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Bam! Ocean Grill reels in Emeril and television crew

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of Decber 5, 2013)
Photo: Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and Ocean Grill owner Charley Replogle.

TV celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and a crew of 16 slipped past last Friday’s lunch crowd at Ocean Grill and took up a prime ocean view table for a half-hour chat with owner Charley Replogle.

With the quirky and quaint interior of the 1940s-era restaurant, and a backdrop of a wind-whipped ocean against an implausible blue sky, the scene was precisely what Lagasse was after for a segment in his series, “Emeril’s Florida.”

“We knew he was coming,” said Replogle. But the first visit from his team was a drop-in, a few days before Halloween, when the restaurant was an intentional wreck of spider webs and skeletons, decked out as a house of horror.

“We didn’t hear anything for ten days; then they called to say they had to bring a director, a production guy and a camera guy to look at the restaurant and see if it was something Emeril would want to do,” said Replogle.

Apparently it was. Two weeks later, Emeril himself arrived with his extended crew including enough cameramen to catch every angle of every morsel the two men chewed.

“He interviewed me for about five minutes at a table by the water; then he went into the kitchen with Timm McGraw, the head chef, and came back and sampled six of our items.”

The Grill had closed off the rear dining room called the “back bucket” – farthest from the entrance of the restaurant – but the crew did shoot Emeril walking through the dining room.

Diners quickly figured out who was in their midst, but stayed cool, Replogle said. He also noted that the bar was surprisingly full for the noon hour.

“I got a feeling my bartender told some people,” Replogle said.

Lagasse asked about the restaurant’s history, the slant of most of the segments he does on the Cooking Channel series. “He wanted to know where the big round table came from,” said Replogle. “He asked about the Sexton family and our family.” The Replogles have run the place since the 1960s. Charley is second generation.

Replogle says he spoke to Lagasse as a fellow restaurant owner. Lagasse currently has 13 eateries from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania, including two in Orlando.

“He talked generally about the business,” he said. “We’re a local restaurant as well as a tourist destination. We make sure we can take care of all of our customers.”

The two talked about food trends over the life of the restaurant, including the Cajun cooking craze of the 1980s, when Lagasse, a native of Massachusetts, took over from Paul Prudhomme as executive chef of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. He went on to open his own restaurants there. The cooking shows started in the 1990s.

Replogle started his guest off with the jumbo lump crab cakes, a favorite at the Grill, from a recipe Charley’s wife Mary brought back from Maryland. “It’s a secret recipe. I don’t think she’ll ever give it out.”

That was followed by a piece of a big pompano caught off Fort Pierce, cut in the Grill’s kitchen, and broiled with an apricot glaze. There was a beet salad with Kevin O’Dare’s Osceola Farm organic greens.

And for dessert: Schaum Torte, a recipe his mother Mary Ellen Replogle brought to Florida from Wisconsin, her home: a meringue shell baked slowly in a low oven then filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream.

“Emeril’s an extremely nice guy, very down to earth,” said Replogle. “He asked good questions and kept the ball rolling. We had fun.”

Lagasse’s heritage is French-Canadian and Portuguese. He was originally on full scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music studying percussion (the origin of “bam!”?), when he changed his mind and decided to pursue a career as a chef. He trained at the esteemed culinary institute Johnson and Wales, then in Paris and Lyon, France, before returning to the U.S. to work in a number of restaurants.

From the Breakers in Palm Beach and the Columbia in Ybor City to Stinky’s Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach, “Emeril’s Florida,” now in its second season, takes a look at styles of Florida cooking in some of its most varied venues.

The Ocean Grill, a Vero landmark for nearly 70 years, was a natural for the show. It was built by Waldo Sexton, a Purdue graduate in agriculture who was on a business trip selling tilling machines when he first came to Vero in 1914. He stayed on and planted 10,000 citrus trees, then started the county’s first dairy, plus a real estate business. On the side, he became Vero’s best-known exterior decorator with his wild collections of ocean and architectural artifacts strewn across his restaurants, his inn and his tourist attraction, McKee Jungle Gardens.

Sexton also paved the way – literally – for development on the barrier island, using a team of mules to clear A-1-A from the south county line to the Sebastian Inlet.

He shrewdly turned the Ocean Grill into an officers’ club during the otherwise morose era of World War II; it was much appreciated by those stationed at the naval air base near the airport, and the locals lucky enough to mingle with them.

After the war, the place was rumored to be run by Chicago mobsters, followed by a retired Illinois Sheriff. In 1965, Mary Ellen Replogle and her then-husband, the late Jack Replogle, signed on. Their grandchildren are now working in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Waldo Sexton’s offspring, several of them ranchers and citrus growers, still own the Ocean Grill building, as well as the recently closed Patio restaurant downtown.

The Ocean Grill TV segment is supposed to air in March, Replogle said.

“The weather was awesome,” said Replogle. “It was the day after a heavy rain. The sun was bright and the waves were huge and all white-caps. It looked pretty dramatic.”