New York — Emeril the Underdog.
That's how chef and TV personality Emeril Lagasse sees his role in the drama known as the fall television season. Believe it or not, the confident man behind the "Bam!" says it's a part he's used to playing.
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 Lagasse's agent and concentrating on workplace antics instead of a fictional family.
But 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, 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."
Emeril the everyman
To Thomason, the secret ingredient for the show is the real Lagasse. He doesn't want Lagasse "the actor," he wants 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 Bloodworth and 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," Thomason explains.
Passion for food
All the Hollywood attention is flattering, Lagasse says, but he'll never give up the food that first brought him accolades. In fact, 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," says Lagasse.
Sounds like a pretty good recipe, but the 42-year-old Lagasse, 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 coffee cake on the show, I want it to be a real raspberry coffee cake, not a prop. I have my food reputation to consider."
But Lagasse's food and entertainment projects can't always blend perfectly. Food Network's "Emeril Live!" is on Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. CDT. NBC's "Emeril" will air Tuesdays at 7 p.m., so 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 she is concerned that NBC will steal some of Lagasse's cable viewers.
"It angers me a little because it will hurt us more than it hurts them," she says.
However, this also might be a chance for 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 Lagasse, Girard says with confidence. "He's a wonderful communicator."
So, has she seen the new show?
"It's interesting," she allows "there are moments when you think Emeril can pull off a scripted comedy. He has comic timing."