Monday, September 13, 2010

Emeril Gives Back to the Kids

Seated (from left to right): Leah Chase, Joel Dondis, and Poppy Tooker. Standing: the three finalists in the "A Dish Makes a Difference" recipe contest and Chef Emeril Lagasse.

A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions about Emeril, whether based on his cooking acumen, television persona, quality of his restaurants, or post-Katrina quotes on the state of the city. (For evidence of those opinions, see the comments to Rene's defense of Emeril posted earlier this year.) Regardless of one's personal views on the man or his work, one cannot deny the enormous influence Emeril has had on chefs of a younger generation from both his media presence and his charitable works, both of which were on display last Friday at the final awards of the "A Dish to Make a Difference" recipe contest.

The contest was held in conjunction with NOCCA's Culinary Arts summer program which, with the help of sponsors such as the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, offers young people an opportunity to enhance their cooking skills. This year the students were challenged to create an original recipe based on Creole traditions, and the dish voted best would be featured on Emeril's menu. But Emeril had a surprise up his sleeve when he announced that all three finalists' dishes, which were judged by Leah Chase, Joel Dondis, and Poppy Tooker, were deemed winners and thus would be served as specials at Emeril's for the entire month of October. In addition to the individual recognition, Emeril decided to kick in another $100k to fund the development of a four year culinary program at NOCCA. By the way, that is in addition to the $400k that he has already given to the program.

While money is both greatly appreciated and necessary to establish and perpetuate such programs, we both agreed that Emeril's true legacy can be found in the downright zeal of the students. Someone in the crowd poignantly commented on the level of sophistication of the dishes: "Why are the kids so advanced? Because they are part of a generation who grew up watching the Food Network." This in fact was the Emeril generation, who before our eyes had grown from throwing salt and pepper around the kitchen while screaming, "Bam!" to now cooking creole rabbit with roasted butternut squash and spicy corn cakes.

After the ceremony we had a chance to talk with two of the finalists while recording the newest segment of Table Talk with Lorin Gaudin. When asked if they watched cooking shows, both responded with excitement and rattled off their favorite TV food personalities as if they were modern day comic book heroes.

And maybe they are? But my question is this: How many kids actually grew up to be Superman compared to the number that will eventually find a career in the culinary arts? Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

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