Behind the talents of chefs from Emeril Lagasse to Tory McPhail to the late Jamie Shannon and Paul Prudhomme stands one woman—the New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan. The matriarch of a family who operates nearly twenty restaurants across the country (most notably Commander’s Palace in the Crescent City), Ella Brennan has trained hundreds of chefs in her kitchens and won just about every honor in the food world, including the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. Now, a new book and a documentary film tell “Miss Ella” Brennan’s story bite by bite. By the end of either one, you’ll feel like you’ve just enjoyed an unforgettable meal with a great friend.
Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, co-written by Brennan and her daughter Ti Adelaide Martin, documents Brennan’s life, from her Depression-era childhood in a big, food-loving Irish family to her triumphs as one of the first female restaurateurs in the country.
Brennan’s climb parallels New Orleans’ rise as one of the world’s top food destinations. In addition to founding and running the first Brennan’s restaurant, she came up with the idea to emphasize breakfast and concocted the now-famous rum-soaked flaming dessert, Bananas Foster. At Commander’s Palace, she blended two of the city’s favorite things—food and music—to create Commander’s famous Jazz Brunch. “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.
Ella Brennan: Commanding The Table premieres during the New Orleans Film Festival on Friday, October 14, at the Orpheum Theater.
The documentary, directed by Oscar-nominated film-maker Leslie Iwerks, shares personal anecdotes such as Brennan’s ability to take fledgling chefs under her wing. In the 1980s, she even kept a young and fiery Lagasse in check by slipping handwritten notes into his apron pocket—“Leave your ego at home!” she wrote on one. Lagasse doesn’t hold it against her—“She has one of the most amazing palates that I’ve ever ran into,” the chef says. Other interviewees include Prudhomme, McPhail, the writer John Pope, and G&G contributor Julia Reed, who calls Brennan the “Pizzazz Ambassador of New Orleans.”
“The world changes so much,” Brennan says near the end of the documentary. “But somehow … I think people always want to go out and have dinner with friends, enjoy the conversation, and the food, and the wine—oh, and the wine—and I think that’s one of the most civilized things that we have left on earth.”
After the film’s New Orleans premiere on Friday, it will screen on Saturday, October 15, at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Larkspur, California. More screening dates will be announced.
Photographs courtesy of Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace by Adelaide W. Martin, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.