“Today we lost a family member and New Orleans lost a legend,” New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan wrote in an email of his aunt Ella Brennan’s death at the age of 92 on May 31. Dickie Brennan, a National Restaurant Association board director, also praised his aunt for the impact she had on the industry nationwide, noting that she “fed, mentored, and inspired generations.”
Few American restaurateurs have been so influential as this New Orleans matriarch who is credited with creating nouvelle Creole cuisine. She sensed the stirrings of the American food revolution and made sure her Garden District Commander’s Palace would be part of it. “Nothing had fully coalesced on a national level, but my homework was telling me that something was afoot,” she wrote in her memoir Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, co-authored with her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin. “The modern concept of chef-driven restaurants and celebrity chefs were unknown.”
But they would not be for long. In short order, Miss Ella hired Paul Prudhomme, and together they “ignited a spark at Commander’s.” That spark put Louisiana squarely on the map as American regional cuisine gained traction. In the years that followed, she would hire and mentor such other notable chefs as Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, Frank Brigtsen and Tory McPhail.
“She was the grande dame of our business and pioneered our industry, not just in New Orleans but America,” wrote celebrated chef Emeril Lagasse in Garden & Gun. Lagasse, pictured right, was only 26 years old when Miss Ella hired him to helm Commander’s. He recalled that, among many lessons, she taught him “the ‘Seven Ps’—prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance—and she once sent [me] home with a note advising [me] to ‘get over yourself.’”
Frank Brigtsen, now chef/owner of his eponymous Uptown restaurant, told Eater that his experience at Commander’s Palace was “the core of my culinary and hospitality education . . . I not only learned how to cook but how to work with people, to nurture them by giving them an opportunity to grow and learn and become the best they can be.”
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It wasn’t necessary to actually work for her to benefit from her inspiration. In a telephone interview, chef/restaurateur/entrepreneur John Folse (Restaurant R’evolution) recounts all these 40 years later the moment she bestowed “inspiration and confidence” on him. “Before I opened Lafitte’s in 1978, I was desperate to get some good information, to find out who I should go see. Warren Leruth, who was one of the most recognized New Orleans chefs at the time, told me to go sit in a chair at Commander’s Palace and taste the food and see the service and the ambience and I would be inspired to be successful. So I did. So when Ella Brennan came by the table I told her I was going to open a restaurant. She put her hand on my hand and said, ‘It’s hard work but anybody can do it if they really want to. You can do it.’ I was just a nobody, a young kid, and she spent time with me and encouraged me. You never forget those moments.”
In spite of all the culinary innovation, food was only part of the experience Miss Ella sought to create at Commander’s. She believed that people dine out to create memories and she made sure that a meal at Commander’s was not only delicious but memorable and fun. There are balloons at jazz brunch, 25-cent martinis at lunch. “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she wrote. And she would often sashay through the restaurant behind the band, handkerchief waving. Her goal was for guests to feel warm and welcomed from the first hello to the last goodbye. When she received the Silver Spoon award from Food Arts magazine in 1990, founding editor Michael Batterberry described her service as “smooth as a Sazerac cocktail.” And yet underlying the smooth façade was hard work, training and the philosophy of always having a Brennan on Duty (BOD), which her daughter, Ti Martin, and niece, Lally Brennan—who are now the co-proprietors of Commander’s—still adhere to.
She held the belief that every worker from dishwashers to maître d’s were important and deserved respect. When Commander’s received the Outstanding Service Award from the James Beard Foundation in 1992, her terse acceptance speech summed it up: “I accept this award for every damn captain and waiter in the country,” she said, resulting in a standing ovation. With that statement, she "endeared herself to anyone who has ever set a table or taken an order," Martin wrote in the memoir.
New York City-based restaurateur Danny Meyer, also known for emphasizing hospitality, tweeted admiringly. “One of the great hospitality heroes, ever. Always looked way up to her as a restaurateur’s restaurateur. Thank you, Miss Ella.”
“She was the face of hospitality,” says Folse. ”Two hundred years from now they’ll still be talking about Ella Brennan.”
Ella Brennan was self-taught and came up through the proverbial school of hard knocks. “Some girls went to finishing school,” she said in a Times-Picayune interview in 2007. “I went to Lafitte’s.” In addition to that tavern, she worked at her brother Owen’s Vieux Carré. After his death, Ella Brennan was planning to run the restaurant, by then called Brennan’s, but was ousted after a family feud with his widow. She and her sister Adelaide had purchased Commander’s in 1969 and took over its management in 1974.
She was tough when she had to be, earning the nickname “Hurricane Ella.” But through it all, her passion and love for the industry shone through. She told the Times-Picayune, “If you have to work for a living, it’s a nice way to do it.” On another occasion she said, “I had a barrel of fun and if anybody calls that work, they’re crazy.”
In this age of #metoo, she’s an inspiring role model for women in the restaurant industry. Dickie Brennan praises his aunt: “You have been strong and blazed paths and created opportunities for others in a male-dominated industry.” Another legendary New Orleans female restaurateur, Leah Chase, laments her passing and the void it will leave. “It’s a hard blow for me and it’s going to be a hard blow for the whole city,” she says.
Ella Brennan was also a devoted mother. Her son, Alex Brennan Martin, is president of Brennan’s of Houston. Few daughters speak so admiringly of their mothers as Ti Martin does of her mom Ella: “I never met anyone more interesting than she,” Martin wrote in her introduction to the memoir. “I have watched her change people’s lives in a single conversation. She has a way of talking to you and making you feel capable of things you never dreamed of . . . No athletic coach has anything on her. Push, push, push to get you ready and then cheer like hell when you do it.”
The lights around Commander’s sign were dark the night of her death, but the show went on inside the turquoise Garden District destination restaurant.
“Rest in peace Aunt Ella,” says Dickie Brennan. “You have been the life of the party and have known instinctively how to bring that out in others. Let us all raise a glass of really good Champagne (because we know that would be your drink of choice) in honor of you and your beautiful legacy.”
Perhaps prophetically, Miss Ella ended her memoir with a chapter on the “Saloon in the Sky.” “And for your information, I’m not sitting on a stool telling people what to do. I’m just having a good time. There’s no BOD—Brennan On Duty. In the Saloon in the Sky nobody works. You just enjoy.”
Photos courtesy of the Commander's Palace Facebook page.