City Guides

Remembering the Commander Herself

Chefs, family, and friends pay tribute to the pioneering New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan, who died May 31

photo: Courtesy of Jerry Siegel

Ella Brennan in her New Orleans home.

Ralph Brennan, Ella’s nephew who runs Brennan’s:

“Peeling shrimp and boning chicken were my first jobs under Ella at Brennan’s. She gave me the experience of starting from the bottom to understand the business. When I was older, I would go visit her at Commander’s, and I absorbed a lot just sitting there and listening to her.

I went to business school, and worked in accounting for a while, but we had this unwritten agreement that if she ever saw a job for me, she would reach out. In Christmas of 1980, at my parents’ house, over a glass of wine after dinner, she asked if I wanted to come work with her. Next thing I knew I was a general manager, and it was trial by fire, which was typical of her. She pushed me into places I wasn’t quite ready for and made me better.

She was a prolific reader and a prolific learner. She would find an article, pull it out and write your name on it to share. She was always interested in continuous improvement. She used to show me a picture of a bell curve, pointing out that on the other side of the top, it goes down. She was afraid of going down. And that’s one of the things I learned from her—try to get better every year.”

photo: COURTESY OF the book, MISS ELLA OF COMMANDER’S PALACE

Brennan samples a dish.

Julia Reed, author:

“In Commanding the Table, the terrific documentary on Ella Brennan produced by my pal Deb Shriver, I called Ella my adopted city’s Pizzazz Ambassador and she was full of that all too elusive quality until the very end.

I also said she was a celebrity restaurateur before there were celebrity chefs, but she pretty much single-handedly created the concept of the star chef, too. Take a look at just a short list of the talent she turned out: Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Frank Brigtsen, Jamie Shannon, Tory McPhail.

It was a privilege to know her and I thank God for one of her many great inspirations, Banana’s Foster, every time I’m lucky enough to taste that festive flaming dish. R.I.P. Dear Ella. The culinary world—no, the world full stop—has lost one of its greatest grande dames.”

Emeril Lagasse, chef:

“Ella introduced me to the Seven Ps (“Proper planning prevents piss poor performance”)…” Read Lagasse’s entire tribute here.

 

photo: COURTESY OF the book, MISS ELLA OF COMMANDER’S PALACE

Emeril Lagasse and Ella Brennan at Commander’s Palace.

Frank Brigtsen, chef:

“In 1978, I was twenty-four years old and looking for a job. It is only in hindsight that I realize what a fateful day it was when I answered a Help Wanted ad for Commander’s Palace. Having worked in a sandwich shop and more casual restaurants through my college years, working for Ella and Dick Brennan, and Chef Paul Prudhomme, was for me what it was for hundreds of others, an on-the-job culinary and hospitality education.

To throw an elaborate dinner party for 500 people every night, one must pay attention to the details. Miss Ella did. One must not make people do things, but make them want to do things. Miss Ella did. One does not berate the busboy for dropping a pan of dishes right behind a Hollywood star, because ‘the young man felt bad enough.’

As a cook, I learned from Miss Ella and Chef Paul that even if you’re putting out 500 plates a night, the guest is only getting just one. Make it the best it can be. Give each guest as much hospitality and happiness as you can in two hours. Pay attention to the details. Miss Ella did.”

 

C. Morgan Babst, author:

“When I was a child in New Orleans, birthdays meant bread pudding soufflé in the tree-top garden room at Commander’s Palace. Ella Brennan was the nearest thing to a queen I ever saw, a regal and commanding presence whose appearance at our table caused even my grandfather to grow humble, as he stood to shake her hand. I feel very lucky to have been, thanks to my brief stint as a hostess at one of her nephews’ restaurants, one of her legion of students, learning through the institution of her hospitality that golden rule of caring for guests: Treat them as they wish to be treated.

Now, living around the block from Commander’s, I love encountering her legacy every morning: that only-in-New-Orleans turquoise, the smell of brown butter, a toqued chef walking to work along the cemetery wall.

Everyone who eats and serves in New Orleans is changed for the better because of her.”

photo: Photo courtesy of Sam Fritz Cusimano

Chef Tory McPhail and Brennan.

John T. Edge, author and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance:

“She was steely, always in charge, forever vigilant. For her, the business of pleasure and joy was always top-of-mind. She taught two generations—hell, let’s call it three—how to make good on the promise of Southern hospitality. And she managed that task with inspiring aplomb.”

 

Leslie Iwerks, director of Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table:

“As a filmmaker, I have never met anyone who has inspired more people than Ella. I witnessed how she mentored people one by one, and like a shot in the arm, gave them such wisdom, advice, and encouragement. She was truly interested in you.

She was the definition of hospitality. She was humble and confident, and always fought for the common good of the people, the city and the country. The city of New Orleans was the fabric of her soul.

She was so grateful and humble over the film we made and never seemed to understand the outpouring of love for her contributions and career. Like so many others, she inspired me in ways that will last my lifetime.”

 

Chris Shepherd, chef/owner, Underbelly Hospitality (worked at Brennan’s of Houston from 1997 to 2006):

“Miss Ella taught me about family. It’s apparent with the number of people who have worked with the Brennan family for so long. Some people have been there for forty or fifty years.

She also taught me that the restaurant family includes your guests—the people who choose to spend time with you. It’s something I try to emulate every day in my own restaurants. I want my staff to know this business is more than cooking. It’s about building relationships and developing a strong bond with those around you.”

photo: Courtesy of James Beard Foundation

Brennan was a winner of the 2009 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.

Brett Martin, writer:

“I never met the great lady, but the thing that I have always loved and marveled at about Commander’s is how it is simultaneously a total tourist restaurant and an entirely authentic New Orleans experience. Coming from New York, where everyone is mortally terrified, above all, of being seen as a tourist or a rube, this was a great lesson for me about my new city.

I also happen to think it is probably the best large restaurant (by which I mean huge restaurant) in America. And I was very happy to learn recently that Ella’s favorite family meal at the restaurant was hot dog night.”


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