Editor’s Note: In 1982, twenty-six-year-old Emeril Lagasse went to work for the pioneering restaurateur Ella Brennan at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, taking the helm from famed chef Paul Prudhomme. After nearly eight years under Brennan’s tutelage, he opened his first restaurant, Emeril’s. Here, he recalls Brennan, who died on May 31 at 92.
It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to call Ella Brennan my mentor, friend, and family. Ella was the embodiment of a class act, whose vigor, passion and tenacity are unparalleled. She was the grande dame of our business and pioneered our industry, not just in New Orleans but America. The list of what Miss Ella taught me is long, so long it doesn’t have an end, and while she was the best restaurateur I’ve ever known, the things she taught me far surpass her specific craft. Here are just a few of the things I learned from her:
Ella taught me to be persistent. To try a little harder each day than you did the day before.
Ella introduced me to the Seven Ps (“Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance”), which—ask anyone who works for me—are still part of my repertoire.
She taught me to stand up for what you believe in and stay true to your beliefs. If you are committed to only serving fresh and local, then don’t take the delivery when they are trying to sell you bad fish. Don’t take the fish. Don’t pass that to your guests. Stand behind your commitment.
She taught me to do my homework and to understand the people and the culture of Louisiana and to get out and meet the quail farmers, to visit the strawberry fields and butcher shops, and to respect the ingredients and the people that make up the culture. She introduced me to the great city of New Orleans, its people, and bountiful ingredients.
She taught me to taste my food and that the food must evolve but the customer is not the guinea pig.
She taught me to read and read more and then to read more. And to have a pulse with what was happening in the food scene in New Orleans and the world. You could never learn enough.
She taught me that being an effective leader doesn’t always mean screaming and yelling to show your authority. It is about treating people with respect and motivating them to work as hard as you do. She was demanding and expected the best, but wasn’t difficult to work for, which is something that I try to do every day.
She taught me to leave my ego at the door. She taught me the definition of humility:
To learn from your mistakes and not be afraid to make them, just as long as you learned from them.
To do your job with passion and with purpose and love. She defined hospitality. She created a culture unlike anything else because she didn’t think about just one element of the restaurant: She thought about the food, the service, the décor, the ambiance. It all played a part of the beautiful symphony she strove to provide for each and every guest. In her words, “Create dining memories.”
She taught me the importance of family. To always put your family first and to cherish your loved ones.
Most importantly, she taught me to mentor, to give back, to help people, and that we each have a responsibility for improving our communities and our youth. She did that, and she taught me and many others the importance of being ambassadors of our great town and its wonderful people. Her legacy will live on through all of those she inspired. It has been a magical experience having her as my mentor for so long; I’m truly blessed to have been folded into her incredible family.