Emeril Lagasse is best known as a patriarch of New Orleans food. But with two restaurants in Orlando, a former spot in Miami, a Panhandle home and frequent stops in Clearwater, the Food Network pioneer and "Top Chef" judge knows his way around Florida.
All of that makes it a natural fit for him to focus on the Sunshine State for his latest TV series, "Emeril's Florida." The series debuts at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on the Cooking Channel.
The show geographically spans the state from the northwest shoreline to the glitzy coast of Miami.
"I am constantly amazed, from the Panhandle to the Keys, how different the food can be in the same state," Lagasse said. "I think from a food standpoint it's really fantastic and awesome."
Orlando gets the Emeril treatment in Sunday's premiere episode. Lagasse visits The Ravenous Pig gastropub in Winter Park, where he helps chef and owner James Petrakis prepare a cobia dish. He also stops at his "Emeril's Orlando" restaurant at Universal's City Walk to make black grouper with sofrito, rock shrimp and avocado toast. There also is a visit to Vines Grille & Wine Bar, and to ICEBAR Orlando, where cocktails are served in the bar at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Once you get outside the parks, you can discover these really neat places in Orlando," Lagasse said during an interview Thursday.
"When we first went to Orlando to open Emeril's, there wasn't much of a dining scene," he said. "It's really just shaping up so well into a unique place."
Florida's growing connection between farms and restaurants has become the cornerstone for new chefs to build the kind of adventurous, locally sourced menus found in Atlanta or Charleston, he said. He was stunned to find during the course of shooting "Emeril's Florida" that an organic lettuce farm was operating only a few miles from his home outside Destin.
During a show that airs Jan. 20, Lagasse stops at The Columbia in Tampa to cook paella with Andrea Gonzmart, a fifth-generation member of the Gonzmart family. Gonzmart's great-great-grandfather founded The Columbia in 1905.
Lagasse visits the Tampa area quarterly to pitch products on the Home Shopping Network in Clearwater. During a recent visit, he and eight members of his culinary crew stopped at Restaurant BT on South MacDill Avenue in Tampa.
"We basically ate the whole menu," he said. "They were fairly busy on a Thursday night, and we had awesome Vietnamese food."
Lagasse said Tampa is "one of those funky places like Orlando that really has a lot of great food." He includes The Columbia on that list.
"I had two fantastic dinners there," he said. "I'm always looking to find new places to eat, beyond dining at places like Ocean Prime and Roy's."