“I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”
If you’ve ever nodded along during a New Orleans jazz brunch, licked the spoon after devouring a Bananas Foster, or sipped on a 25 cent lunchtime martini, you’re experiencing the after-effects of one very special New Orleanian.
That would be Ella Brennan—a woman who never had any formal training as a chef or in business yet helped firmly stamp New Orleans on the (global) culinary map.
“It was all of us; we were a family. That’s one of the things I love about the restaurant business — we were able to work with each other for so long.”
Ella was born in 1925, the fourth in a line of six kids, four years before the Depression would clench the US economy for the next decade. Her father worked in the shipyard. Her mother was an extremely talented cook. You can thank her for the inspiration in what would eventually become a world-famous recipe involving bananas, butter, brown sugar, and flaming rum.
In this family life, bustling, crowded, with no shortage on affections but sometimes short on money, young Ella absorbed the way that food could sustain you, connect you and delight you. Meals were a vibrant part of the Brennan family life, though Ella Brennan herself never did learn to cook.
After high school, she tried doing what other girls were doing, what was encouraged of them in those days: business school to develop their secretarial skills. She lasted four months.
Ella Brennan, in turns out, wasn’t just going to type for any man.
She went to work for her brother’s French Quarter bar, the Old Absinthe House on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. Owen Brennan’s charisma and intuition (like hiring jazz pianist and bandleader Fats Pichon as house pianist) had quickly centered the bar in café society. Ella had a front row seat to it all.
Later, when Owen bought a restaurant across the street, the Vieux Carré, Ella moved to take over day-to-day operations. Initially, she was not impressed—with the food or the atmosphere. But this dingy, high-ceilinged space with too-small chandeliers and a boring menu would be where the education for her life’s work began.
“Some girls went to finishing school, I went to Lafitte’s.”
In the 1940s, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was known as Café Lafitte and it was where everyone gathered—writers, artists, newspaper publishers, symphony directors, businessmen—to talk politics, art, or just gossip.
By day, Ella was reading anything she could get her hands on to learn more about the restaurant business—cookbooks, business books, newspapers, magazines. Vieux Carré’s chefs (who jumped at the chance to stretch their culinary wings) served as mentors and together they re-created a menu, French with American and Creole touches. Ella asked questions of anyone who could teach her something related to business, wine, dining, and food.
By night, she was winding through the café tables at Lafitte’s, finding her voice, and learning to hold her own on any number of subjects.
When Ella began her self-taught journey into the male-dominated restaurant industry, there were no conversations about gender roles, leadership, or power. She was among the first, and perhaps youngest, to plow this gnarly path; by the time Ella was 19, she was running the Vieux Carré Restaurant.
Part of her self-education involved traveling to the beacons of fine dining experiences—New York, Europe, etc. She ate and paid attention to how things were done (or, not done). Some of these practices she put to work at Vieux Carré and then later, at Brennan’s on Royal Street.
But her crowning achievement would be a grand nineteenth century turquoise-and-white building in the Garden District: Commander’s Palace.
“Invention—and reinvention—were now hallmarks of our heritage.”
Similar to the Vieux Carré experience, Commander’s Palace was a working restaurant when the surviving Brennan siblings turned their attention to it in 1974. They’d lost Owen unexpectedly in 1955 and their roles in the Royal Street restaurant a while later. Everyone needed a fresh start.
Early reviews of Commander’s Palace from a local food critic were harsh. Phrases like, “tourist trap,” “avoid like the plague,” and “no grace or skill” inspired a heart-to-heart for Ella and her siblings. They convened in the newly-renovated garden patio that would, in just a few years, originate jazz brunches and spontaneous second lines. There, the group committed to making Commander’s Palace extraordinary, something the city of New Orleans had never seen.
So Ella returned to her preferred learning style: reading, reading, reading. She could see the coming importance of regional cuisine, simple presentations, and pure ingredients in the dining experience. New Orleans was already practicing many of the techniques budding elsewhere.
When Ella hired an unknown Cajun chef named Paul Prudhomme to head up the kitchen at Commander’s Palace, they began a creative, collaborative process that would change the course of Commander’s Palace and eventually impact the rest of the dining world.
“I accept this award for every damn captain and waiter in the country.”
In 1992, Commander’s Palace won the James Beard Foundation’s outstanding service award. Ella’s acceptance speech was short and sweet (and she got a standing ovation).
One of Ella’s unique approaches to the restaurant business was the idea of mentoring and developing the entire service team. Those under her care had to earn her respect and she, theirs. And, Ella never stopped learning or sharing what she was learning, even after she retired to a lovely home right next door to Commander’s Palace (with a garden gate that led to the restaurant’s patio, of course).
Maybe because she was a lifelong learner or because she was constantly exposing herself to ideas, people, and experiences, she took the long view when it came to success. Ella knew where she wanted to be and put the work in to get there, empowering and uplifting others along the way.
“When you die, see you in the saloon in the sky, and that’s where I’ll be.” [Brennan family saying]
After 91 years this past May, New Orleans lost Ella Brennan. But lucky for us, she told us where she would be headed—that saloon in the sky where the before-dinner cocktail will be a Sazerac and the food will be paired with all her favorite wines (there are no hangovers in the saloon in the sky). She’s going to ask Louis Armstrong to play “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” And we think she might, just a little.
Ella Brennan’s memoir with her daughter, Ti, is out now. You can watch Leslie Iwerk’s documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table on Netflix.