On The Many Virtues of Emeril

You can’t have much street cred in the food world nowadays unless you’re a card-carrying Emeril-basher, and I find that a little bit sad. “Clown”, “show off”, “know-nothing” are just a few of the charges I’ve heard some very accomplished chefs level at him (Anthony Bourdain recently said he’d happily strangle the man). Me, I’m pretty sure that while he may be a clown and is certainly a show-off, he’s definitely not a know-nothing. To rise as high as Emeril has risen in the food world (and not just the televised food world), you’ve got to know more than a little about food — you have to know a whole heck of a lot. You also have to be pretty darn talented.

I can’t say I’ve ever been much interested in his show. Not because I find him annoying or because the recipes are bad. Rather because a studio audience screaming like crazed Michigan fans when he adds an extra half-teaspoon of coriander never made any sense to me. Yet I found myself tuning in last evening, since I noticed from my cable program guide that he was doing a show on sweets. I’ve been doing a little research on trends in pastry and dessert lately (a work thing)…why not see what Emeril is up to? I tuned in just as he was putting a cranberry upside-down cake together.

Well friends, I have to say I was amazed at how hapless he was as a baker. His behind-the-scenes team had clearly gone to quite a bit of trouble to put a selection of trendy dessert recipes together for him, and there’s no other way of saying it: he slaughtered them. I watched incredulously as he poured a bowl full of thin cake batter into a simmering saucepan of unreduced cranberry syrup, as if that were going to yield anything like a cake. “I’m all a bout breaking the rules folks” he announced as he stuffed the steaming brew into the oven. “When we come back I’m going to show you exactly what it looks like!” Well, when we did come back, there was a contrite-looking Emeril on camera, admitting that what he’d just made was a disaster. Happily, his staff had another one already made.

I was impressed with him for that, since he could just as easily have pretended the whole thing turned out swimmingly. This is TV after all. Yet just a few moments later he was at it again. Tasked with making a blue cheese crème Anglaise to go with some rosemary-poached pears he was slated to do, he simply dropped a pound-sized chunk of cheese into a hot, broken custard and stirred. Let’s just say when I tuned out a few minutes later it wasn’t looking good.

Am I writing all this in order to validate what Emeril’s worst critics have to say about him? That he’s a talentless bum? Not at all. I bring it all up to highlight the fundamental, undeniable difference between the “cook” mentality and the “pastry” mentality. Emeril is a highly talented chef, there’s no doubt about that. Yet his career has been based on “kicking it up a notch”, i.e. fiddling with recipes as he goes to create something new. That’s all well and good in the main kitchen where the rules are flexible. It’s no good in the pastry department where the rules aren’t. Sure you can kick your butterscotch budino up a notch by adding a little extra whipped cream garnish, but mess with anything else very much and it’s arrivederci Roma.

Thus it goes without saying that the pastry department is no place for a rebel. You can’t be all about bustin’ the rules when your livelihood depends on following them to the letter. Which is not to say that there’s no room for creativity in pastry, it’s just that it’s not fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants creativity. It’s have-an-idea- and-test-it-sixteen-ways-from-Sunday creativity. Measured, careful, precise. Which is why pastry people are a lot more like scientists than they are impressionist painters. And why more than a few of us tend to be a bit tightly wound.

I’m sure Emeril knows better than anyone else that he’s a terrible pastry chef, and that when his producer approaches him and tells him it’s time for another sweet show he stares back and says: “Bill, why do you hate me?”

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