ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
It started off as a pretty good day in New Orleans.
(Soundbite of music; crowd noise)
CHADWICK: The Cafe Du Monde has reopened post-Katrina. Since early this morning, New Orleanians have been lining up once again for the 153-year-old cafe's chickory coffee and its signature pastry, the beignet. That's a square of dough deliciously deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar. The cafe's back, but other places are still waiting to open. For this week's book segment, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talked with chef and restauranteur and author Emeril Lagasse about resurrecting a piece of New Orleans' history and getting the city back on its culinary feet.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:
Say `Emeril Lagasse' and most people immediately think of this.
(Soundbite of "Emeril Live")
Mr. EMERIL LAGASSE (Chef): Hey, did we have fun with fried foods tonight or what? Huh? Unbelievable!
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
BATES: That kind of raucous `laissez le bon temps rouler' atmosphere is essential to "Emeril Live," his successful show on the Food Network. But it's the exact opposite of Delmonico, one of New Orleans' most refined restaurants. So it was a surprise to a lot of people, including Emeril, when Angela Brown and Rose Brown Dietrich--whose family owned Delmonico for several generations--called him up and said...
Mr. LAGASSE: `We are ready to go to Disney World. We're gon--we want to retire. But we are so scared of who we turn this thing over to that we want to ask you first if you would consider buying our family business.'
BATES: To the naked eye, it was an odd pairing; the baron of `Bam!' and one of the city's most venerated establishments. But the sisters liked what Emeril did with his own restaurants, and he wanted a chance to preserve classic Creole cuisine. So in 1997, they sold it to him, and Delmonico became Emeril's Delmonico. And he continued building on the Delmonico tradition.
Mr. LAGASSE: We're having a lot of fun doing this sort of grand New Orleans, but not snooty, just really, really elegant-history New Orleans food.
BATES: Like the original Delmonico, Emeril's Delmonico is filled with mostly Creole dishes that have now become legend: sauteed frogs' legs in garlicky bearnaise sauce; seafood-stuffed shrimp; bread pudding lavished with rum-spiked cream. His newest cookbook, "Emeril's Delmonico: A Restaurant With a Past," is an homage to that cuisine. It's also a tip of the toque to the people who bring culinary history alive daily: the black cooks, chefs and kitchen workers who produce the magical dishes that have made Delmonico and other great New Orleans restaurants famous.
Mr. LAGASSE: These men and women were the unsung heroes. You know, they were back there shucking the oysters and pan-frying the oysters, and they were there cleaning the trout and then fileting the trout and battering the trout, making the gumbos. They were really the structure of the restaurant.
BATES: Emeril says people like Ernest "Jitterbug" Rome, who's been with Delmonico for almost 60 years, were more than just cooks and more than just a human catalogue of the restaurant's recipes.
Mr. LAGASSE: Learning from them, I never disrespected. I always wanted to learn and make it right, then little fine touches, maybe of ingredients or, you know--but I never disrespected it; I always wanted to just build on it.
BATES: The cuisine is as rich as it ever was; plenty of butter, bacon and bearnaise all throughout the book. But, Chef Lagasse says, moderation is key.
Mr. LAGASSE: You obviously can't eat a double-cut pork chop every day with caramelized sweet potatoes, or you'll eventually look like a double-cut pork chop.
BATES: And, as visitors have discovered for more than two centuries, wealth doesn't dictate how well one eats in the Crescent City.
Mr. LAGASSE: You don't have to just go to a three-star restaurant to eat good food. You could go to a local place and have red beans and rice.
BATES: It's these local places all across the city that Emeril worries about. Storm damage and little or no insurance may kill off the neighborhood spots that have fed generations in communities tours never see. The grand restaurants, including his own, have withstood the storm, but the ones that sustained real-life New Orleans, maybe not.
Mr. LAGASSE: Most of the damages are the small people, the places that are--that do the lunch plates. My concern is that we're going to probably lose about 25 percent of those places.
BATES: He and others are working with city agencies on rebuilding, but many of the small places are staffed with folks from the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and some won't be returning. It's a bitter blow to a city that prides itself on being food-obsessed, but Emeril Lagasse hopes he and his peers will be reopening soon, and says the storm couldn't remove an important part of his beloved city.
Mr. LAGASSE: They won't lose the spirit. They won't lose the soul. They won't lose that--how people are having lunch, talking about where they're going to have dinner or where they're going to have breakfast tomorrow. That's the spirit of New Orleans, and that spirit you won't--you can't blow away.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.
CHADWICK: Read more about Emeril's takes on classic Creole cuisine. There are recipes also of dishes found on the menu at Emeril's Delmonico on our Web site, npr.org, and they're good.
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