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With Martha’s help, Emeril still going strong 20 years after start

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly 20 years after Emeril Lagasse begged, borrowed and scrounged every penny he could to open his own restaurant, the celebrity chef worried it was all slipping away.

Lagasse’s 17-year run on the Food Network was over. Hurricane Katrina had caused at least a $1 million loss to his three New Orleans-based restaurants and cut his profits by a third.

But just when things were looking bleakest — Bam! — Martha Stewart kicked it up a notch and the 50-year-old Lagasse is back.

“She showed up at a tough time when I thought the whole ship might be going down,” Lagasse said during a recent interview. “Basically, what I have now is a business partner.”

He also has a string of successful restaurants, a new television program, regular appearances in Stewart’s magazines, and has a 10-cookbook publishing deal (the third of which will be released in June).

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the New York-based media and merchandising company founded by the domesticity maven, in 2008 bought the rights to Lagasse’s franchise of cookbooks, television shows and kitchen products from him for $45 million in cash and $5 million in stock. The final price could rise to up to $70 million.

“Maybe it didn’t save me, but it sure gave me some breathing room and got the banks off my back,” Lagasse said.

Stewart said she has admired Lagasse since before he opened his first restaurant, and credits him with helping take food television mainstream.

“His remarkable talents in the kitchen and his high-energy exuberance delight and inform,” she said. “He made television cooking programs mainstream, opening the category to new audiences and proving that cooking is something everyone can enjoy.”

Despite his astounding success, Lagasse, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of opening his first restaurant this month, said the restaurant business is fraught with peril, and a big blow can topple even the most carefully built achievements.

“It takes a lot more than good cooking to make a restaurant a success,” said Eric Linquest, president of Emeril’s corporation, who has been with Lagasse from the start.

“You have to watch thefts, food that’s not used, all kinds of expenses. Part of his success is that Emeril has built a core group of people who are very loyal to him and put them in his restaurants.”

There was no problem giving up the rights to the 15 cookbooks he has written, Lagasse said. Or products, like “Emeril’s Kicked Up Seafood,” his essences and rubs, sauces and salsas, his cookware, cutlery, tableware and textiles, apparel and gifts.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “The experience with Martha Stewart has been delightful. She’s a smart lady and a hard worker. My little bit just fits into a corner of her empire, and I’m happy to be there.”

Lagasse’s troubles started when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city and forcing a complete evacuation of residents. The storm damaged his three restaurants — Emeril’s, NOLA and Delmonico’s — and destroyed Lagasse’s Mississippi home.

“What a tough time,” said Linquest. “We spent easily a million dollars getting the restaurants back in shape. And overnight a third of the revenue of the company disappeared.”

There were also uninsured losses like $650,000 in wine at Delmonico’s and $550,000 in wine at NOLA. And even though Emeril’s was reopened in early October 2005, and NOLA a few weeks later, Delmonico’s was closed for over a year because of damage to the building.

In the deal with Stewart, Lagasse retained his 13 restaurants that dot the landscape from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania, each an obvious labor of love.