The Parent Files

What Chef Emeril Lagasse Learned From Becoming a Father at 19

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has opened more than 20 restaurants over more than three decades, collecting accolades, cooking shows, and Emmy nominations along the way. But outside of the kitchen, he’s also raised four kids with decades in between them; two girls from his first marriage as a teenager, and a son and daughter with his current wife.

Now, as his nineteen-year old son E.J. takes the reins of the famous Emeril’s restaurant in New Orleans, Lagasse opens up about what he learned becoming a father at the same age and then doing it again decades later. And, yes, the world famous chef made his own baby food.

You were already a very successful chef by the time you became a father, right?

Not really. So I have had two lives. I have one life with my first wife. I was 19 years old, growing up very Catholic. She got pregnant with my first of two daughters, Jessica. At the same time, I was building a career. I maybe wasn’t so hunky dory as far as being a parent, because I was working 80 hours a week, six days a week, two jobs, trying to make ends meet. And it was very difficult being a parent at the time.

Then later on, as times evolved, there was a long break in my life. And then I got remarried to my current wife. And so we have two children. And that’s a whole different perspective, because my career was already established to a degree. My financial situation obviously was much different. So that life is very, very different than first. And by the way, I’m very close to all of my children. We have a really great relationship, although we may be miles apart.

Can you go back to the beginning and tell me about the first time you became a father as as a very young man. What was that pressure like?

So all of a sudden, I’m 19 years old. I had a lot of great culinary plans, and I didn’t realize that I was going to be a father. That also that led to, well, I’m guess I have to get married. This was 43 years ago.

I wasn’t trained how to be a husband, or how to be a dad. That wasn’t covered in the curriculum where I went to school. So it was a huge learning curve for me. And then having the responsibility of a child and now a wife and trying to build a career. I had to work two jobs in order to make ends meet. So I had one day off to do everything: to cut the grass, get the gas, try to be a family guy, try to be a dad. It was a juggling experience. Then that evolved into a second child, my second daughter Jillian. And that was sort of accidental as well. So that was another wake up call: holy smokes, I have two kids, and I’m 22 years old or whatever, and I have all this responsibility on my shoulders.

With my first two girls, the connection was basically in the kitchen, because that’s where they had to come see me where I was working. The prize at the end of the day would be to do a family dinner and have family time before they went to bed. I tried to help with homework, I tried to help with activities that they were doing, but it was a very, very difficult situation. And so, when we moved from the northeast to New Orleans, that’s when things got really shaky. They had great life, but it didn’t have a lot of dad time. We got separated; my wife moved back to the northeast where she had family. I was in New Orleans, obviously still with financial constraints. It was very difficult. It was a long distance relationship with my kids, and so I could only do what I could do.

So what was happening during your career at this point?

That was when the traction began to began to start happening at Commander’s Palace. We made lots of accolades. I learned a lot about hospitality. I wouldn’t say I was financially in the clear, but I got a little bit more free or where I could bring them to New Orleans more or I could go visit them more.

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So flash forward to the second time you were a parent, what was that like?

I could embrace it, because I was ready for it. It wasn’t a surprise. We planned for almost two years about having a baby. Situations were different. She was a lot older, I certainly was a lot older. I had minor complications about doing that, so we had to search for some really talented people in the medical field. And finally, we had E.J., and then Meril. I was establishing myself on the Food Network. I had three restaurants at the time.

What did you learn the first time around that you applied to the second time around?

The second time around, I learned that I had to be a better listener. I learned that life is life and people are people. And there’s a lot of things that you can’t control in life or with people. Times were very different the second time around, because there wasn’t a long distance relationship. I had that daily communication.

Did you have any go-to family dishes?

The family table is everything. We have probably at least about 10 or 15 dishes in our repertoire that we do as a family.

E.J. was maybe 12 when we were having dinner, he told his mom and I, “I wanna be a chef.” I’m like, “You sure about that?” So as time evolved with him, we spent a lot of time obviously in the kitchen working together. You know, one of the things that I told him was that he had to leave the nest, and he did. He moved to New York City on his own, worked at Le Bernardin. Then he moved to London, he worked at Core with Clare Smyth. Then he went to Lisbon, then Stockholm. Then the call came and it was like, ‘Okay E.J., it’s your dad here. It’s time to go to work.’ And so he is now the the chef patron at the flagship, Emeril’s.

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All my 17-month old will eat is scrambled eggs, peanut butter, and peas. When your kids were little, were they picky eaters?

They eat everything. They eat what I put on the table. But also they were exposed to a lot of stuff. They were exposed to scallops and octopus, different fish, different meats. You know, if you’ve got a mom or dad that’s complaining that they don’t like broccoli. Well, guess what? Your kid’s not gonna like broccoli.

My dad used to make this thing that was like a milkshake with all the leftover ice cream and bananas and any kind of cookies we had around the house. Did you have any special dishes that you made for your kids?

Right from the start with E.J., I made all their baby food. We didn’t buy a lot of jarred baby stuff. And we have our staples from roast chicken to bolognese to smothered chicken, smothered pork chops, a stir fry.

Do you have any parenting hacks any little tricks that you’ve learned over raising four kids?

It’s not the best to be a yeller. You can get a lot more accomplished by being conversational than blowing a gasket and being a screamer. I think you can get a lot further by understanding and trying to have an intelligent conversation.

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