Chef Emeril Lagasse is no stranger to the camera—since first becoming a household name in the mid-'90s, he's racked up decades on the air filming his cooking shows, Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril, and appearing as a guest on shows like Top Chef and Good Morning America.
But unlike his previous forays into food television, Emeril's new Amazon series, Eat the World, leaves the studio kitchen behind in favor of on-location adventures with fellow culinary heavyweights: Cuba with Aarón Sánchez, Sweden with Marcus Samuelsson, and Korea with Danny Bowien, among others. It's part travelogue, part cooking show, with a heavy dose of documentary storytelling for good measure. Travel + Leisure caught up with the chef to talk travel, cooking, and where to find the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai. Ahead, a few highlights from the conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Eat the World is as much about cultural exchange as it is about great food.
"We’re not just trying to show people it’s cool to eat brains or drink snake blood or whatever. Every show is a story. The team we have—they’re not food television people, they’re movie people. They tell stories. And I can’t tell you how in my element I am, to be able to travel around the world with colleagues I respect and admire, and to learn and share that with our audience. The viewer is learning what I’m learning. All these years later, I’m still learning and still evolving. I've always been a big believer that if you can understand the people, you can understand the culture. And when you can understand the people and the culture, you can understand the food."
The world's best slice of pizza is at Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo, Italy.
"When we were filming, we went to the Amalfi Coast with Nancy Silverton, who’s very familiar with the region. She wanted me to experience the best pizza in the world, from this guy Franco Pepe. It’s this little bitty town, and it’s got a line out the door of 100, 200 people on weekends. It’s not a typical pizzeria—it’s a modern, kicked-up restaurant, three stories. The whole second story is just for his dough room. We went on a mission to figure out what makes Franco Pepe’s pizza so special, and we realized it’s the mozzarella, the olive oil, the anchovies—it’s about sourcing products he believes in. All the ingredients he uses all come from within 14 kilometers of his restaurant."
Shanghai's best soup dumplings haven't changed in 150 years.
"Mario Batali and I have had a friendly argument going over where the noodle really began. Was it Italy or China? So we wanted to go to Shanghai together and search for the best soup dumpling. We went to modern, traditional, popular—all these dumpling restaurants. But the best one was the most traditional place, Guyi Garden Restaurant, outside of the city. They’ve been using the same recipe for 150 years. The chef had been there for 42 years. The amazing thing we found in Shanghai is that you may have a language barrier, but when you get chefs together, it really doesn’t matter. Magic is gonna happen."
Stepping out of your culinary comfort zone pays off.
"I’m not really afraid to try anything. But when we were in Sweden, they said we were gonna have reindeer heart and I was like...that’s not the kind of thing you can go down to Publix to get! Marcus [Samuelsson, the award-winning chef at Red Rooster in Harlem] made this little flatbread, and we ate it with lingonberries. Wild! It was so delicious. Everything was cooked with fire, just wood and smoke. We heated a cast iron skillet, Marcus made this very thin flatbread, and then I had chopped reindeer heart, shallot, salt and pepper, lingonberry, and a little bit of hay. We put it in this little skillet, stirred it around, and then put it on top of the flatbread with a little more lingonberry and a little fennel pollen. It was smokin’ good."
Some hotels are classics for a reason.
"I’m not a big boutique hotel guy. I love the Four Seasons, the St. Regis. I guess I’m just old! I spent a lot of time traveling with Charlie Trotter, who had incredible taste. When we traveled together, we splurged. It’s not that we had the money, we just wanted to have that kind of experience so we could pass it on. It’s nothing about the name, it’s the service. I stayed at the St. Regis in Shanghai—it was unbelievable. The service was amazing. Everywhere. The restaurant, the front desk, everywhere. Amazing. And I love the One & Only Clubs. I’ve been going to the one in Nassau for 15 years. And the one in Cabo has some amazing food—the chef there is very very talented."
Culinary greatness can be found in Calgary. No, really.
"I used to go to Paris at least once a year. But it hasn’t wowed me in the past 15 years. You look now at all the best places in Paris, and they’re all Japanese restaurants. Paris needs to get shaken up a bit—Stockholm’s restaurant scene is more impressive to me now. London is on fire right now. They’ve really got a bounce in their step. I’ve had amazing food in Ibiza—just the little beach places with picnic tables. I’ve had some really incredible meals at traditional restaurants in Madrid. I was blown away by the food in Quebec. And I had one of the best Italian meals ever in Calgary, Canada. I had a better Italian meal in Calgary—nothing but cow pastures!—than some I’ve had in Italy."
Even well-traveled celebs keep a travel bucket list.
"I really want to go to Vietnam. And Sicily, and Morocco, and the southern part of Spain. The Basque region too, I think is really interesting—they even speak a different language! Northern Portugal. Central Portugal. Maybe the Azores. I would love to do Lyon with Daniel Boulud. I love Nobu’s stuff, so I’d love to go to Tokyo with him. I’ve been thinking about it!"