The food television world has officially tilted off its precise axis. Emeril Lagasse, the original food television über star, the Spencer Tracy of all cathode-ray cuisine -- in his new program, The Originals with Emeril -- has been officially stripped of his chef's whites. He's had most (though not all) of his voluble "BAMs!!" muzzled. Even sadder is that he has been cast as a faded facsimile of dive-hopping, peroxide-perky Guy Fieri.
It may just be food television's ultimate sign of the apocalypse. End of days -- only catered.
But seriously, folks, what would possess the suits at the Cooking Channel to rip Emeril away from all that was so holy about his cooking universe? In his newly debuted show, gone is the dazzling kitchen-set, the Miles Davis-cool house band, his loyal Food Network kitchen vassals ready to help at a moment's bellow, and finally that live audience -- full of kids on a fructose high and gap-toothed matrons from Weehawken, New Jersey, guffawing at his stove antics.
But in the Originals, whose premise sends Emeril careening around the country in search of the most "original," long-lasting -- read classic -- restaurants and some of their iconic food items, Emeril is out of his element.
In this week's segment, Emeril is in Los Angeles (Why didn't they start him in his old stomping ground of New Orleans?), stopping in at three different historic eateries: The Apple Pan, Tam O'Shanter and Philippe the Original.
The first, and ultimately unflattering, comparison with Guy Fieri comes when Emeril spends time in the diner-like establishments, chatting up the chefs, trying to guess the "secret" ingredients used in the hickory sauce for a burger, and when he mixes with the customers. Like him or not, Fieri is the undisputed king of fraternizing with the diners, drive-ins, and dives set. Incredibly enough, Emeril, one of the original blue-collar chefs proudly waving the flag of Fall River, Massachusetts, is late to Fieri's six-pack party.
For all of Emeril's good intentions, there's not much informational meat on this show's bones. Though some of the shards of these restaurants' history are interesting enough -- the recipes going back to the 1800s, the introduction of shy kitchen staffer who have sweated there for 40 years and the procession of black-and-white photos of the multi-generational family owners -- not much drama comes from Emeril's promise to unveil the secrets behind the restaurant's famous dishes. Ah, so fruity liquid is funneled into the dome-lid of the Apple Pan's signature apple pie, lending the dessert its famous juiciness. Whatever.
The creative nadir of the broadcast might be Emeril's stop at the truly idiosyncratic Tam O'Shanter. Incongruously (but maybe not as it is near Hollywood) designed as a Scottish country cottage, the Tam O'Shanter produces comfort food with a Scottish twist. Judging by Emeril's forced reaction to scarfing down a plate of brisket from the restaurant's "ale and sandwich bar," it's a good bet that the only thing the O'Shanter kitchen gets right is the hefty portions.
And while Emeril is chiseling his way through what looks like a concrete block of the O'Shanter's famous sticky toffee pudding, he feels compelled to flaunt his tartan tie and suggest the silly possibility that he might be wearing a kilt. As it turns out, filling time on camera is not one of Emeril's strong suits -- at least when he's away from a captive studio audience ready to guffaw at every one of his one-liners.
It gets downright sad to see Emeril slip on a paper hat in order to fit in with the short-order chefs and waiters of The Apple Pan. And it's nothing but time-filler when the camera follows Emeril as he helps an old customer out to her car, carrying her take-out apple pie. Or the seconds burned as he schmoozes on a cell phone with, one assumes, the L.A. mayor who admits to a fondness for the lamb French dip at Philippe the Original.
Finally, when Emeril settles in at one of the communal long tables at Philippe the Original to enjoy his freshly made French dip sandwich (Philippe the Original is apparently the home of said sandwich), it's wince-worthy to watch Emeril make small talk with his neighboring noshers. All he can do is recommend the home-made mustard, whose production he witnessed in the kitchen à la -- that's right -- Guy Fieri. In this case, imitation is not flattering to Emeril, but almost undignified. After all, he's the original, not Fieri.
Emeril provides his own symbolic reaction to being cast-away in this new program. It's with a plaintive grin into the camera that he utters a muted "bam." It's really more of a yelp.
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A cry for help?
It's certainly as if Emeril couldn't resist letting his audience know that inside this miscast chef lurks the feisty, voluble, even strangely seductive kitchen czar who launched a food network not so long ago.
(The Originals with Emeril airs on the Cooking Channel on Thursday at 9:30 p.m.)