Emeril Scholar’s Dreams Go Far Beyond the Kitchen

Student Maria Rivera, 2018 graduate of Johnson & Wales University, speaks about what it meant to be a recipient of the Emeril Lagasse Endowed Scholarship.

What does the Emeril Lagasse Endowed Scholarship mean to your life and the realization of your dream?

Throughout my journey at JWU, I have constantly learned that dreaming big is possible – and this time is no different. In addition to lifting a financial burden from my shoulders, I am now even more empowered and inspired to continue pursuing my career to the fullest capacity.

With his much lauded “new New Orleans” cuisine, hit cooking shows and larger-than-life personality, it’s hard to believe that Emeril Lagasse’s career as a chef almost didn’t happen. As a teen, he nearly accepted a music scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music to pursue his other burgeoning passion: percussion.

However, when the time came to make the choice, he enrolled in Johnson and Wales University, where he earned a degree in the culinary arts.

The benefits of education

“Culinary school definitely changed the track of my life and my career,” Lagasse reflects. “Who knows where I’d be without it?”

Lagasse describes his education as “one of the best” an aspiring restauranteur can hope for and says, “A culinary education is very important in learning the fundamentals of becoming a successful chef.”

Though he’s clearly grateful for what he learned in school, Lagasse admits that the path to becoming a restaurateur is paved through practice. “I think most of the skills needed to manage and create a successful restaurant come from hands-on experience in the restaurant,” he shares.

Today, Lagasse owns 11 restaurants across the country. In a few years, his flagship restaurant, Emeril’s New Orleans, will celebrate its 30th anniversary, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Learning from experience

“It was a risky move to an industrial, abandoned neighborhood,” Lagasse shares. “People thought I was nuts. I had trouble getting financing and permits, and purveyors wanted payments upfront in cash. I knew exactly what I wanted the restaurant to look like and the food to taste like, but I did not know much about the financial part or learning the marketplace of the neighborhood around you.”

Thankfully, for Lagasse and for the millions who enjoy his food, there’s been help along the way. Lagasse credits Ella Brennan as his “mentor and inspiration for many years” for her guidance and support when he was first starting out.

Lagasse urges other aspiring chefs and restaurateurs to seek out a mentor of their own. “Never stop learning and reading. Find a mentor,” he urges. “Travel and work in as many kitchens as you can and learn something new every day. You will develop your own style the more you can expose yourself to different ways of cooking and managing people.”

Whether you are aspiring to run a kitchen, open a restaurant or find food-world fame, the chef offers one final, friendly reminder: “This business is not for the faint of heart, but with passion and drive, it’s incredibly rewarding.”