Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse serves up lunch to help all-girls school

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Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse welcomes a crowd of nearly 300 during a luncheon Friday to raise money for an all-girls public charter school in Wilmington. Photos by Hilary Snow.
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse welcomes a crowd of nearly 300 during a luncheon Friday to raise money for an all-girls public charter school in Wilmington. Photos by Hilary Snow.

When Emeril Lagasse heard about his dear friend Judy Girard’s latest venture, the celebrity chef “glowed.”

Lagasse’s choice of words is fitting, if a bit funny, because Girard’s mission is to open the state’s first all-girls public charter school–Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington, or GLOW.

But all puns aside, Girard’s mission so inspired Lagasse that he headed to the Port City this week, gratis, to serve up his signature dishes to help raise funds for the school. Lagasse arrived in town Thursday evening to prepare an intimate meal for around 20 guests at a private home. Friday, he cooked a three-course lunch–from recipes in his latest cookbook, “Essential Emeril,” for a packed house of 300 ticket holders at the Country Club of Landfall.

“This is an amazing project,” Lagasse said of GLOW. “It is super exciting for me to be a part of this.”

Guests at Friday's luncheon bid on silent auction items ahead of the three-course meal. The event, as well as a Thursday night dinner and auctions, helped raise more than $250,000 for GLOW.
Guests at Friday’s luncheon bid on silent auction items ahead of the three-course meal. The event, as well as a Thursday night dinner and auctions, helped raise more than $250,000 for GLOW.

Lagasse first met Girard in 1998, when she took over Food Network, on which Emeril had his own show. But the pair’s connection extends far beyond the culinary channel. Lagasse, too, has a desire to reach and inspire at-risk youth through his Emeril Lagasse Foundation.

“How are you going to move the needle if you don’t give back?” he said.

And making a major change is what GLOW is all about, as well. Under the umbrella of the national Young Women’s Leadership Network–a group of 16 similar schools across the country–GLOW’s mission is to give a lifetime of success and economic independence to girls, effectively breaking a cycle of poverty. The school is set to open in August with 100 sixth graders and plans to add a grade each year until twelfth grade.

“What GLOW is really about is leveling the playing field,” Todd Godbey, president of the school’s non-profit foundation, said. “They all have the capacity and when given the opportunity, they will rise.”

Lunch included a watercress salad--made from mostly local ingredients--and other recipes from Lagasse's latest cookbook.
Lunch included a watercress salad–made from mostly local ingredients–and other recipes from Lagasse’s latest cookbook.

Godbey has numbers to back that up. The national high school graduation rate for at-risk teen girls is 60 percent. Of that 60 percent, only eight percent go on to college. But girls at Young Women’s Leadership schools graduate at a 95 percent rate and 100 percent of those graduates pursue their higher education.

“This is an opportunity to create a really positive school for girls who will come in as middle school students and walk out as high school graduates, go on to college and become leaders,” GLOW’s principal Laura Hunter said.

Taking a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) approach to teaching–with a focus on inquiry and hands-on learning, GLOW also plans to use a “whole girl” model, which includes teaching healthy life choices and promoting self-esteem.

Aaliyah Jones certainly got a taste of that hands-on learning Friday, when the budding chef got the opportunity of a lifetime–to shadow Lagasse as he whipped up meals. Jones, a current fifth-grader, was one of about a dozen of GLOW’s Class of 2023 on hand at the country club to greet guests and share their own plans for the future.

“I’m very excited,” said 11-year-old Abbigail Simpson, who will also attend GLOW in August. “I can grow up to be a doctor there…I like the way the school thinks about girls. I like that they are making this important for girls, telling them that they can do it.”

Friday’s event netted $264,000 through the $200-a-plate lunch, as well as live and silent auctions and sale of “Essential Emeril.” Lagasse overed the cost of his staff, his travel and all food for both the dinner and the luncheon.

Some of GLOW's first class of sixth-graders were on hand Friday to greet guests and share plans for the future.
Some of GLOW’s first class of sixth-graders were on hand Friday to greet guests and share plans for the future.

Hilary Snow is a reporter for Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.

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