that she is one of the greatest restaurateurs on the planet. If I had to pin any label on her, and it is hard to put a label on her, it would be the ‘Grande Dame of Hospitality.’”
Emeril has leveraged his fame to make a difference. Since its founding in 2002, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation has donated over $8 million to children’s charities that support culinary, nutrition and arts-based programs. “Our work is all about mentoring and inspiring youth in the culinary and hospitality fields,” explains Emeril. “Right now we have a really cool culinary program at NOCCA and we are building culinary learning centers with edible gardens.” Emeril is also constantly active at the St Michael Special School, a Catholic institution that provides a nurturing and supportive environment for children with special educational needs. His foundation’s work is not limited to New Orleans; it extends across the Gulf Coast to the Florida panhandle and has branched out to Orlando, Las Vegas, and beyond. But regardless of the initiative supported by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, one bedrock principal underpins all: Mentorship. “It all comes back to mentorship,” Emeril says. “I think that everybody has to have a mentor. Whether you want to be a mechanic, a chef or a doctor – you need a mentor. And I am very proud to call Ella Brennan mine.”
For those that think that Emeril is resting on his laurels, and lord knows he could, they haven’t seen him lately. On the heels of his ambitious, globally-inspired Meril which opened in 2016 (the seeds of which were planted during the filming of his Amazon TV series Eat the World) he opened Emeril’s Coastal Italian in Miramar Beach, Florida in 2017. Along with his New Orleans properties, he maintains a clutch of restaurants in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as well as Las Vegas and Orlando. But he is far more than a successful restaurateur. He is an ambassador, a mentor and philanthropist as well. And all these elements come together to form the principals of the hospitality industry. And this is where Emeril, Ella and New Orleans all converge as well. “Ella really showed me what it is like to be a restaurateur – a good restaurateur – and what it is to be a part of the hospitality business,” Emeril says. “What that means to a guest for example, and how to treat a guest. And not just a guest, but also the staff, and human beings in general. I think that the hospitality business in New Orleans is just that – it is New Orleans. You can’t go to many places that have, dollar for dollar, as great of food and service and fun that we have right here in New Orleans.” Miss Ella couldn’t agree more.