- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2001

NEW YORK — Emeril the Underdog. That's how chef and TV personality Emeril Lagasse sees his role in the drama known as the fall TV season. Believe it or not, the confident man behind the "Bam" says it is a part he is used to playing.

Mr. Lagasse, already the top draw on cable's Food Network with "Emeril Live" and "Essence of Emeril," is getting his own half-hour comedy on NBC. Plain old "Emeril," premiering Sept. 18, is being written by Linda Bloodworth and directed by her husband, Harry Thomason, the team behind "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade."

The series already is the victim of some bad buzz. Several changes have been made since the poorly received pilot, including adding Robert Urich to the cast as Mr. Lagasse's agent and concentrating on workplace antics instead of a fictional family.

But Mr. Lagasse has faith that his populist, no-frills style will attract viewers, if not praise from critics.

"We've already been beaten up by the 'Hollywood experts,' and that's OK," he says. "The foodie community used to bash me, too."

That was before he opened his six restaurants — all of which rank among the 20 most popular in their respective cities, according to Zagat Survey dining guides — and taped more than 1,000 cooking shows.

Turns out that Mr. Lagasse's leap from reality to sitcom isn't a big one: On the new show, he plays a chef with a TV cooking show who struggles to balance work and home. Mary Page Keller plays his wife.

"It's not a stretch for me to be Emeril," he says. So far, the hardest part was kissing his on-screen wife when his real-life wife, Alden, was in the studio. "I guess that was acting."

To Mr. Thomason, the secret ingredient for the show is the real Mr. Lagasse. He doesn't want Mr. Lagasse "the actor"; he wants Mr. Lagasse "the Everyman."

"He comes across as a guy everyone would want to know. He brings a familiarity of people you know to TV." Those qualities are what first attracted Miss Bloodworth and Mr. Thomason.

"Linda started watching the Food Network a couple of nights in a row. One night she woke me, and she just thought he's a star," Mr. Thomason explains.

All the Hollywood attention is flattering, Mr. Lagasse says, but he'll never give up the food that first brought him accolades.

He's mixing a little bit of his two worlds together, posting recipes on NBC's Web site.

"Part of my passion about cooking and TV is people receiving, getting happy and being fulfilled," Mr. Lagasse says.

Sounds like a pretty good recipe, but the 42-year-old chef, who also is the food correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America," worries about saturation.

"I always think about overexposure. I think things out very thoroughly, and I'm very thoughtful. I'm not selling out. I do only what I believe in, which is, first and foremost, cooking. I'm behind a stove every day — it just might be on a set."

Since he doesn't live in Los Angeles, where the show is taped, he demanded that there be a full-time chef advising the fictional cooking segments.

"If we're eating raspberry coffeecake on the show, I want it to be a real raspberry coffeecake, not a prop. I have my food reputation to consider."

But Mr. Lagasse's food and entertainment projects cannot always blend perfectly. Food Network's "Emeril Live" is on Mondays through Fridays at 8 p.m. NBC's "Emeril" will air Tuesdays at 8 p.m., so Mr. Lagasse will be competing with himself.

Food Network President Judy Girard says having a network use a cable show as the basis for a series is the highest form of flattery but that she is concerned that NBC will steal some of Mr. Lagasse's cable viewers.

"It angers me a little because it will hurt us more than it hurts them," she says.

But this also might be a chance for Mr. Lagasse to attract new fans to his food shows at least on the other nights of the week.

If anyone can bridge the gap between niche television and the mass market, it's Mr. Lagasse, Miss Girard says with confidence. "He's a wonderful communicator."

So, has she seen the new show?

"It's interesting," she says, — "there are moments when you think Emeril can pull off a scripted comedy. He has comic timing."

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