Ella Brennan once advised her daughter to never learn to type or take dictation, so men wouldn't treat her as a secretary. "All my life the men in my family would say, 'Get so-and-so on the phone.' I’d shoot back: 'Why the hell don’t you do it? Are your fingers broken?'"
She needed that fiery spirit when she started working in her brother Owen's Bourbon Street bar in 1943, just out of high school. New Orleans' hospitality industry was dominated by men. But Brennan, known to locals as Miss Ella, has always been unflinchingly tenacious in her approach to business and to life, which enabled her to become a legend in the restaurant industry, first at Brennan's and then at Commander's Palace.
Ella has been on my top five list of favorite people to talk with for several years now. She has opinions and never shies from sharing them—on food, wine, business and especially politics. And underneath that tough exterior, she is one of the sweetest people I know, someone who genuinely cares about others.
Ella is retired now and has handed Commander's to her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, and niece, Lally Brennan. But she still has opinions, and thankfully Ti convinced her to share them. The result is Miss Ella of Commander's Palace, her memoir, which Ti basically wrote by sitting down with her and saying, "OK, Mom, tell me everything."
The Brennans are New Orleans' first family of food today, with various branches running more than a dozen restaurants in the city. From an Irish family, the six siblings—Owen, Adelaide, John, Ella, Dick and Dottie—grew up in the Garden District. Owen was a born showman, capable of befriending anyone. After he bought the Old Absinthe House, he asked young Ella to help manage it. When he expanded to a restaurant next door, the whole family began helping out. And they embraced his dream to build Brennan's on nearby Royal Street.
When Owen died six months before Brennan's opened in 1955, Ella and her siblings rallied to make the restaurant work. They eventually expanded, but in 1974, conflict between them and Owen's widow and sons led to a family split. Ella and her siblings began again at Commander's Palace.
New Orleans is a city of great restaurants, but what sets Commander's apart is its balance. The kitchen knows how to balance traditional local flavors with innovative cuisine. The staff knows how to deliver first-class service that still makes you feel relaxed and welcome.
Reading the memoir, it's obvious Ella managed this because she has an insatiable thirst for new ideas coupled with a relentless practical streak. She was willing to embrace new trends without being captured by them. Watching the changing nature of American cuisine, she hired then-unknown, promising chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse and taught them how to manage a team.
Ella was also unafraid to try new wines. When she first began working, she started reading any wine books she could find. After American wine started grabbing attention in the 1970s, she stocked top California wines (in a French wine town) and invited people like Robert Mondavi to come for dinner. (Ti and Lally further expanded the wine program, winning a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2012.)
This memoir doesn't take itself too seriously, but it's an enjoyable read and a great snapshot of how New Orleans dining has evolved in the past 60 years. It also offers some valuable lessons for today's restaurateurs. At a time when diners seem to have rejected long meals and attentive service for small plates and fast casual, Ella unapologetically says that her restaurants don't sell food—they sell memories. That sounds hokey until you've walked into Commander's and been treated to a leisurely meal and a professional staff who treat you like an old friend. Pulling that off is not easy, but the restaurant still has a rule Ella instituted: There's always a family member on location to make sure things are done right. There's always a Brennan on duty.
You can follow Mitch Frank on Instagram and Twitter at @FrankWine.