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Emeril Lagasse, an occasional Top Chef judge, has lately taken a serious turn. Mike Seely's misses the wacky Lagasse, but Hanna Raskin thinks


Has Emeril Lagasse Gotten Too Serious?

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Emeril Lagasse, an occasional Top Chef judge, has lately taken a serious turn. Mike Seely's misses the wacky Lagasse, but Hanna Raskin thinks he's changed for the better.

Mike Seely wants his old Emeril back.

Look, I get that Emeril's been stung by criticism that he's become a male version of Paula Deen, or--worse--a trailblazer for Guy Fieri. Such characterizations give incredibly short shrift to the considerable talent and burner grease which put him in position to become one of the first worldwide culinary television stars. But what also enabled such an ascent was his gregarious personality, which, on Top Chef, he muffles to the point of obsolescence.

The Top Chef version of Emeril Lagasse cracks a smile about once per hour, and a subtle one at that. He neither chuckles nor flirts, and makes no effort to command a room, much less a crowd. Whereas before he outshone other televised chefs, his mission now seems to be to out-serious them. It's as though he's had a personality transplant, and the new guy's pretty fucking boring.

What Emeril needs to realize is charm isn't the enemy of acumen; your favorite teacher was probably plenty smart, but it's the way she taught that sticks with you. Emeril without the "bam!" is like a baked potato without butter: It might be cooked to perfection, but it tastes dry as day-old dog shit on a Palm Desert putting green.

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But Hanna Raskin isn't complaining about Lagasse's evolution.

In 2009, Emeril Lagasse turned 50. And he apparently marked his birthday, as many men do, by reflecting on how he'd spent his first half-century.

He'd written more than a dozen bestselling cookbooks, hosted more than 2,000 Food Network shows, opened restaurants across the country, put his name on canned pasta and hawked toothpaste. It was a career predicated on a stupendous run at Commander's Palace, followed in 1990 by the opening of Emeril's. Lagasse picked up a James Beard award the next year. But few of Lagasse's current fans know anything of his serious kitchen achievements, thinking of him only as the guy who kicks it up a notch.

For years, that's how Lagasse thought of himself too. He was famously excoriated by Times-Picayune's restaurant critic Brett Anderson for failing to visit New Orleans after Katrina, an abandonment Anderson described as a "post-Katrina mystery." Lagasse attributed his absence to a busy book-touring schedule, but his excuses - coupled with his quick firing of employees in his New Orleans office - didn't sit well with New Orleanians. When Lagasse finally returned to Louisiana, he complained he was "cut off on the road by a family throwing me the bird."

Did the cold reception force Lagasse to reconsider his priorities? Did his entry into middle age prompt him to wonder what happened to the chef who nightly wowed diners with barbecue shrimp? Whatever happened, Lagasse seems to be atoning for the most significant sins of celebrity. While he hasn't backed away from his ambitious restaurant expansion plans, he recently established a four-year culinary arts program for New Orleans high-schoolers and inaugurated a new major fund-raising event to benefit children's charities.

What Lagasse has realized is he can't say "bam!" and fix society's problems. So he's become gloomier as of late, a shift highlighted this season on Treme. In a cameo role written by Anthony Bourdain, Lagasse warned a younger chef of the perils associated with celebrity chefdom. Bourdain told the Times-Picayune he wanted to depict Lagasse as he sees him: "Older, 'darker,' sadder, with the burden of years of responsibility for hundreds of people -- an empire -- on his shoulders. But also generous and loyal to his friends."

That's kicking it up a notch.

Follow Voracious on Facebook & Twitter. Follow me at @hannaraskin

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