What Emeril needs is a good scandal

America’s least notorious chef is primed for a comeback—if he wants one

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A few weeks ago, British Petroleum took out a full-page attack ad in the New York Times, targeting a “celebrity chef” who it said was awarded more than $8 million for what it called “fictional losses” in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. BP had accepted part of the responsibility for the disaster, and the claim was submitted to the Gulf Settlement Program—one of “thousands of undeserving claims” to be approved, the ad argued. The chef wasn’t named, but it was apparent to everyone it was Emeril Lagasse. After the ad went to print, bloggers and editorial writers jumped to Lagasse’s defense. “Looking forward to the next round of BP ads complaining about Emeril leaving tarballs everywhere,” wrote one Twitter user sarcastically. (Lagasse’s restaurant group did make a claim but says it remains unpaid.)

It may have been the closest Lagasse has come to any scandal. Remember him? Ten years ago—before Jamie Oliver, Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay took food television and cookbook shelves by storm with their endearing yet over-the-top personalities—it was tough to go an entire week without seeing the avuncular New Orleans chef “kick it up a notch” every weeknight on Emeril Live! with his generous use of garlic and his trademark shouting of “BAM!” The king of the Food TV, Lagasse not only cooked up an audience for the new concept of food television, he penetrated pop culture, getting shout-outs on Family Guy and a cameo appearance on Space Ghost. The cartoon Futurama, set in the year 3000, even had a recurring character named Elzar, a four-armed Neptunian celebrity chef with his own TV show, Essence of Elzar—a play on Food TV’s Essence of Emeril.

All this seems eons ago for Lagasse fans. Some may remember that the chef starred briefly in a self-titled primetime sitcom called Emeril on NBC, but it was “missing some ingredients” according to an L.A. Times TV critic.  In 2001, after 11 episodes, the show got canned. And the title of a 2004 biography, Emeril!: Inside the Amazing Success of Today’s Most Popular Chef, says everything about what Lagasse is not these days.

Ratings started to decline for Emeril Live! until the show stopped filming in 2007. Food TV altered course towards an abundance of head-to-head cook-off shows and Lagasse’s fame has been knocked down a few notches ever since. “[Food television] is all about competition now,” Lagasse told Maclean’s in an interview in December. “Whether it’s Chopped or Iron Chef or Top Chef or Throwdown. Some folks think that it’s very cloudy because there’s too much of it. For me, I don’t know because when I watch TV, I watch sports and news.”

If he watches enough news, Lagasse will see his fellow celebrity chef colleagues embroiled in scandals all over. Jamie Oliver’s bluntness came back to bite him when he said that class or wealth isn’t a measure of how well a family eats. Gordon Ramsay’s potty-mouth gets him into plenty of hot water (to say nothing of his financial troubles), and reports of Guy Fieri’s homophobia (which he denies) caused a stir in 2011. In the past year, the Food Network dropped Paula Deen after her racist comments came to light, and Nigella Lawson went through a bitter—and very public—divorce that brought up allegations of drug use. The list goes on. Lagasse has remained relatively scandal-free over several decades, a rarity for someone who was in the media spotlight for so long.

The BP kerfuffle might almost prime Lagasse for the perfect comeback. But the goal is not to get back to No. 1, he says, and he doesn’t reflect long about his fall from primetime. “If anything, I’ve gotten busier than I was,” Lagasse says. He retained his post as food correspondent for Good Morning America, entered the competitive food television circuit as a celebrity judge on Top Chef, and his 17th book, Emeril’s Kicked-Up Sandwiches, was released in late 2012.

And though the latest show bearing his name, Emeril’s Florida, is on Food TV’s lesser-known sister network, the Cooking Channel, it is reportedly bringing in more than 14 million viewers. “Now there’s all this talk about should we bring Emeril Live! back,” he says.

In other words, Lagasse may not need a comeback. He may not be on magazine covers, but he seems to have the same appeal he always did. If TV is cyclical, eventually fans might tire of the reality cooking shows and yearn again for a celebrity chef who plays the drums with a live band during commercial breaks. Should that be the case, there is still a chef out there who fits that description.  “We’re still rocking on,” Lagasse says.