FEEDING THE FUTURE: Chef Emeril Lagasse helps raise funds for all-girls academy

The Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW) welcomed Chef Emeril Lagasse to Wilmington in an effort to raise funds for North Carolina’s first all-girls charter school set to open in August 2016. Chef Lagasse, who lent his skills, talents and more to three culinary events, also covered the cost of his staff, travel and food he prepared. Between three separate events $264,000 was raised to benefit GLOW.

About two hours after landing in ILM on Thursday, Jan. 28, Lagasse found himself at the first leg of his Wilmington tour: a private dinner ($10,000 per person) with about two-dozen diners in attendance. Chef Lagasse prepared the multi-course meal and then breakfast for 225 people at Live Oak Bank on Friday, Jan. 29, before concluding his work at a luncheon held later that day at the Country Club of Landfall.

“[The dinner was] to kick-start some cash, which is always important when launching a project like this, and it was amazing to see how much support was gathered from the community, as well as the breakfast that I just came from . . . and now the lunch,” Lagasse said in a press conference before guests arrived.

The luncheon was originally scheduled to be held down the road at Pembroke’s on Military Cutoff, but demand for tickets called for more space. The country club saw 280 guests, who dined on a menu curated by Chef Lagasse, had a chance to bid on silent and live auction items, and heard the famed chef speak on the importance of programs like GLOW.

Lagasse prepared a special menu, locally sourced where possible and recipes inspired by his book, “Essential Emeril”—of which guests were given a copy of as a parting gift. The luncheon began with salad of local watercress, arugula and radishes, followed by slow-roasted wild salmon (farm-raised is not an option for this chef) alongside pureed cauliflower and roasted Brussels sprouts. The bookend of the meal was a peanut butter chocolate (and more chocolate) confection.

“When people ask me what my favorite food is, my answer’s ‘I’m very inspired by the soil,’” Lagasse shared about his construction of the menu.

Lagasse’s connection to ILM and GLOW starts with Judy Girard, former president of the Food Network and current chair of the GLOW board of directors. Lagasse credited his friend for once “straightening out” the network he was already a part of, but also expanding its reach. “We had a lot of fun and we made a lot of people happy cooking and teaching them about wine, shopping and eating,” he continued.

While Lagasse now has a home on the Cooking Channel and pops by other shows like “Top Chef,” he has another passion beyond the kitchen. In 2002 he started the Emeril Lagasse Foundation alongside his wife Alden. In 14 years the foundation has granted more than $6 million to children’s charities and projects focused on nutrition, culinary and arts programs. Various programs include outdoor classrooms, gardens, fresh foods cafeterias, and teaching kitchens throughout various across its homebase of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, as well as Las Vegas and Orlando.

“My foundation is all about kids, inspiring and mentoring young people particularly those from a disadvantage who don’t have a chance to get out of the system of drugs and crime and all the other nonsense,” he explained. “When Judy told me about the [GLOW] project, I just melted, I glowed . . . What a way to give kids a chance to to get out . . .”

GLOW is the 17th school in the Young Women’s Leadership Network established to provide a college preparatory curriculum targeting at-risk, economically disadvantaged girls. The GLOW Academy is now in the midst of moving into its brick and mortar location at 606 South College Rd., behind the Greek Orthodox Church. The 12,500-square-foot building will be used for four years and then expanded upon to accommodate high-school classes. The school is prepared to serve up to 100 6th-grade students in the fall.

Lagasse’s mentee for the duration of the luncheon was future GLOW student, Aaliyah Jones. The young chef had a hand in everything from salad prep to bolognaise. “I really got into cooking when I was about 7,” she said, standing by Lagasse. “I love cooking . . . and I always wanted to be a chef.”

“And you want to work for me…” Lagasse quietly nudged.

“I’ll take over your spot when you’re done,” Jones quipped back.

GLOW student Aaliyah Jones talks about her ambition and passion for cooking alongside Chef Lagasse. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry.
GLOW student Aaliyah Jones talks about her ambition and passion for cooking alongside Chef Lagasse. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry.

Jones is one of 83 girls enrolled for GLOW’s inaugural school year, with a new class added each successive year until reaching full enrollment for 6th-12th grade and its first high-school graduating class in 2023. Also in attendance and directing the crowd were Kyra Blake, coming from Alderman Elementary, and Marie Catillo-Ruiz formerly of Mary C. Williams Elementary. While Blake is most excited to meet all of the other girls and teachers joining her new school, Williams is looking forward to new athletic and classroom equipment.

“The food will be good,” Denay Evans (Murrayville Elementary School) added in excitement.

“I can’t wait to go [to GLOW] because I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” said Abbi Simpson, who will be coming from Forest Hills Elementary.

Aside from how many young lives and futures schools like GLOW could impact, Lagasse urges another message: Good food and education go hand in hand. Teaching not only kids about “the soil and the seed” is crucial to development, but involving their families to bring these concepts to the table is what helps sustain them.

“We’re doing sort of culinary centers [with the Emeril Lagasse Foundation] that are attached to a farm in a school,” Chef Lagasse continued, “so I’m hoping one day that maybe Judy and Todd will give me the opportunity to do one of those programs here with their projects.”

GLOW President Todd Godbey stood by to explain the new school’s curriculum, which will be science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). The arts will include culinary. “We’ve learned a thing or two from [Emeril Lagasse],” he added. While no specific plans are set for culinary classes just yet, there are ideas on the horizon.

For more information about the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington, call 910-338-5258 or email Todd Godbey at tgodbey@glowacademy.net.

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