Chef Emeril Lagasse had no idea he would be grilled about his new NBC sitcom, "Emeril," when he faced a roomful of TV critics in July in Pasadena.
The critics had nothing but harsh words for the comedy series starring Lagasse, who appears in two popular Food Network series ("Essence of Emeril" and "Emeril Live"), owns several restaurants, has penned best-selling cookbooks and has a line of cookware, spices, salad dressings and marinades.
"I didn't know the feeling was that strong," saidLagasse, who is far more soft-spoken and shy than his rather blustery on-screen persona.
Executive producers Linda Bloodworth and Harry Thomason, the team behind the long-running CBS sitcom "Designing Women," thought the reaction to the series was a bit on the dramatic side.
"I had read the transcripts from [the NBC press sessions] the day before," Bloodworth said. "Some people had gotten after [NBC Entertainment President] Jeff Zucker, questioning him so intensely [about the show]. It was like Emeril had started the Ebola virus."
Bloodworth stresses that NBC shouldn't have sent the pilot episode to critics over the summer because it was a quickly made presentation for the network.
"I don't think we had the confidence of NBC except for Jeff Zucker," she said. "We had never done any shows at NBC and Jeff was new. So it was kind of us and Emeril and Emeril's agent in a foxhole. We had done a lot of series and we have a team in place. They didn't allow us to use anyone we had known and worked with. So that was definitely a disadvantage. I think we were extremely micro-managed by NBC Studios."
But now Bloodworth, Thomason and NBC Studios see eye to eye on "Emeril." "Everything is going very nicely," she said. "After they have seen the episodes we have been delivering, everyone is much more relaxed and much more confident. Of course, they have also seen that Zucker is completely behind the project, so that helps."
Bloodworth changed a lot of ingredients in "Emeril" since the presentation episode was filmed. Lisa Ann Walter and Sherri Shepherd remain from the pilot as, respectively, the sassy producer and outspoken stage manager of Emeril's cooking show. Robert Urich has been added to the mix as Emeril's womanizing agent.
"I want him to reflect that sort of male 'Designing Women' rant," Bloodworth said.
Carrie Preston also is joining the series as Emeril's flighty food stylist. The actress who played his wife in the pilot has been replaced by Mary Page Keller. "The focus of the show is totally devoted to the cooking show and the professional environment that surrounds it," Bloodworth said. "We are aware that Emeril has a family and his 15-year-old son James [James Lafferty] is an intern at the show, so we see him on occasion."
Lagasse doesn't mind being this TV season's official underdog. "A lot of people think we are going to crash and burn, and we are never going to get off the ground," he said.
But Lagasse believes the show will succeed, especially because he's gaining more confidence as an actor with each episode. "I am learning every day," he said. "I am learning from Harry like crazy. He's the best director I've ever worked with. He's like a gigantic teddy bear."
Lagasse maintains that he hasn't let any of the bad advance press on the series deflate him. "I went home last night after a full 10 1/2-hour day. I had my own business [to take care of]. And then what I did was make a chicken and sausage gumbo for the crew today for lunch. We had a great lunch. We had salmon and pesto and chicken and sausage gumbo. I mean, everybody is happy. We have a good thing going on here."
"Emeril" can be seen Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. It premieres this Tuesday.