Emeril's test kitchen? NBC

is the sitcom NBC didn't want, but somehow it made the network's fall schedule anyway.

Emeril Lagasse, the Food Network staple and renowned New Orleans chef, is coming to prime time network television this fall, and he's coming as an actor—an issue that has not gone unnoticed by TV critics, advertisers and NBC executives.

"Of all the new shows announced for the 2001-02 TV season, the comedy starring celeb chef Emeril Lagasse sounds the dippiest," said one critic. "If Bette Midler couldn't pull off the me-playing-me conceit, you have to wonder about Lagasse. At least Midler can sing." Another said the Emeril
pilot "came out flat as a fallen soufflé."

But lesser chefs than Emeril will tell you: There's no accounting for taste.

Through all the snickering, it was high test scores with audiences, especially women, that landed Emeril
on NBC.

"It was our highest-testing pilot, highest- testing by far among women, and obviously, that was telling us something," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "We don't want to be driven just by the testing, but clearly these numbers were saying something that we couldn't ignore.

"That, coupled with our belief that there is something special about Emeril and that he is very popular in the heartland, led to us rolling the dice here and taking a shot with somebody who has never done this before."

Created by Designing Women
writers/producers Linda Bloodworth and Harry Thomason and produced at NBC Studios, it has not had an easy road to prime time.

Lagasse plays himself, a celebrity chef with his own cable series and a family living in New York City. The comedy, which is being retooled with new actors and a new set, was passed over by all of the major networks, including NBC a year ago.

"It was sort of, 'What part of no don't you understand?'" said Bloodworth, recalling the earlier rejection, which particularly stung because the comedy was her idea and she had to persuade Lagasse to come aboard.

When they went to NBC originally, Garth Ancier was heading the entertainment division. But he left late last year, so they returned to NBC, this time to Zucker's office.

"We went to see him in New York, and he was an Emeril fan," said Bloodworth. "He came in and just overruled everyone and ordered the pilot. It was a very gutsy move. He really crawled out on a limb with us. To be the new guy in town and do that was pretty rare."

Zucker actually green-lighted a presentation tape. Bloodworth and Thomason went into production last spring and had the tape finished in time for extensive audience testing. Lagasse, who has a very high Q Score (a 28), according to NBC researchers, had the highest-rated pilot among women 18-49 and adults 35-49.

Still, top NBC executives were whispering to the press that the show had no shot at the fall schedule. Then, a week or so before the new lineup had to be finalized, the buzz changed at Burbank, Calif., headquarters. Suddenly, the show was sizzling.

"I think what happened was that the research was so strong we couldn't ignore it," said Zucker.

So at NBC's upfront presentation in May, Zucker unveiled Emeril
as the 8 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday-night comedy. It didn't go over well. A number of top media buyers in attendance scoffed, and critics quickly jumped all over the show.

Partly in response to the jeers, the network and its producers have begun retooling. Veteran actor Robert Urich has been added to play Lagasse's longtime friend and agent, and the focus is shifting to the cooking show and away from Emeril's family life. Later this month, Bloodworth and Thomason will tape a new pilot infused with Emerilisms like "Let's kick it up a notch" and "Bam!"

"Quite frankly, what we want Emeril to be is himself and just play himself," says Zucker. "This is certainly outside the mainstream of what Hollywood is. So I think it's probably not made for the folks in New York and Los Angeles. I think it's the folks in between who will ultimately decide whether this works or not."