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Emeril Lagasse on Humanitarianism and JBF Awards

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Tonight at the Lincoln Center in New York, the James Beard Foundation will hand over its Humanitarian of the Year Award to one of New Orleans' most famous sons, Chef Emeril Lagasse, whose philanthropic efforts to improve the educational opportunities available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in New Orleans kicked into high gear back in 2002 when he founded the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has granted over $5.3 million to children's education and culinary arts programs in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and the Gulf Coast, started Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans as a way to incorporate organic gardening into the daily school curriculum, and dedicated the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Arts Studio at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). The NOCCA program has been a great source of pride to Lagasse, who recently told Eater that he wants to make as many opportunities available to as many nascent chefs as he can. You can now rest easy knowing that the city's culinary legacy is being well-tended by a talented crop of mentored chefs.

You've won awards for your professional accomplishments. Does it feel any more or less rewarding to receive an award for your humanitarian efforts?

Well, I'm very honored to receive it. I've been a part of the James Beard Foundation for about 30 years. I've seen a lot of people get this award, which has been great, and this has pretty special for me because, as you said, I've never won an award for humanitarian efforts. What I do, I do from my heart, and it' really not about winning any awards; it's about helping children. Hopefully, on Monday evening, a lot of those children who we've been affecting for the last 10 years,?whether it's St. Michael's, Cafe Reconcile, NOCCA, or even summer programs that we've done?will feel my appreciation and thanks for receiving this award.

You've been such a great ambassador for New Orleans. Since this ceremony is being held in New York, do you think it presents a good opportunity to showcase how far New Orleans has come since 2005?

We've done a lot since Katrina, but we did a lot before Katrina, too. It just so happens that Katrina brought on brand new challenges. I'm thrilled that a lot more people will become aware of what we're doing in New Orleans, as well as some of the other cities we've been involved in. Hopefully, it will make people more aware of what the Emeril Lagasse Foundation is doing, and help raise more local awareness. A lot of New Orleanians don't realize just how much the Foundation is doing in the city, right in our backyards.

Sustainable food projects and school nutrition are really trendy topics now, but you seemed to be pretty far ahead of the curve with some of these projects. What inspired you, for instance, to start something like Edible Schoolyard?

My love for children, obviously, and my love for New Orleans made me want to start many of these projects. I love to give back. People give back in so many different ways, but just about everything connected to the Foundation has something to do with food or culinary training. We've built five teaching kitchens in this city alone. It was a really great feeling to open the doors at Cafe Reconcile last month and begin the Foundation's Hospitality Center.

It's really great to see students succeeding. I think right now we're at a little over 100 graduates from NOCCA, which is amazing because that program [the Culinary Arts Studio] didn't exist a few years ago, and now we have students from New Orleans who have reached out and are either going to college or involved in other parts of the hospitality industry. It makes me feel great that we're not just giving back, but also helping the industry in New Orleans grow.

How important is it to the health of the industry for students to be able to find a clear path into the industry and maybe pick up a mentor along the way?

I had mentors growing up, and I think that in any occupation, it's extremely important for people to have a mentor or mentors. Basically, the message of the Foundation is to mentor and create opportunities for youth. We do this through educational programs, through culinary training, and through cultural enrichment. Those things, I think are very important, not only for a career in the [hospitality] industry, but for life.

The Edible Schoolyard has, since 2007, made a significant impact on the lives of a lot of kids. That program has changed a lot of lives, because the people who participate are learning a lot more than just gardening. They're learning a way of life. They're growing, preparing, and eating their own food, and I've seen such a huge difference in just that one school. In the future, we're hopefully going to be able to do a lot more of those Edible Schoolyards in more schools.

More schools in New Orleans, or in other cities as well?

More schools in New Orleans, of course. I don't want to stop in New Orleans, but I want to get a really good seed planted here. We've got one right now, but I'd love to have a few more.

Is part of the goal with these educational programs to ensure that kids who pass through them will filter back into the community and help the community improve?

That's one of the goals, for sure, to not only strengthen the hospitality industry, but to improve the lives of these kids that maybe wouldn't have had a chance before. Now, they will have a chance because they're being mentored and they're learning.

This graduating year, and keep in mind this is only the program's third year, we will have five NOCCA culinary graduates who will be attending a major culinary school this fall. That's unbelievable.

The other program that's been very successful because, in the summertime, when these kids get out of school, a lot of them don't even have a meal, and too many of them don't even have "safe play." Through the Second Harvest Food Bank, we've already provided 400,000 meals to serve to hungry kids during the summer. On top of that, we've given over $1 million to summer camps so that kids have out-of-school learning and safe play in New Orleans. I ask myself all the time: what would happen if we weren't doing this?

The James Beard Award seems like a milestone. What do you want to accomplish, philanthropically, over the next five or ten years?

I'd like to be able to say that we've provided over a million meals instead of just 400,000. I'd like to quality-expand NOCCA and quality-expand Liberty's Kitchen, which might mean growing into a bigger space so we can serve more healthy school lunches to kids. I'd like to continue to expand the efforts at St. Michael's We're going to be building a performance stage at St. Michael's next, and we've built a culinary laboratory over there with two sectors: life skills and cooking skills. If these kids have a chance to live on their own, they'll know how to take care of themselves. They'll learn how to cook, obviously, but they'll also learn how to do laundry or take care of an apartment.

I'd love to expand all of these things in a quality way. The thing is, the Foundation itself doesn't have any grants. We're giving grants, but we don't receive any. Aside from private donations, our efforts, and I'd love people to understand this, are funded mostly through two events: Boudin & Beer, which happens to be the Friday night before Carnivale du Vin, which is Saturday. We created these events to help spread awareness throughout the Gulf Coast and so that people could attend for a pretty decent ticket price while helping to support the Foundation. That's where all the Foundation's resources really come from. I personally donate money and make major time, but the more we can make other foundations in the state or in the country aware of the Foundation, the greater the odds are that we'll be able to raise more money.

· James Beard Foundation [Official Site]
· Emeril Lagasse Foundation [Official Site]

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