Echoes of Emeril: Beach Bistro Surfside
Any mention of New Orleans and Emeril Lagasse elicits an emotional response in restaurateur Sean Murphy. The Louisiana city was Murphy’s first stop in the United States after emigrating from Canada, and celebrity chef Lagasse inspired Murphy as he navigated the American culinary world.
So when Murphy learned that Lagasse was planning to visit the Beach Bistro on September 9 to film a Food Network segment for “Emeril’s Florida,” he began reflecting on the icon’s longtime impact. “Emeril has played a substantial role in the development of the Beach Bistro and the philosophy of its food and service,” Murphy says. The why is a flavorful narrative that began three decades ago when Murphy arrived in the Big Easy as an illegal alien, he says.
“I strolled the French Quarter until I mustered the courage to go into Arnaud’s and apply for work as a waiter. Archie Casbarian and Louie Zalesjak hired me. My wife, Susan, then joined me,” Sean Murphy says. “I worked at Arnaud’s and she tended bar at Le Booze, the busy Bourbon Street bar at the Royal Sonesta Hotel.”
Murphy’s experience there shaped his future approach to opening the Beach Bistro, which would grow into a renowned fine dining eatery on Holmes Beach. For 28 years, it has been awarded the highest Zagat scores in the state, and Murphy’s three Eat Here restaurants have also received numerous awards.
In its early years, the Beach Bistro was occasionally criticized for being old-fashioned in style and presentation, Murphy says. The restaurant’s portions were substantial and the flavors were robust (bouillabaisse in big bowls, steaks with mashed potatoes and demi-glace, local fish with nut crusts, potato wraps, and rich butters and sauces). The trend then was cuisine minceur or cuisine legere, which consisted of “little bits of stuff on plates,” as Murphy puts it.
“Around that time I attended a cooking demonstration in Sarasota featuring a young kid out of New Orleans named Emeril Lagasse. He cooked a rich and lush chicken stew served with buttery, creamy mashed potatoes,” Murphy says. “I approached him as he was tidying up from the demonstration and thanked him for reinforcing my belief that flavors should be full and bold. I was incredibly relieved that the world of food had not wandered off in a direction I could not understand.”
Murphy still has the autographed cookbook he bought that day and showed it to Lagasse when he came to town. The two discussed the past as Lagasse tasted chef Peter Arpke’s world-class bistro food, such as Roberto’s Farm Salad with artisanal cheeses and fruit sorbet. Lagasse met the staff, prepared his own dishes and starred in what became one of 13 episodes in the Food Network series, which airs at 9:30 a.m. Thursdays and highlights various cities throughout the Sunshine State.
A regional James Beard Award winner, Lagasse first garnered attention as the executive chef at Commander’s Palace. In 1990, he opened his first restaurant, Emeril’s, in New Orleans, and Esquire magazine named it “Restaurant of the Year.” Lagasse is the executive chef and owner of 13 restaurants and he is acclaimed for his Creole and Cajun cooking styles. His is a method Murphy continues to laud.
“The birthplace of all American cuisines, of American culinary expression, is New Orleans, and we have always celebrated it,” Murphy says. “I think of our food pathway/ style now as Gulf Coast Cookery—concepts and themes borrowed and developed from the Gulf region, from Mexico to New Orleans to Miami—and colored with products and values from my native Nova Scotia.” Some of Murphy’s signature items include the Gulf Coast bouillabaisse, lobstercargots, and bourbon-and-maple-grilled jumbo shrimp with citrus and pomegranate grits.
“Our service style and organization is still the same as Arnaud’s. We still make a Caesar salad based on the original Arnaud’s recipe,” Murphy says. “Our bar is currently supported by a best friend, Fred Sullivan, who I met at Arnaud’s. Fred was the owner of Michael’s Mid-City Grill for 18 years before he lost the restaurant in Hurricane Katrina, and he then came to live with us.”
In other words, Murphy’s New Orleans connection continues to be a sentimental one, and he shares these deep roots with his family.
During the summer, Murphy’s son Ben Murphy and Eat Here bar chef Marjorie Kammerlohr returned from the 11th annual “Tales of the Cocktail” bartending conference in New Orleans with a renewed enthusiasm for the city. As an homage, they introduced the Ginmonade—a New Orleans–inspired take on a classic Collins, with Bombay Sapphire gin, blueberries, basil, and lemon—to the Eat Here drink list. It provides yet another way to toast to the city that started it all.
There will always be a lot of New Orleans in Sean Murphy’s heart, and a little bit of Emeril’s essence on his plate.